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The Philosophy of Rendang Curry

Rendang Padang. Spicy beef stew from Padang, Indonesia.
Rendang Padang. Spicy beef stew from Padang, Indonesia. | © Ariyani Tedjo / Shutterstock
From an ancient nomadic culture to a representation of Sharia law, delve into the many worlds of Indonesia that brought us delicious rendang curry.

Rendang was crowned number one best food in the world by CNN’s readers in 2011 and 2017 – but its native Indonesia doesn’t need a poll to conclude how popular it is. Practically every corner of the archipelago cherishes rendang, from Jakarta’s bustling mamaks to grandmothers preparing their warm pots in remote villages. Revered by kings and seafarers, upholding matrilineal societies and binding communities together, this traditional dish contains all the ingredients that make up Indonesia’s rich cultural identity.

Rendang is a meat dish, traditionally with beef or buffalo as the main ingredient. But what truly makes rendang ‘rendang’, is the ingenious mixture of herbs and spices. This long list of flavourings includes galangal, lemongrass, coriander and more. Coconut milk is also a defining ingredient, infusing the meat with a deep fragrance.

Cooking rendang is a marathon, not a race. The chunks of meat are cooked in a low heat for over six hours, allowing the coconut milk and spices to seep in and thicken. This lengthy cooking process dries yet tenderises the meat, allows the seasoning to really permeate its layers. The end result is a thick, dry curry, best served with plain white rice and eaten with your hands.

Beef Rendang © Ariyani Tedjo / Shutterstock

The origins of rendang

Despite its widespread popularity in Malaysia and Singapore, early accounts suggest that rendang hailed from the Minangkabau society of Padang in West Sumatra. Rendang is so well-loved that there’s an ongoing debate surrounding the origins of this spice-rich, dried curry.

One valid theory proposes that rendang permeated Malay culture when the Minang people of West Sumatra started migrating to the nearby Malaysian peninsula to work and do trade. After all, wandering or migrating (merantau) is part of Minangkabau culture – youths to this day are encouraged to leave their hometowns to study, work and learn about the outside world as soon as they reach adulthood.

A lot of Minangkabau people arrived and set up lives in different parts of Malaysia, but mostly at Negeri Sembilan: a coastal state near the Indonesian island of Sumatra. At the same time, the Minang also brought rendang across the Indonesian archipelago, where the savoury recipe was well-received by other local communities. Until this day, Padang or ‘Minang’ restaurants can still be found pretty much everywhere in Indonesia.

Various localities have different takes on rendang. Malaysian rendang, for example, often comes with roasted grated coconut, and some have more Indian influence in the selection of spices. Javanese rendang, on the other hand, is often less dry and less spicy than the Minang version.

A major reason why rendang spread with the emigration of Minang people is its durable quality. Rendang stays good for weeks even in room temperature, a feature attributed to the long list of spices in its recipe. An authentic and complete rendang recipe lists about 16 herbs and spices, many of which serve not only to give flavour but also help in preservation. This makes rendang an ideal food to bring along week-long merantau journeys across the sea – the go-to packed meal for Minang wanderers wherever they may go.

Rendang as the ‘king of Indonesian dishes’

When it first stewed into existence, rendang was not considered an everyday dish. It was only reserved for the most important of traditional ceremonies, leading it to be referred to as kepalo samba (head of the dishes) – meaning it is more treasured and honoured than any other food in Minangkabau culture. It is believed that rendang has been on the table since the Minang people’s first rituals, including coronations, marriages, and other important traditional events. Until today, rendang is still one of the mandatory dishes of Eid celebration banquets.

Rendang is so popular it even has a traditional ceremony for it named marandang (making rendang). The tradition gathers the women of the household (Minangkabau is a matrilineal society) to go through a set of customs in order to prepare a proper rendang, from buying ingredients to waiting for the slow cooking process that can last more than eight hours. After this, parents pack and send rendang to their children and relatives who happen to be merantau somewhere else.

The philosophy of rendang

In local Minang dialect, rendang or randang means ‘slowly’, a word that best describes its painstakingly methodical cooking process. From picking the most ideal meat possible, gathering all sixteen spices, preparing of ingredients, followed with hours and hours of cooking in low heat until the coconut milk dried. Sometimes during marandang parents use this opportunity to teach their daughters about patience, wisdom and persistence: three important things needed to achieve the desired rendang.

Nyonya Beef Rendang © Alpha / Flickr

The delicious rendang also represents the entire Minangkabau society. Four of the main ingredients symbolise one important part of the community.

The meat (traditionally beef or buffalo) symbolises Niniak Mamak, or the traditional leaders, nobles, and elders. These are the people who take care of society, uphold traditions, and keep things in order.

The coconut milk symbolises Cadiak Pandai, or the intellectuals of the society – teachers, poets, writers, academics. This group has its own influence on the society – they bring wisdom and art to soften and uplift everyone.

The chilli, which is one of the defining ingredients of a good rendang, represents the Alim Ulama, or religious leaders. The hotness illustrates the Muslim Sharia law, which can be rigid but deemed necessary.

The mixture of spices is the rest of society – dynamic, diverse, and each relaying a different taste that impacts the whole community. Even though rendang incorporates an exhaustive list of spices, they are all kept at a good balance, with different roles working together to create the most conducive society possible.

According to this philosophy, all units of society coexist and elevate each other: communicating and interacting to solve problems and improve lives. This productive relationship between members of a community is known as musyawarah.

The next time you’re having a portion of this delicious traditional dish, devour it with a new appreciation towards the culture and values incorporated into the recipe.