Still baffled by the crispy chicken rendang we never had? While doing research on rendang sometime ago, I was startled to come across an article for making crispy chicken rendang that is “seriously Malaysian”.

The story explains rendang as “a dish of meat (though seafood or vegetables are used as well) stewed slowly in a coconut-curry liquid. Pastes containing aromatics and spices like lemongrass, galangal, chilli, and cinnamon are added in the beginning. As the meat stews in the paste and coconut milk mixture, the liquid becomes more and more reduced until finally, only the oils of the coconut milk are left.”

And here’s how you turn a rendang crispy: “To finish the dish, the meat is lightly browned in the remaining coconut oil. The meat (or whatever item is being stewed) is intensely flavourful and tender, yet crispy and sticky on the outside with bits of browned aromatics.”

When you come across stories like this, you just laugh and move on. Except that this story was published by an influential food website.

“Seriously Malaysian: How to Make Rendang” was on Serious Eats’ Seriously Asian segment on “Asian cookery, with an emphasis on the traditional, underappreciated, or misunderstood elements thereof”.

chicken rendang

Screengrab of ‘crispy’ chicken rendang from Photo: Serious Eats/Chichi Wang

Chichi Wang’s article for Serious Eats immediately springs to mind when the British MasterChef “crispy chicken rendang” episode exploded on social media. A Malaysian contestant’s chicken rendang was rejected as cooking failure for, as judge Gregg Wallace said, not having the authentic “crispy skin” and she was sent off the popular show.

Well Mr Wallace, perhaps you were relying on Chichi Wang’s misguided musings, but much as we Malaysians love crispy chicken skin, we don’t expect chicken rendang to be crispy, nor any rendang for that matter.

For the record, technically, Wang was right to say a rendang is a stew you cook by boiling it down until the tough fibres of the meat break down and tenderise. But the part about cooking it down until the oil renders and the meat can start to fry in the fat is her own – the closest we get to this is in making a dry rendang like rendang tok.

Wang consulted Fatty Crab’s chef Zak Pelaccio, once upon a time a spokesperson for the defunct Malaysia Global Kitchen project in New York, who “crystallised the unique attributes of rendang preparation” for her. He explained that rendang is counterintuitive to the basic Western technique for stewing, in which the item is first browned, then simmered in liquid.

“Cooking a rendang is, in this sense, the polar opposite: The items, after being stewed for hours in the coconut milk, are then left to brown in the coconut oil once the liquids have boiled away. Such a preparation is due in large part to the original purpose of rendang, to preserve dishes without the aid of refrigeration.”

ayam goreng kunyit

Filepic of crispy ayam goreng kunyit, cooked with onions and vegetables. Photo: The Star

I am sure Ms Wang’s crispy chicken rendang is delicious, but don’t call it traditional and mislead even learned judges. Perhaps Wang confused chicken rendang with ayam goreng kunyit (turmeric fried chicken), which is “crispy and sticky on the outside with bits of browned aromatics.”

This calls to mind the outrage of French chefs when diners complain that their beloved traditional dish, duck confit, is not crispy. Duck confit is duck leg that is first salt cured and then slow-cooked for hours in a pot of barely simmering duck fat until it is meltingly tender.

Maverick modern cooks started to crisp the duck leg confit by pan-frying it or further roasting, until browned and crispy-skinned. This style of duck confit became a hit, popularising crispy duck confit around the world and hapless diners who had duck confit for the first time when this was trending, started to think that authentic duck confit should be crispy, to the chagrin of the French.

I love crispy duck confit but I know it’s not the real deal. I would probably love Ms Wang’s crispy chicken rendang, and it is a great way for rendang to evolve, but to send a contestant off because a judge has unfounded preconceived ideas about a rendang is clearly injustice. Zaleha Kadir Olpin’s dish should have been judged on its own merit, without even considering authenticity as Masterchef UK isn’t a contest about authentic cooking after all.

So who’s Chichi Wang, you ask. Serious Eats listed her as a columnist at the time of the article. But you find she’s also profiled by Serious Eats as an intern based in New York. In her own words, “I eat, I write, I repeat. To make money and get health insurance, I work for a corporation I’d rather not discuss”. She admits to a huge weakness for fried dough in large quantities, “if it’s fried and contains flour, I’m there”.

So clever interns on popular websites are creating content that can potentially shape the opinions of, well, opinion leaders.

Apart from the crispy chicken rendang, Wang also shares recipes for beef short rib rendang and potato rendang.

Potato rendang? I can hear the collective scream of Malaysians and Indonesians but I also think, why not? (I wished I had thought of that.) Sounds delicious when cooked down to a crisp the way Chichi Wang would do it. Unless the idea is way too chichi for you.