Padang, INDONESIA: Neni Rahdipa scurries past a dizzying array of stalls selling coconuts, spices, herbs, fish and meat, on the hunt for the 24 ingredients that make up a dish that’s part her own invention, part the child of generations of Minangkabau tradition: Mushroom rendang.
Deftly navigating the morning market bustle, she finds what she’s looking for: The spices section. Amid the symphony of sweet and musky smells, she sniffs expertly at a cinnamon stick, critically tests some freshly-ground chilli padi paste, and doles out tips like how to discern if a nutmeg is fresh (it should make a sound when you shake it).
We’ve travelled to Padang, capital of West Sumatra and the place most of us identify with quintessential Minang cuisine, to learn from Ms Neni – an energetic 37-year-old food entrepreneur, who is also a passionate ambassador for the local heritage cuisine.
She’s known in her village of Tanjung Aua as a “masterchef”, with her own thriving online rendang business. So when the local authorities wanted to raise awareness about healthier eating, they approached her.
WATCH: Tips on shopping at a wet market (2:41)
“Here (in Padang), we are always racing to be innovative, always thinking of something new,” said Ms Neni. And having vegetarian friends who had always been keen to eat rendang, she gamely took up the challenge of creating a meat-free rendang – or randang, in Bahasa Indonesian.
Buying the best ingredients for her rendang takes her a good four hours.
She pokes and prods, sifts and sniffs. Plunging her hand into a sackful of coriander seeds, she declares: “Indian coriander is better … more aromatic, it intensifies the flavor of the rendang.”
Such meticulous attention to her ingredients is what makes for the fine nuances in her version of the iconic Minang dish. (Full recipe at the bottom of story)
THE PAINSTAKING OLD WAYS ARE BEST
Arriving back home with about 10kg worth of shopping, she commandeers her three young daughters, aged 8, 10 and 11, who are just home from school. “Bring a knife… wash the shallots and ginger for grinding,” she instructs them.
The preparation of the spices is perhaps the most important part in the making of the dish.
Ms Neni uses a batu giling, a traditional stone grinding apparatus that’s like a ball rolled over a stone surface, to prepare all her rempah, or spice pastes.
Sitting hunched on a low stool, she throws her weight into grinding the first batch of spices. For harder ingredients like nutmeg, she uses a pounding motion first before grinding.
“The smoother the texture of the spices, the smoother the rendang,” she says between the back-and-forth strokes.
My grandmother always says that if you can grind spices well, when you grow up you can become a good mother.
She chuckles at the memory of the aphorism. That may be true or not, but the fact is that more people are using electrical blenders these days because it is faster, and this requires adding water to make the paste smoother. Grinding the old-fashioned, painstaking way, by contrast, produces a more concentrated, potent paste.
The old ways which her grandmother taught her are what Ms Neni stands by. When it comes to getting ready to cook, for instance, she goes off into the village, looking for dried coconut husks to build a traditional wood stove fire.
Her grandmother would use wood from trees with sweet bark to enhance the aroma of the rendang, she says, but now most households use their gas stove. The coconut husks serve as excellent fire starters for old-school fires.
LIFE LESSONS FROM RENDANG
Building the fire is just the start of a long cooking process that can take an entire day. That’s why rendang is not usually cooked for daily eating at home, but it features on Minangkabau special occasions like weddings and parties.
The story goes that long ago, when the mountain-dwelling Minangkabau men left their villages to travel afar in search of fortune, they needed a dish that would last and not spoil on the long journeys. Thus “randang” was invented.
According to Ms Neni, the word means to cook something slowly such that all the water is evaporated and the meat is preserved – so the huge amount of ingredients one starts out with is reduced to a small but intense portion.
The taste though, varies from area to area.
The rendang made in the mountains is darker and spicier, because it’s colder. In the coastal areas, the rendang is saltier.
The ingredients hold symbolic significance for the Minangkabau. It’s said that the meat represents the clan leaders, the coconut milk the intellectuals, the chilli the religious leaders, and the spice rempah the larger society; all of it mixed together harmoniously.
On a personal level, the Minang people also believe that rendang teaches them three key lessons: Patience in preparation, persistence in stirring repetitively, and skill and knowledge in selecting the best spices and ingredients.
These were lessons Ms Neni first began learning from her grandmother, whom she lived with from the age of three. “She was meticulous in her cooking,” she recalled. Her grandma would set the rendang to cook for 10 hours, to achieve the desired colour and texture.
IN GRANDMA’S FOOTSTEPS
Now 85, Madam Nuraini is still a fiercely independent woman who brooks no nonsense.
She used to be a businesswoman who ran two restaurants in Padang and a fleet of buses – a reflection of the Minangkabau matrilineal culture, where property and family name are passed down from mother to daughter.
One day, her house and land will belong to Ms Neni and her own daughters. But for now, the matriarch’s cooking skills, determination, and entrepreneurial sense are traits her eldest granddaughter has surely already inherited.
For instance, when challenged to create a healthier rendang dish with mushroom, instead of the traditional beef or buffalo meat, Ms Neni spent three months experimenting with different combinations of spices.
She realised that she had to add spices like star anise to impart the extra flavor that the mushrooms lacked. Also, she discovered: “The oyster mushroom is suitable for rendang because the fibre is like that of chicken meat, it’s quite chewy.”
“After three months, praise God, we were the first to serve mushroom rendang in Padang,” she added proudly.
These days, she sells her rendang paste, and beef and mushroom rendang online. Demand is growing, and orders come from as far away as Australia and the United States.
Staying staunchly true to old-style Padang cuisine makes shrewd business sense to her: ‘Modern’ flavours may be trendy right now, but that means fewer people can cook the traditional recipes.
COW’S HEAD AND OTHER LEGACIES
Meanwhile, we have yet to taste her signature dish for ourselves. As Ms Neni fries the spice pastes, the sweet, salty and spicy aromas released lure the neighbours out of their houses.
She wastes no time in enlisting their help to stir the final mixture – a tedious process that takes hours and hours, until all the water has evaporated and she is happy with the colour and texture of her mushroom rendang.
Another of her grandmother’s signature dishes that she is keen for us to try, is anyang tulang rawan – spicy cow head salad. (Recipe at he end of story)
Various parts of the cow’s head including the eyeballs and nose are mixed with assorted spices like tamarind, lime, chilli, onions and coconut. “It’s fresher and more sour than other Padang food,” she says.
The dish was created in a time when meat was scarce and, when a cow was slaughtered, it was for a festive occasion like Hari Raya. She explains:
It is wasteful if we don’t use it (the cow) properly.
So even though other cuts of the meat are readily available nowadays, she believes that it is important to preserve a dish that uses parts of the animal others may find off-putting.
“In Padang city, only a few people can cook this, and this is a source of pride for me … If it stops at me, it will be unfortunate for the next generation because this is one of the most delicious dishes, in my view.”
To ensure these dishes remain a legacy for future generations, Ms Neni has written all the recipes down in a notebook.
But appreciating well-cooked rendang is one thing – her daughters aren’t too keen on trying the cow head, shying away in horror when mummy takes a big bite of the eyeball and sucks the gelatinous bits out.
Ms Neni isn’t too worried. It wasn’t until recently that she herself learnt to appreciate this dish, she admits, so hopefully one day her girls will too. And when that day comes, the recipes will be waiting safe in the pages of her notebook.
RECIPE #1: MUSHROOM RENDANG (RANDANG JAMUR)
This recipe makes enough for 10-15 people
1kg oyster mushrooms
1kg coconut milk (old coconut)
3 tablespoon Indian coriander seeds
10-15 white peppercorns
10-15 black peppercorns
1 nutmeg seed
250g chilli paste
3 cardamom pods
2 star anise
1 cinnamon stick
2 lemongrass stalks
2 turmeric leaves
2 bay leaves
5-6 kaffir lime leaves (just the leaves)
75g palm sugar
3 tablespoons toasted coconut shavings (grinded into a paste)
PREPARE THE REMPAH
1. Grind the peppercorns, coriander and nutmeg in a batu giling (if you don’t have one, use a pestle and mortar) until it forms a smooth paste. Add coconut milk to make the paste smoother, faster.
2. Grind the ginger, garlic, galangal and shallots separately, to form four pastes.
COOK THE RENDANG
3. Heat oil in a wok over a medium flame.
4. Fry the ginger, garlic, galangal and shallot pastes separately, until each one releases its aroma.
5. Stir in the chilli paste, coconut milk, lemongrass stalks and turmeric leaves. Combine thoroughly.
6. Stir in the paste of peppercorn, coriander and nutmeg.
7. Add the bay leaves and kaffir lime leaves. Tear up the kaffir lime leaves and remove the main vein, to enhance the aroma.
8. Stir until the coconut milk dries up.
9. Add the mushrooms.
10. Stir continuously in a circular and up-down motion for 6-10 hours.
RECIPE #2: SPICY COW HEAD SALAD (ANYANG TULANG RAWAN)
For the beef:
Soft upper palate
Thumb sized piece of ginger (crushed)
2 bay leaves
6 cloves garlic
For the spicy dressing:
1 tablespoon red chilli paste
7 small green chillies
2 cloves garlic
2 big limes
2 small limes
1 tablespoon of tamarind paste
50g coconut shavings
1 tablespoon toasted coconut shavings
COOK THE COW HEAD
1. Boil water in a large wok with a sprinkle of salt, ginger, bay leaves and garlic.
2. Wash the beef parts three times, or until water runs clear.
3. Once the water is boiling, add the eyeballs.
4. After 10 minutes, add the rest of the beef parts.
5. Boil over a high fire for at least 2 hours until meat is tender. When water reduces, top up with boiling hot water.
MAKE THE SALAD
6. Meanwhile, grind red chilli paste with small green chillies and a teaspoon of salt.
7. Add and grind shallots, then coconut shavings.
8. Add the juice of 2 big limes, then add 2-3 slices of small limes (adjust according to preference).
9. Mix in toasted coconut shavings and tamarind paste.
10. Take the meat out of the pot once it’s tender, and leave to cool completely.
11. Toss the meat slices with the spicy dressing and serve cold.