“There is no way chicken rendang should be crispy,” says Uni Emi, eyes widening in horror that anyone would massacre this traditional Indonesian dish in such a way. Emi is the owner and head chef at Rumah Makan Nasi Kapau, one of the most famous rendang restaurants in the city of Medan in North Sumatra, Indonesia. The island of Sumatra is known for being the birthplace of rendang, which is similar to a curry, although with a thicker and drier sauce that cooks down to a spicy paste. Rendang catapulted to international stardom this week, thanks to a culinary debacle on an episode of Masterchef which led to contestant, Zaleha Kadir Olpin, being eliminated from the show.
The furore that engulfed the dish ensued after Malaysian-born Olpin cooked a Malaysian version of chicken rendang using her mother’s recipe. Masterchef judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace, however, were less than enthused when they tried the family favourite and, according to Wallace, “[...] the chicken skin isn’t crispy, it can’t be eaten, but all the sauce is on the skin I can’t eat.” For his part, Torode branded the chicken rendang, “a mistake.”
This ungracious critique caused an international media firestorm as Malaysian and Indonesian commentators took to social media to voice their displeasure. The resulting backlash against the Masterchef judges drew sharp reprimands from the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, and the British High Commissioner to Malaysia, Vicki Treadell. As one Facebook user, Jin Wee, put it on the Malaysian Facebook page “Justice for Chicken Rendang,” “I would personally go to the show and rendang their head.”
But what is this humble dish that has caused so much contention? In an interview with MUNCHIES, Arie Parikesit, an Indonesian food expert and host of local cookery programme Kelana Rasa, describes rendang as a “combination of ingredients and textures that is just mind blowing.”
While both Malaysia and Indonesia claim rendang as one of their national dishes, Parikesit says it originated in the Minangkabau Highlands of West Sumatra in Indonesia, and its first recorded reference dates from around the 16th century.
“The earliest rendang was only cooked with buffalo meat and eaten during special ceremonies by community leaders and never commercialised,” he says. “Over the years, the Minangkabau people started cooking and eating rendang for other occasions and the choice of animal used widened.”
Parikesit goes on to explain that as the Minangkabau Diaspora spread, so too did rendang, which is why it’s now eaten in Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, and parts of Thailand.
Emi has been cooking and selling rendang since 1982 in Medan, although she is originally from Bukittinggi in West Sumatra. She learned to cook it from her mother, who in turn learned to cook it from her mother, going back generations. Emi is at great pains to explain that rendang is not just a dish but actually the name for the cooking process— marandang being the Minang word for stirring the dish over a fire for several hours until the sauce thickens. This means that you can “rendang” anything, including beef, chicken, seafood, eggs, or vegetables.
Emi agrees to show me how chicken rendang is made. She starts by taking me through the long list of ingredients needed to make the paste, which is the base of the sauce. This includes ginger, garlic, shallots, white pepper, lemongrass, and galangal, which are pounded with a pestle and mortar. The paste is then mixed in a wok with simmering coconut milk and topped with turmeric and lime leaves. When the mix is fragrant, the chicken is added.
This is where Wallace’s comment particularly rankles. According to Emi, it’s impossible to cook chicken rendang with the skin removed for obvious reasons. “Rendang takes about three hours to cook properly and for the coconut milk to reduce down and caramelise with the spices. If you took the skin off the chicken then it would disintegrate after such a long cooking time,” she explains.
When asked what she makes of Wallace’s comments about not being able to eat the chicken skin, she prosaically points out that, “You can take it off if you don’t want to eat it.” She also says that it’s normal in Indonesia and Malaysia to eat chicken skin, even if it is not crispy, and that the dish is all the better for it.
Emi isn’t the only Malaysian food expert to take issue with the Masterchef judges’ comments. Rahung Nasution is a culinary expert and celebrity chef from North Sumatra and explains why they represent such a culinary cock-up.
“If you’re going to have typical Malaysian food served in the Masterchef competition, then the two judges should have known something about rendang before they commented. The anger and hilarity those comments caused are fair enough really. After all, imagine if an Indonesian judge went on Masterchef in Italy and said, ‘Oh sorry, I think the sauce on this pizza isn’t thick enough.’”
I show Emi the YouTube video of Olpin’s controversial Masterchef elimination. When asked what she thinks of two white male judges telling a Malaysian contestant that she’d messed up the execution of her national dish, she replies, “Well, she should really be the one telling them how to make it.”
Does she have any words of advice for Wallace and Torode in the future?
“If they want to know how to cook proper rendang, tell them to invite me on their show and I’ll teach them.”