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Rendang is a popular dish of meat stewed in coconut milk and spices, commonly found in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. It has a long history in the region with distinct versions unique to individual Malaysian states that use different ingredients for the rempah (Malay for “spice mix”), thus resulting in differing flavours to the meat.
The meat, usually beef but sometimes chicken or mutton, is stewed in coconut milk with spices such as ginger, chillies, galangal (blue ginger), lemongrass, garlic, shallots, kaffir lime leaves and turmeric. A wide rather than a deep pot is preferred to allow the milk to evaporate during a slow boil of up to three hours. Skill is required to ensure the liquid does not overboil and cause the milk to curdle. However, if the fire is too low, the meat could burn. Correctly cooked, the liquid will thicken into the distinctive rendang gravy. This cooking process has several purposes – it adds flavour to the meat as it is braised in the spices; it softens and tenderises the meat as the dish dries up; and it enhances the preservation of the dish, allowing it to remain edible even two to three days later without refrigeration or up to two weeks in the refrigerator. The dish is best eaten with rice and is sometimes consumed with ketupat (steamed pressed rice). It is more often served in hawker centres as one of several dishes in nasi padang.
Rendang is believed to originate from West Sumatra and water buffalo was traditionally used as the meat. The dish signifies the wealth of the person or community that can afford to put down a water buffalo for consumption. Water buffalos, however, tend to be tougher than common beef found in most Western countries. To make it more palatable, the meat of the buffalo is thus cooked on a low temperature over a long period of time, and braised in coconut milk and spices until it becomes a dry curry. As the whole buffalo was prepared, the dish was cooked in large quantities, often using a large wok. Rendang was originally wrapped in plantain or banana leaves for consumption on long journeys.
The dish today is considered a celebratory meal, served regularly during Hari Raya, a major feast day amongst Muslim Malays, and at Malay weddings. It is eaten with rice or a staple like lontong.
The common ingredients of the rempah for rendang are often described in Malay curries in 19th century newspaper reports. A description of fish curry cooked by Malays appeared as early as 1775. The dish was made by stewing freshly cooked fish in a mixture of roots and greens in grated coconut milk and was called “curry” by the Malays. A similar dish mentioned by Thomas Forrest was cooked in a large iron pot for at least 100 sailors. Preserved pork and beef were thrown in with pickles, roots, sour crout and vegetables. To this stew was added coconut milk and some chillies. Charlton Maxwell considered the Malay curry as having its source in Penang, where the confluence of various races brought their respective spices to flavour the dish. He also noted that it was a dish served in towns rather than villages because a variety of imported spices were required. A “curry stone” was necessary for making the curry, with reference possibly to the batu giling for grinding the various spices. Other early mentions in newspapers of similar stews included one of beef sambal. The recipe used buah keras and required that the limau purut leaf be added only towards the end of the cooking process.
Colonialists familiar with Indian curries often considered the Malay spice mix a poor cousin to the Indian version. The curry thus cooked was different from the Indian curry because the dish did not include curry leaves and used coconut milk as a liquid base. Isabella Bird in The golden Chersonese (1883) noted that “Curry is at each meal but it is not made with curry powder. Its basis is grated cocoa-nut made into a paste with cocoa-nut milk, and the spices are added fresh”. In the 19th century, Vaughan observed that the Malays cooked a particular curry that had several spices, including turmeric, onions, garlic, chillies and coriander pounded together with tamarind. This mix was fried in oil with meat or vegetables added, followed by the addition of some coconut or a souring agent like lime juice.
Regional variants were also mentioned in various early travelogues. A description of chicken rendang in Borneo was given by Sir Spencer Buckingham John in Life in the forests of the Far East (1862). A curry paste was made by pounding chillies, turmeric, coriander seed and white cumin together. Some finely sliced onions were browned and then fried with the curry paste and a little water. The chicken was added to the cooked mixture along with coconut milk. The dish was then cooked for some time. In the Burmese version, ground chilli was mixed with turmeric, onions or garlic. Some sour juice was added along with coconut milk, and the meat or fish stewed in it. The Siamese version had ginger in the mixture. All versions were eaten with cooked rice.
The version of rendang found in Kelantan, Malaysia is known as kerutub daging. With a unique spice mix known as kerutub, the meat is slow cooked with just a little water and only when it is tender is the coconut milk then added. Toasted coconut, locally known as kerisik, is also added toward the end of the cooking process along with some palm sugar.
In Pekan, Pahang in Malaysia, the opor daging is a dish that traces its origins to the Riau islands. It is cooked in a rich spice mix and is made with buffalo meat, resulting in a dark red meat stew.
The rendang tok of Perak, Malaysia is believed to have been created by the royal cooks of Perak who had the means to acquire expensive spices and one of the most extensive lists of ingredients for rendang. It has many Indian spices commonly found in Indian curries as well as unusual additions such as lemon grass and cekur (a root). Unique to the dish is the dry-fried coconut and the addition of gula Melaka (palm sugar), which gives it an enhanced richness. The coconut is not added as a santan (coconut milk) and the resulting dry rendang is not as intense as other rendangs. A reduced version of this dish, known as Rendang Pedas, excludes some of these spices including gula Melaka.
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The information in this article is valid as at 2010 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.