We have an old family recipe. Well, I say old, but it only goes back to my grandfather. Tok used to make this dry chicken rendang that was both salty and spicy at the same time.
Eventually he wrote down the recipe on a piece of paper, put it in a book that my mother inherited, and then … I don’t know where she put the recipe. More importantly, neither does my mum.
She claims it’s not a problem; she doesn’t know the exact details, but she remembers the taste, and with experimentation it can be recreated. But I insist technically it’s not the same recipe and the family heritage was broken before it even started.
Nevertheless, one thing my grandfather’s recipe definitely did not include was crispy chicken. If you haven’t been stuck on a desert island without WiFi, you would have heard the uproar that was sparked by the unfortunate judge on TV cooking show MasterChef UK, Gregg Wallace, who critiqued a rendang dish by saying “the chicken skin isn’t crispy”.
With it came much commentary on how a simple controversy could unite the Nusantara countries of Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia much better than political institutions such as Asean. I saw for the first time the word “whitesplaining”, the controversy generated a petition on change.org, and, basically, people spent much time explaining why rendang cannot be fried.
Or can it?
Last year, KFC had a promotional dish called the “Rendang Rice Bucket” where rendang sauce was poured over crispy chicken popcorn. I did not get a chance to try it, but I’ve tried other similar promotions and I think I know what I’m getting.
Then, a chef named Yenni Law posted a recipe for Crispy Chicken Rendang. In this version, you make the rendang as normal, and then coat the chicken pieces with flour and fry it.
I didn’t like this idea. You already have a nice tasting cooked chicken and you are just throwing on a coating to make it crispy. And with enough flour, oil and effort, anything can be crispy.
I thought, how about we marinate the chicken before frying? This is precisely what happens when you make Ayam Goreng Berempah (translated loosely as “spiced-up fried chicken”). And the marinade is very similar to what you put into a rendang, so why not instead take a rendang marinade and fry the chicken?
Onion, garlic, galangal, ginger, and turmeric food-processed into a paste. Coat chicken with it, leave overnight. Coat it with a bit of flour (rice flour blended with corn flour), fry in oil infused with kaffir leaves. Serve with rendang gravy (that I made separately with the marinade paste).
How did it turn out? The first disclaimer I must make is that I don’t really cook rendang often. This gravy was mediocre at best and ranked far below any that I would eat at a Hari Raya open house.
Nevertheless, the question was whether it would work with a crispy chicken. I made one chicken rendang (non-crispy) for reference. I then fried three pieces of chicken: One with the rendang marinade and flour, one already-cooked chicken covered in flour (like Chef Yenni’s recipe) and one with only flour (as a control).
The regular fried chicken topped with rendang sauce tasted exactly as it is described: rendang flavoured outside, fried chicken inside.
The version fried after cooking didn’t work too well for me, the chicken felt a little dry (probably because I fried it for too long, but you also want the outside crispy, yes?).
The one that was marinated before frying was actually quite nice. In fact, it was pointed out that it tasted a lot more like Ayam Goreng Berempah than an Ayam Goreng Rendang. You kind of have to dip it in gravy to get the full effect.
But the point is, it kind of worked. Maybe next time I will see if I can add santan powder to the marinade, or kerisik (grated coconut that has been dry-fried and blended). Or make the marinade more liquid, and use it like a batter.
The truth is, this is where the fun is. Cooking is experimentation tweaked by the feedback of failure. But to experiment, you’ve got to be willing to step outside your comfort zone.
When people say “crispy rendang”, the reaction shouldn’t be “Heresy!” but “Where can I try that?!!”.
Because it could actually be nice. Or it could taste horrible. But don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
I mean, this exploration of novelties should be one of the key aspects of life itself. We try to encourage children to try as many experiences as possible (and then when they become teenagers, try to hold them in check!). But as we grow older and appreciate what has been left behind, the idea that the new threatens the old is not only because we’re afraid of losing the old ways, but also because we risk becoming less relevant.
Experimentation is what my mother does. Jam, cheese and curry sandwiches. Apples in potato salads. Raisins in just about everything.
Honestly, a lot of them I just don’t like. But when it does work, I tell her, can we make it like this again next time, instead of experimenting?
Experimenting is what my Mama does to keep the memory of Tok’s chicken rendang alive. Which means I know what I need to do when the recipe eventually makes its way to me.
Crispy Chicken Rendang
Basically, you make the marinade paste first, and marinate the chicken in it for a few hours. Then, remove the chicken, and cook the paste to make rendang gravy. Finally, coat the marinated chicken with flour and fry.
1 chicken, cut into pieces
2.5cm turmeric (kunyit)
10cm ginger (halia)
10cm galangal (lengkuas)
1 head garlic
Chillies, according to taste (a handful for normal spiciness)
4 kaffir lime leaves (daun limau purut)
2 turmeric leaves (daun kunyit)
2 cups santan
1 tbsp kerisik
1 tbsp palm sugar
Chop all the marinade ingredients and grind together to make a paste. Add chicken pieces to the paste, cover and set aside as long as you can (overnight refrigeration is good).
When you’re ready to cook, remove the chicken from the paste.
To make the rendang gravy, heat some oil and add the kaffir lime leaves and turmeric leaves. When the oil is fragrant, add the marinade paste. Add one or two chicken parts to flavour the gravy.
Stir in the santan, kerisik and palm sugar. Simmer until the liquid evaporates, stirring from time to time. The thicker the gravy, the more intense the flavours. Add salt to taste.
For the fried chicken, coat the pieces in equal parts rice flour and corn flour with a pinch of salt added for flavour. Heat oil in a pan. If shallow frying, cook for eight minutes on each side; if deep frying, cook for 14 minutes.
When ready to eat, serve the fried chicken with gravy on the side (and of course, rice!).