3 things to know about rendang, beyond the fact that it's not crispy

Chicken rendang, a dish where the poultry is simmered in spices and coconut milk until it is tender, is commonly found in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
Chicken rendang, a dish where the poultry is simmered in spices and coconut milk until it is tender, is commonly found in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.PHOTO: HEDY KHOO

SINGAPORE - By now, even netizens unfamiliar with South-east Asian cuisine would have heard of chicken rendang. Two judges on MasterChef UK sparked an online row for criticising rendang cooked by Malaysian-born contestant Zaleha Kadir Olpin because it was not crispy.

Chicken rendang, a dish where the poultry is simmered in spices and coconut milk until it is tender, is commonly found in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. It comes in many versions and families typically have their own recipes. But in none of them does the chicken turn out crispy.

1. Origins

Rendang comes from the Indonesian word merandang or randang, which means "slowly" in reference to the long cooking process.

There is an ongoing debate about the origins of the dish, but an article in the Journal of Ethnic Foods published last December says the traditional dish was found in West Sumatra, prepared by the Minangkabau people, as far back as the 8th century.

The Minangkabau people associated rendang with patience, wisdom and persistence, as all three are required to cook the dish - from the selection of ingredients, control of the cooking temperature and constant stirring.

Rendang is usually cooked with beef but chicken or other meats can be used instead.

 

2. How it is cooked

Typically, meat is cooked in a mixture of spices then simmered in coconut milk. Ingredients used in the spice mixture, or rempah, are usually garlic, onion, red chilies, turmeric, ginger, pepper, lemongrass, galangal, star anise, kaffir lime leaves, bay leaves and turmeric leaves.

The cooking process over low heat serves to add flavour to the meat, tenderise and preserve it.

There are three stages of cooking rendang. It starts as gulai, a wet gravy. With further cooking, the gravy reduces to what is referred to as kalio. Finally, the meat is cooked until it absorbs all the gravy.

Pounded toasted coconut is added towards the end of the cooking process.

3. Regional variants

In Malaysia, the dish is usually cooked till the third stage where all the gravy has been absorbed. Some versions also include palm sugar.

Rendang in Singapore is generally slighter wetter, but there are dry versions too.

According to a book called Life In The Forests Of The Far East published in 1862, in Borneo, finely sliced onions are browned and fried with the curry paste.