A brief history of: Beef Rendang
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Beef rendang is a dish that has always been popular throughout South East Asia and in more recent times, throughout the world. In 2011, CNN International ran a poll in order to form their ‘World’s 50 most delicious foods: Readers’ picks’ list. Coming in at number one? Beef rendang. Even on the original list formulated by CNN staff, it was number 11. Not bad at all.
Although many outside of South East Asia would describe it as a curry, it’s not seen that way here. Yes, it is made similarly – a stewing of beef in coconut milk and exotic spices that simmer for hours on end until tender. Eventually, the liquids evaporate, the beef turns dark in colour and is infused with all kinds of powerful flavours. It’s because of this lack of liquid and the richness that many Malaysians and Indonesians do not consider it an actual curry.
Curry or not, the dish has spread all throughout the world and, in 2018, it was officially recognised as the fifth national dish of Indonesia, alongside soto, sate, nasi goreng and gado-gado. This vital clue gives us a clear idea of where the dish originated.
It all began with the Minangkabau peoples – an ethnic group who are native to the Minangkabau Highlands of North West Sumatra. Looking at Dutch archives, it is clear that long before even the 15th century, there was regular contact between India and West Sumatra – as far back as very early on in the second millennium (1000-1200AD). When looking at a map and other historical records, this makes a lot of sense. Indian traders sailed across the Bay of Bengal on the oceanic trade routes being forged as part of the silk road connections to China. They would almost always stop in the North West of Sumatra as this was the first land after leaving Indian ports.
It is widely agreed that more likely than not, North Indian curries were the precursor to rendang. If you look at something such as Massaman curry, it’s not hard to see the crossover. The sauce contains coconut milk and it’s practically the same as ‘gulai’ – the local dish that came about through adaptation by the Minangkabau people. They went on to cook the gulai again, preparing the dish known as ‘kalio’ where the sauce is thicker and more brown in colour. It is then cooked once more so that the colour turns even darker and the beef absorbs the sauce. Before you know it, you have your beef rendang!
But how did this humble dish go from being a delicious meal in the quiet highlands of North West Sumatra to a global phenomenon? The Minangkabau people did not sit still. Their culture was one of migration and travel. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for Minangkabau to leave their hometowns and fly off to other parts of Indonesia in order to start a new business or career. They have done this so much so that plenty of Minangkabau eateries began to pop up (known locally in Indonesia as Padang restaurants). Once you recognise them, you realise that they’re everywhere!
The humble padang restaurant helped to introduce the wider swathe of Indonesians to Minangkabau style cooking, including beef rendang.
The food has also crossed national borders. It’s believed that beef rendang began to spread across the ‘local’ region (Malaysia and Singapore) when roaming Minangkabau merchants did what they did best. In the 16th century, they began to migrate to Malacca – a small Malaysian state sat opposite Sumatra on the other side of the Malacca Straits. Here, they struck up strong trading networks and relationships, no doubt introducing their Malay cousins to the delicious beef rendang.
To get there, the Minangkabau merchants had to navigate the vast, complicated river network of Sumatra. This took time and so they needed food that could keep for weeks on end. The answer? Beef rendang, of course! Dried beef rendang is incredibly durable and long lasting, so much so that it is perfectly okay to leave it at room temperature. Once the beef was out of the bag, there was no going back. Rendang was adopted throughout the whole region of South East Asia and eventually, the world.