In search of West Sumatra's authentic beef ‘rendang’

“With all the culinary wealth that exists in Indonesia, why isn’t there a movie that does justice to portraying the delicious dishes we have?” The thought crossed the mind of Sheila Timothy, producer at Lifelike Pictures, when she spent sleepless nights watching a culinary channel on TV. It was, she recalled, one of the moments that drove her to produce Lifelike Pictures’ third film, titled Tabula Rasa, which will hit the big screen on Sep. 25. One of the dishes chosen to be a highlight of the film is beef rendang from the Minang ethnic group in West Sumatra ­— a no-brainer since beef rendang is one of the country’s most widely consumed dishes, making it easy for the audience to imagine the taste when seeing it on-screen. Despite such popularity, Lifelike Pictures still wanted to do its best to make the rendang in the film a fair representation of the dish; they hired two specialists, chef Adzan Tri Budiman and Reno Andam Suri, to make the ultimate rendang. To test out the worthiness of the rendang they displayed in the movie, The Jakarta Post Travel went to West Sumatra last month along with Reno and Pelangi Benua Tour company. Reno is the writer of the book Beef Rendang Traveller and an avid student of Minang culture. She owns a beef rendang business, unifarah.com, which cooks the dish and ships it all over the country. “Beef rendang for me is something special; it is my pride,” Reno told The Jakarta Post Travel during the journey, implying the importance of her mission to convey the pleasure of rendang in the film. With her pride at stake, Reno recommended only the most authentic beef rendang. Every step of rendang-making in the film, from shopping for the ingredients to the cooking process, was based on research done in West Sumatra. Spices are essential for cooking rendang, and traditional markets are a good place to obtain them. Shopping at a traditional market is not about finding ingredients of the best quality, but more about having a similar experience to locals getting their groceries — an important element of ensuring authenticity. There are also plenty of variants of rendang in terms of the main ingredient that is used. Although beef rendang is the most common type, meat is not a compulsory ingredient. In some parts of West Sumatra, people make rendang using leaves from trees in their gardens; others make it using chicken, duck, fish or eel. The essential ingredients are coconut milk, chili and spices (ginger, shallots, lime leaves and turmeric leaves). After getting the ingredients, the next step is finding the right person to teach the method of cooking rendang. For Reno, that person was Uni Emi from Payakumbuh. Top chef Will Meyrick is one of the few culinary enthusiasts who learned rendang cooking from Uni Emi. The way Uni Emi cooks rendang illustrates the long history of Minang culinary tradition. She used a wooden squeezer to extract milk from a ripe homegrown coconut — picked from the tree by a trained monkey. To simmer the beef, Uni Emi also used wood to fuel the fire. “Using a modern gas stove will give you a constant and stable heat, whereas firewood gives a rather inconsistent heat that leads to a peculiar taste in the rendang,” Reno said, explaining why the old ways are preferred over modern techniques. The term rendang itself, according to Reno, does not refer to the dish, but rather to the cooking process. Making rendang means that you are simmering the ingredients to the point where the amount of water in the dish is at a minimum. This also means that a good rendang is similar to an overcooked meal. To achieve such a state, making beef rendang could take hours of stirring. Thus you can easily spot a nicely cooked rendang, as it will be almost dry and very dark in color. Its long cooking process turned rendang-making into a ritual for Minang people, and the dish itself has become the pride of the area. Such a passion shown for the dish is exactly what Lifelike Pictures wanted to bring to the screen, and our journey to the house of Uni Emi gave us optimism that they will be able to pull it off in their film. At the very least, we guarantee you will be craving rendang after watching it.

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