Everything You Know About the “Crispy Rendang” Saga is Wrong

TL;DR culture at its worst

You think you’ve heard the story. John Torode; a white, male chef on MasterChef UK trample on a Malaysian macik’s rendang for not having crispy skin. “Cultural imperialism at its finest”, you think to yourself. White boy ignorance as usual. Cue the the internet brigade to educate this Western barbarian with dank memes and Twitter screenshots like this:

These days, it’s safe to assume that if a piece of content shared on the internet is attention-grabbing, it was designed that way through a heady brew of selective reporting, and shit stirring. That’s the only way marketers can get you to clickthrough, and more importantly, share pieces of content — often without even reading.

Here’s a list of facts about the “Crispy Rendang” saga to set the record straight:

1) John Torode Is No Stranger To Rendang

No, Torode is not projecting his “Western”, Eurocentric hunger for crispy fried chicken onto macik Zaleha’s dish. In a 10-part series which aired in 2015 on the UK’s Good Food channel — John Torode’s Malaysian Adventure — Torode goes on a culinary tour of Malaysian food.

In fact, in one episode filmed in Langkawi, Torode is shown how rendang is made — from scratch (albeit with duck as the protein).

During the now-infamous Masterchef UK episode, Torode demonstrates his familiarity with Malaysian cuisine by giving the audience a run-down of the classic nasi lemak dish, saying that the rice has to be served with not too much coconut milk, the sambal has to be ferociously hot, and the chicken’s meat has to be “really, really soft and falling apart”.

Torode is both familiar with, and appreciative of Malaysian cuisine — including rendang too.

2) Torode Did Not Criticize The Rendang for Not Being “Crispy”

There were two chefs on the panel — John Torode, and Gregg Wallace. Now bear in mind, that Torode knows what good rendang looks, and tastes like.

Zaleha presented the two judges with a luxurious plate of nasi lemak with chicken rendang, roasted peanuts, sambal prawn, crispy fried anchovies, cucumber slices, and rolled omelette strips.

Exhibit A: Why you shouldn’t write about food on an empty stomach.

After tasting, it was the first judge, Gregg Wallace who criticized the chicken skin for not being crispy enough. Yes, of course — the only judge who hadn’t tasted rendang before.

Torode would know better, Wallace, of course, didn’t.

“I like the rendang flavour, there’s a coconut sweetness, however, the chicken skin isn’t crispy. It can’t be eaten and all the sauce is on the skin, I can’t eat,” Wallace said.

We are not shown whether or not Torode made an attempt to correct Wallace’s mistake on the spot, or after.

2) Torode Was Judging the Dish as “Nasi Lemak”

Yes, you read that right — the dish in question, was not a standalone rendang. Nor was it served as a side dish alongside many others — which is how most of us in Southeast Asia would normally have it. Zaleha was serving the rendang as part of nasi lemak.

Zaleha, who hails from Kuantan, Malaysia, explained that the dish was her childhood favorite.

“I used to save my pocket money to buy nasi lemak on Friday and there was a special stall outside our school that used to sell the best nasi lemak for 20 sen, it is very special,” Zaleha told Torode while she was preparing the dish.

After, Gregg made the infamous “crispy rendang comment”, Torode chimed in, saying that the “chicken rendang on the side is a mistake”.

Now, a quick Google image search of “nasi lemak” shows that of the nasi lemak dishes which served chicken as the main protein of the dish, well over half of them are — you guessed it — crispy, fried, chicken.

In most parts of the Malay Peninsula, I have never ordered a nasi lemak set meal that came without crispy fried chicken, or fish — unless I deliberately chose to go with the a la carte option where I have complete freedom over the choice of protein and vegetables. I’m betting that most Malaysians and Singaporeans expect the same too.

What you’d normally expect from a nasi lemak set meal

That’s not to say that nasi lemak is never served with rendang — or that nasi lemak is always served with some type crispy meat. After all, nasi lemak literally means “Rice, cooked in Oil/Fat”. But more often than not, it is — particularly as a set meal.

And perhaps that’s what Greg Wallace — not Torode — was expecting too.

The way Zaleha plated the dish (a set meal) does look a lot like Ayam Panggang/Bakar, which, though not crispy, often has a much more tender and juicy flesh due to the shorter cooking time and the use of a grill.

Ayam Bakar/Panggang, with Tempe, Tofu, Sambal, and fresh greens served with rice.

Note: I’ve observed that in Singapore, Ayam “Panggang” is often used more than Ayam “Bakar” to describe the same dish. Perhaps someone can shed some light on the difference between the common usage of bakar (flame-grilled/roast), and panggang? Indonesians and Malaysians may differ on this as well.

To my Bahasa readers: Siapa bisa mejelaskan “bakar” dengan “panggang” apakah bedanya? Kalau menurut saya, memanggang bisa dilakukan di atas kuali, atau dalam oven, jadi tidak bersentuhan langsung dengan api. Tapi, saya juga dengar kata-katanya dipakai dalam Bahasa Indonesia dengan Bahasa Melayu mungkin juga ada perbedaan dengan artinya. Contohnya, “toast” di dalam Bahasa Indonesia adalah “roti bakar”, tapi di Bahasa Melayu, adalah “roti panggang”.

3) Torode Judged the Rendang On its Own Merits

But Torode didn’t simply dismiss the dish because he thought the choice of rendang as a side dish didn’t match his expectation of nasi lemak. Torode likely knew from his time in Malaysia that nasi lemak is often served a la carte.

Torode’s second critique of the dish was the chicken rendang itself:

“It hasn’t had enough time to cook down and become lovely and soft and falling apart. Instead the chicken is just tough and not really flavoursome,” he said.

Now, that’s an entirely different critique entirely.

In my experience, chicken rendang is much rarer than beef or mutton rendang. Except perhaps to Nonyas — who seem exceptionally skilled at not making the chicken meat dry and tough.

Was Zaleha’s chicken really as bad as Torode claimed? I have no way of knowing for sure, but I’m inclined to trust his professional judgement of the appropriate flavor penetration, and texture for stewed/fried/grilled chicken.

P.S. One of my readers alerted me to the fact that the MasterChef UK winner in 2014 was Ping Coombs — a Malaysian. Interestingly enough, Ping also appeared in Torode’s Malaysian Adventure TV series.

Conclusions:

  1. Torode knows Malaysian cuisine, and rendang.
  2. Torode didn’t make the “crispy rendang” comment — Gregg did.
  3. Torode didn’t like how the rendang was paired with nasi lemak
  4. Torode didn’t like how the chicken was “tough” and “not really flavorsome”. He did not expect it to be crispy.

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