With the rendang fiasco still fresh on everyone’s minds, we got to thinking about this most Malaysian of dishes – how (un)healthy it really is, where it came from and how it united a nation for a brief moment.
One of Malaysia’s favourite dishes recently hit the headlines when certain MasterChef UK judges commented on the lack of "crispiness" of the chicken rendang prepared by a contestant. As news of this reverberated across the nation and a collective indignant intake of breath was heard, rendang became a hot topic. With statesmen, chefs and the man on the street all giving advice, throwing insults and basically wondering how two famous chefs could’ve gotten it so wrong.
The fact is that Malaysians, Indonesians, Singaporeans and even Brunieans, love their rendang. It’s a popular dish abroad too with Malaysian restaurants from New York to London serving it to homesick Asians and curious locals. To understand the dish is to look at its roots and how coconut milk, spices and meat came together to make a culinary gem.
So is our beloved rendang healthy or unhealthy?
Rendang is found in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore and made with usually beef or chicken. The base of the recipe is the rempah - a spice mix with proportions of ingredients dependent on geography. Believed to have originated in West Sumatra, the dish was initially made with water buffalo meat, which can be pretty tough. These early versions were mentioned in the writings of early colonialists and mention was made of rendang being prepared in Burma (Myanmar) and Siam (Thailand).
From this came the many adaptations found in the different Malaysian states. For example, from Perak comes rendang tok, a drier version created by the royal cooks who added gula Melaka (palm sugar) and lemongrass to the original recipe. In Kelantan, there’s a similar dish where coconut milk is added after the meat has been cooked and toasted coconut is used as a garnish.
But is the dish healthy?
This brings us to an important question – can we indulge in rendang without guilt? According PurelyB’s nutritional and fitness expert, Marissa Parry, the answer is yes. By breaking down the ingredients individually, you can see that it all makes nutritional sense.
Oil: As you only need a little to make the paste, cut down on the amount. The meat will have enough fat anyway.
Coconut milk: The base of some many Malaysian curries and desserts actually has many health benefits including controlling blood sugar levels and helping to prevent joint inflammation.
Meat: Use good quality meat and trim off excess fat. If you’re using chicken, remove the skin. We could make yet another ‘crispy rendang’ jibe but we won’t!
Sugar: An entire pot of rendang usually requires just 1 tablespoon of sugar. In the bigger scheme of things, this is minimal.
Rempah: Lemongrass, galangal, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, garlic, chilli –ingredients that not only provide amazing aromas and tastes, but also have many health benefits.
But I don’t eat meat… This is actually one of those versatile dishes that can so easily be turned into a vegetarian or vegan version just by adding mushrooms, tempeh, tofu or incredibly ‘meaty’ jackfruit.
King Oyster Mushroom Rendang by Raw Chef Yin (Photo: Raw Chef Yin)
What can make rendang unhealthy is the amount and type of oil used, how fatty the meat is, and how much sugar is added. Coconut milk adds richness and depth to the dish, but yet again, that old cliché of ‘everything in moderation’ always rings true – consume sensible portions and don’t have it too often… especially the crispy variety.
Header image credit: New Straits Times