Last night we attended a Malaysian food event focused on rendang. Rendang is a style of cooking proteins that began as early as the 1200s in Western Sumatra. The idea was to cook the protein (beef, goat, chicken) with a great variety of spices and coconut milk until all the milk had either evaporated or been absorbed by the protein, thus leaving only the oil which would then fry the spice coated protein into crusty and dry, but still tender, chunks. When cooked in this method, a rendang could last for weeks — which is really mind blowing if you’ve ever experienced the heat and humidity in that part of the world.
The event featured seven different chefs cooking his or her version of rendang and feed the crowd of hungry press and foodies. We made a smoked version of rendang using brisket served with turnip kimchi and pickled carrots. The event, at New York City’s Astor Center, was well run and entertaining. But at the end, during the Q & A wrap-up, someone asked a question about cooking “traditional” cuisine versus fusion cuisine.
I believe that it was Anita Lo who said, quite correctly, to “throw the word fusion out the window” unless you simply want that word to apply to absolutely all cuisines. Every cuisine in the modern world (and not so modern) was influenced by trade, migration, immigration and emigration to and from said country, region and continent. The most obvious examples are noodles coming from Asia and tomatoes and chilies coming from Latin America. And, specific to Malaysian food, without the Chinese migration they’d probably still be putting taro or cassava in their curry soups instead of the much more elegant noodle.
What impressed me most, however, was Shaun Hergatt’s explanation as to why he, an Australian, cooks here in America. As we’ve briefly touched on, all cuisine takes influence from somewhere else. There are versions of what we have come to learn as “traditional” cuisines, but they pulled from so many places to get to that stabilized “traditional” point. What’s also quite comical about “traditional” cuisine is that it does continue to change, like all things, perhaps once given the label “traditional,” change comes more slowly, perhaps, at times moving as imperceptibly as the flow of a glacier, yet moving all the same.
So, back to Shaun. He very articulately explained that cooking in New York allows him to cook his personal style. It’s not fusion, it’s not a tradition, it is how he cooks. And, he further went on to explain how all cuisine is personal. Each person cooking a dish is going to cook it somewhat differently from the next person. I may like my upstairs neighbors borscht more than my downstairs neighbors borscht, but they may both, purportedly, be traditional recipes. As Hergatt said, “You may like my food, you may not like my food but this is how I cook. It is my cuisine.”
He’s right, as this counts for all of us. And it may just have been the perfect forum for such a concept to be articulated, as rendang is perhaps the most popular dish in all of Malaysia and Indonesia and, from region to region, town to town and house to house you will find a unique rendang, a rendang is as unique as the person cooking his own, personal cuisine.