The Authenticity of Dishes

Why authentic food is not so authentic abroad

Posted 6-9 2015

chicken rendang dinner

In an earlier post which you can find here: I spoke about Malaysian street food, this makes it obvious that either I am obsessed with Malaysian food or I live in that country. Well the latter has the truth; I live in Malaysia, for two decades and a bit now and have seen quite a bit of traditional food over the years

Local food hotel style, via my endeavors as a chef, local street food on my spare time off work and local food in publications and TV shows.

People say about the country where I am born (which is not Malaysia) that we are an outspoken lot, which is great, because it gives me a valid excuse to be so as well.

Local Malaysian food is great, whether you get it from roadside stalls, in restaurants or in hotels, one way or the other it tastes great. It is sweet, spicy, and full of aromatic flavors from the spices used. Millions around here are so proud of local food that they cannot stop to express the laureate they think Malaysian food deserves.

If there would be a Nobel Prize for street food, Malaysia would be a serious contender, seriously!

One of those traditional dishes is Rendang, a dish that Malaysians are so proud of that you cannot see Malaysian food featured in any form of media without it.

What is rendang?

chicken rendang

The name rendang is somewhat confusing for starters, often referred to as being a curry, which it is in a way, it doesn’t taste like a curry. Rendang is both a verb and a noun, the method of cooking means ‘cook until dry’, while rendang is also the name of the dish.

Malay curries are cooked with coconut cream, coconut milk and curry paste unlike many Indian curries. Rendang has coconut cream, but no curry paste and looks much like Indian masala or vindaloo dishes, a few reasons why rendang is a special dish.

Rendang starts off like a curry and is further cooked until most of the water has evaporated and the oil has separated. It can be cooked to the stage that it is still wet or cooked further until it is completely dry and the oil is absorbed. The level of moisture depends on individual preference and the chef’s intend. Do they want to serve it early or keep it for later? The drier the rendang is, the better its ability to store the dish. Very dry rendang is also referred to as Rendang Tok.

Social and cultural significance

Rendang is about the most important dish associated with celebrations and festivities in the Malay culture. It never fails to make an appearance at weddings and religious celebrations. Every wedding must have a rendang dish and so does the end of the Muslim vasting month when rendang with sticky rice cooked in bamboo over open fire (Lemang) is common. Ketupat, another sticky rice dish cooked in special woven pouch of coconut palm leaves is also a close friend of rendang.

The end of the haj pilgrimage to Mecca is celebrated with the offering of goats,cows and buffaloes. The meat is distributed to attendees who use tender cuts of the slaughtered animals to grill and the tougher cuts are turned into rendang, a long stewing process, which goes for cooking of all the parts if you ask me. Breading cattle and aging meat after slaughter is alien territory in Malaysia and all local beef needs a long stewing process to make it edible. That for my native outspokenness!

Rendang is cooked in large quantities in large woks during celebrations and is therefore ideal to feed the masses that show up during open houses to celebrate weddings and religious festivities.

The Process

Cooking rendang is quite simple, some people may differ, but all you need is beef, a spice paste, coconut milk/cream and the undeniable ‘kerisik’, grinded, toasted shredded coconut.

Thing is that cooking rendang takes time, local Malaysian beef takes hours to cook so be patient if you live here. If you live in another country it will be difficult to find beef as tough as Malaysian local beef, Indian buffalo comes close, anything else will be ok, even shank. When you get inspired by this article and like to give rendang a try, change the beef for chicken, that will shorten your cooking time.

Kerisik can be bought in Asian stores, if you cannot get hold of it, you have no choice, no Kerisik no rendang. Toast grated coconut (the white meat from old coconuts) on low heat in a dry pan until browned and fragrant, if you are not sure, spread the grated coconut on an oven proof tray and brown it in a pre-heated oven on 180 C or 325 F for 10 minutes or so, keep an eye on it, the browning goes quick.

Next, pound the hot shredded coconut to a paste in a pestle with a mortar, sorry, but your food processor will not work.

Next is the spice mix.

For the true rendang cooks and lovers this is very important. What goes into the spice mix is very much dependent on family traditions and cultural affiliations. A typical rendang spice mix has, dried chilies, shallots, ginger, garlic, galangal (a ginger family root, but more pungent and woody), lemon grass, turmeric root, turmeric leaves and kaffir lime leaves. Tamarind in the form of dried peel is sometimes added to give more acidity to the dish and to temper the richness of the coconut and the heat of the chilies.

chicken rendang cooking

I mentioned earlier that preparing rendang is easy, so all you need to do is get the right proportions of the spice mix ingredients, place them in an up-right blender add a bit of water and blend all to a fine paste.

Some rendang varieties also have the addition of spices more commonly used in Indian cooking, like coriander seeds, fennel seeds and cumin seeds, but then again Malaysia has a population of 30 million people is multi- cultural and every family has its own recipe.

When you come across an ‘authentic’ dish outside its country of origin it may therefore not be or exactly have the authenticity you expect. Hard to say, as long as it is tasty enjoy good food.   .

I leave you with a rendang recipe to try. Authentic? You bet!!

Malaysian Chicken Rendang

 Ingredients:    Serves 4

For the spice mix

  1. 30 gr dried chilies (soaked)
  2. 2 stalks lemon grass (sliced)
  3. 50 gr galangal (peeled and sliced)
  4. 15 gr turmeric root (peeled and sliced)

Other ingredients

  1. 75 ml vegetable oil
  2. 150 gr shallots (sliced)
  3. 20 gr garlic (sliced)
  4. 1 whole chicken (about 1500 gr, cut into 12 pieces)
  5. 40 gr galangal (crushed)
  6. 1 stalk lemon grass (crushed)
  7. Kerisik made from 150 gr grated coconut
  8. 750 ml coconut cream
  9. 1 tbsp tamarind paste (soaked in 3 tbsp water and strained)
  10. 1 tsp sugar
  11. 2 tsp salt


  • Blend the spice mix ingredients in an up-right blender into a fine paste. Add some water so the blades pick up the solids.
  • Heat the oil in a wok or Dutch oven over low heat, fry the shallots until translucent, add the garlic, fry for another minute.
  • Add the blended spice mix and fry until fragrant.
  • Add sugar and salt to the chicken pieces, mix, add to the pan and stir for a minute.
  • Add the galangal and lemon grass, cook until the mixture bubbles.
  • Add the coconut milk and strained tamarind juice. Stir occasionally and cook until the gravy has thickened and the chicken is fork tender.
  • Add the kerisik and stir on low heat until the rendang is almost dry.
  • Serve the rendang with rice

I told you it was easy. Enjoy!


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