Rendang Ayam – Chicken Rendang
I don’t know about you guys, but from where I live, no one could resist a good rendang. Thick slabs of meat which had been stewed in a rich and spicy coconut-based sauce over a prolonged period of time is simply to die for. Rendang is the pride and joy of Indonesian cuisine from the Minangkabau people in Sumatra but owing to trade routes and migration patterns, it spread to other parts of Asia, most notably Malaysia and Singapore where it is widely enjoyed and savoured. It has become much of a staple in Malay cuisine, served at festivity gatherings and wedding feasts. Just like many dishes from Malay cuisine, rendang has also found its way onto the dining tables of the Peranakan community. Ask any Baba if rendang is part of the standard laok embok embok, or what is commonly known as Peranakan cuisine, and one would immediately be met with a deep frown as if one has suggested the unthinkable. But ask further if he and his family enjoys rendang and cook it often, that stern look would quickly mellow and dissolve into a sheepish smile. The ingredient of choice for rendang is beef, which is stewed over hours at length until the meat becomes so tender that its fibres could easily be pulled apart with the slightly nudge with the fork. Otherwise, mutton is also good or in this case, chicken! And that is precisely what I cooked this time, Rendang Ayam!
I’d prepared a large batch of rempah which could be used for a wide variety of dishes which calls for it. The cooked rempah is then divided and packed into individual bags to be and chilled or frozen for future dishes. Given some additional ingredients and modification, it could be used as the base for laksa nyonya, curry chicken and even rendang! Yes, some would be wondering if belacan is found in rendang and indeed it is not in traditional recipes. It is noticeable but I don’t think its inclusion alters the flavours of the rendang dramatically. Just need to watch the salt as belacan is already quite savory as it is. But for those purists at heart, simply omit it entirely.
The process for making rendang is pretty much the same for any dish which requires a rempah. Also known as bumbu in Bahasa Indonesia, the most tedious part is actually the prep work that leads to the blending or pounding of the rempah. All that peeling, slicing and chopping takes up the bulk of the time in fact! But this is necessary to ensure a good rempah.
Getting the rempah cooked the correct way is simply a game of patience. Firstly, one shouldn’t fear using too much oil. Half a cup of oil may seem a lot but trust me, I’d seen ladies who are even more liberal with the amount of oil they used. Fear not, as the oil is entirely necessary to ensure several things. First and foremost, it ensures that the rempah cooks evenly. The very fact that the flashpoint of oil is much higher than the boiling point of water means that the rempah would cook faster, even under very controlled low heat settings. The oil gets the ingredients “sauteed” and not “braised” and the ingredients’ own juices within. The two taste totally different. It is also easier to observe the rempah “pecah minyak“, which is the point where the rempah is sufficiently cooked, allowing the oil to separate and float about the other ingredients, forming two distinct layers. That is when one knows that the rempah is almost ready, as it darkens considerably and begins to glisten. During storage, the oil also acts as a barrier to prevent the rempah from being oxidised or drying out.
While the rempah is cooking under low heat, kerisik is prepared by dry frying freshly grated coconut under medium low heat. Kerisik is an absolute must in all rendangs as it lends a distinct earthy tone as well as the characteristic nutty aroma, imparted through the toasting. It takes quite a bit of juggling work if the coconut is toasted at the same time the rempah is being cooked. As such, kerisik could be made way in advance as it could be stored in the freezer for months at ends.
The chicken chunks are first pan fried lightly in the rempah paste until the skin begins to brown slightly.
Thick coconut milk is then added, and together with it the crushed kaffir lime leaves. Crushing or ripping the leaves help to release the aroma from the leaves. Everything is stirred thoroughly before being allowed to simmer, without the lid so as to allow the sauce to darken as well as thicken. Gula Melaka is also added at this point.
While everything is stewing away, the kerisik could be pounded to help it release some of the oils within as well as to intensify the nutty aroma.
Rendang Ayam – Chicken Rendang Recipe (serves 4)
4 chicken drumsticks and 4 thighs
4 kaffir lime leaves
1 cup of kerisik (toasted grated coconut), pounded
1 cup thick coconut milk
60g gula melaka or jaggery, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup cooking oil
Salt to taste
Generic Rempah ingredients
5 red chilies, chopped coarsely
10 dried red chilies, soaked in hot water until soft
5 buah keras
15 shallots, peeled and sliced
5 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
thumb length knob of ginger, sliced
thumb length knob of tumeric root, sliced
thumb length knob of galangal, sliced
4 stalks of lemongrass, lower 1/3 whitish portion only, sliced
Blend or pound all the Generic Rempah ingredients into a coarse paste.
Add cooking oil to a heated wok over medium low heat and saute the rempah ingredients until fragrant and “pecah minyak“, i.e. when the rempah darkens considerably, starts to glisten as the oil begins to separate from the paste.Scoop up half of the rempah and leave to cool to bag and freeze for future use.
Add chicken chunks and saute with the remaining half of the rempah until the skin begins to brown slightly and is well coated with rempah.
Add thick coconut milk, crushed kaffir lime leaves and gula melaka.
Bring the ingredients to a boil and lower heat to low and allow to simmer uncovered for 30 min. Gently stir the ingredients periodically to make sure that everything is cooked evenly and does not stick to the bottom of the wok.
Add kerisik and stir well to incorporate into rendang gravy. Taste and adjust with salt accordingly.
Continue to heat for another 10-20 min until low heat until the chicken is nicely tender and the gravy is thick and reduced.
As mentioned earlier, I’d added belacan into the generic rempah but that is entirely optional as traditional rendang recipes do not call for it. However, its inclusion doesn’t alter the flavours dramatically, though it is still noticeable. For the die-heart purists, omit the belacan entirely!
How “pekat” (concentrated and dried) the final product ought to be is entirely up to the individual. I didn’t dry it up entirely so as to allow some gravy to remain which goes very very well with steamed rice.
Sugar is added because chicken does not impart a natural sweetness to the gravy as red meats like beef and mutton does. I prefer gula melaka whenever possible as it enriches the flavours of the gravy considerably. Otherwise, regular sugar works too.
Traditional recipes for rendang calls for daun kunyit (tumeric leaves) . We prefer to add kaffir lime leaves instead. It has been a practice at home for years as we have a kaffir lime plant at home. Do not feel obliged to use kaffir lime leaves like us but those who tried never looked back.
The recipe is pretty much the same with rendang daging (beef rendang), just that less gula melaka is used or is omitted entirely. Otherwise, the recipe remains pretty much the same.
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