Rendang: The Minangkabau Society on a Plate
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Rendang is hailed as one of Indonesia’s most recognisable and delectable cuisines. Originating from the Minangkabau Highlands in West Sumatra, it usually refers to a meat dish, most commonly beef, simmered in coconut milk with an assortment of spices. Other popular options include chicken or eggs. Rendang's fame was cemented even further when it claimed the top spot in CNN's World's 50 Best Foods in 2011, despite the fact that the dish has always been dear to the hearts of many Indonesians.
Having felt so familiar to the hearty dish, did you know that rendang is not actually a dish name? The term rendang refers to the complex and unique preparation process of the dish, derived from the Minangkabau dialect word merandang, or to cook for a long time until the water reduces. The rich dry curry is the result of extraordinary patience and effort. The coconut milk and spices added at the start of the cooking process are eventually reduced to a dryer, paste-like consistency. If the dish is with a wetter base or a runny broth, it is considered a kalio instead. The merandang process is not only used to cook meat dishes; the term is also used by local coffee makers to describe how they roast their coffee beans.
Many nearby countries, including Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, and the Philippines, have developed their own renditions of the rendang. The dish's popularity can be attributed to the emigration of Minangkabau people to neighboring regions, who brought it with them because the spices and cooking method ensure a very long shelf life of about a month. The rendang was, and still is, a staple of seafarers, traders, and even students who journeyed far from home in search of new opportunities (merantau).
In Minangkabau’s matrilineal society, women of the household would gather to prepare and pack the dish for their children and loved ones to bring on their trip. Making rendang, which takes up to eight hours, symbolizes the fundamental values that every Minang person must possess: patience, wisdom, and respect for all processes. To instill these values in their children, parents teach them the time-consuming and exhausting process behind the rendang. The symbolism extends beyond the cooking method and into the ingredients.
The three main components of rendang, namely the meat, coconut, and chili, have a significant meaning. As previously stated, beef is the most commonly used protein in rendang, and the cow, according to historical anecdotes, represents figures with traditional significance: the Niniak Mamak, or traditional leaders. Cadiak Pandai, or Minangkabau intellectuals, are represented by the coconut. In Minangkabau, the chili represents the strictness of the Alim Ulama, or religious leaders and scholars within the society.
The three key components of rendang correspond with the tungku tigo sajarangan, or the leadership system comprising the three previously mentioned groups that work to regulate government and implement social control with emphasis on the intersection of traditional culture, knowledge, and religion. The outcome, the rendang dish, is a blend of not only the tungku tigo sajarangan, but the people of Minangkabau. According to this philosophy, all members of society strengthen one another and the community as a whole through their meaningful interactions and cooperation.
As we continue to share Indonesian cuisine with the globe, let us not forget that our national dishes are more than just their robust, delightful flavors. Our everyday food contains significant symbolic meanings and stories passed down through generations. The rendang, like most ethnic dishes, are cultural storytellers that holds centuries of traditions in every bite.