I was recently invited to Malaysia Kitchen’s Rendang Cookoff, held in the always lovely Astor Center event space.
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During ‘cocktail hour’, people mingled in the room on the right, with tables set up bearing Malaysian kitchen pantry items. Sauce packets, sauces, noodles, and more were there for us to browse and some to sample.
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Then we were ushered into the next room to sit at tables as the main event began. We were given a quick demonstration and explanation of what rendang, one of Malaysia’s national dishes, really is, what it entails and how it’s cooked. To give us newbies and idea of what to expect, we were also served a classic, traditional rendang, so we would have a standard to which we’d hold the celebrity chefs. Oh yes: we were to judge and vote on 6 celebrity chefs’ versions of this dish. You’ll see…
Of course, those familiar with the dish and with this site may already note a problem: the dish, which consists of a protein – usually beef – slow cooked for hours until it’s melty-tender, served with coconut rice… has coconut as one of its main ingredients. I’m allergic to coconut. However, it’s never killed me, and I decided to forge ahead and push the boundaries of my allergy that night. Fun, right? In any case, the classic rendang was quite delicious, served over a bite of sticky rice. I LOVE sticky rice, and wanted more… alas, the competition was starting.
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Our first chef, Angelo Sosa, you may recognize from Top Chef. Or something, I don’t know, I don’t watch Top Chef, but I do know him from Xie Xie (RIP). Angelo was born for TV, and went through his patter entertaining us with anecdotes, stories, and explanations, then gave us these little bites. My notes are a little disjointed, but: “sweetbreads – slightly chalky; arbol chile, Vietnamese cinnamon, spuma, grapeseed oil, lemongrass” – if you can make sense of that, have fun. The spuma was deliciously light and airy, and the overall dish was delicious. I should mention that before we sat down, I’d made a bet with Maggie & Justin, my table companions for the night, that Angelo would win. I based this purely on his looks. They both chose the next competitor – who I thought was the only Asian competitor – and I claimed racism, saying that “You just think she’s going to win because she’s the only Asian up there. I think she’s Chinese. Just watch, Angelo is going to win.” (I was totally teasing them about the racism, I know she’s a super talented chef as well!) In any case, after eating Angelo’s dish, Maggie & Justin agreed that I might have something there, because it was that good.
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Our next chef, Anita Lo, actually explained that she had a Malaysian upbringing of sorts. I forget if it was her grandmother or someone else, but she grew up eating Malaysian food (though I believe she said she’s Malaysian-Chinese, not an unusual cultural combination). She told us that she made the dish to honor her childhood memories, which included something hot/cold (my notes literally say: “hot/cold – what she remembers from childhood” – I don’t know why I bother). Unfortunately, the bites were served many minutes apart, so I didn’t get a chance to try them concurrently, though the beef tartare (with grassfed beef – that’s in my notes) was delicious on its own, I’m curious how it would work with the rendang simultaneously. Her version was quite delicious regardless.
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Again, I don’t watch Top Chef, so I didn’t know him – but Dale Talde was our next competitor. Okay, he’s of Asian descent. My bad. He had a really interesting technique for using the lemongrass – chop it into bits, use liquid nitrogen to flash-freeze it, add to a food processor and pulverize it into a very fine dust. No strings needed! The rest of his version included dried chiles, curry, anchovies, fennel seed, and Spanish mackerel, cured/pickled/smoked. The final dish, while tasty, was too far removed from rendang for me to give it super high marks. On its own, yum, but in a rendang competition, I think his ‘creativity’ led him too far astray for it to get even near the top rendangs.
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Chef Shaun Hergatt also mentioned some sort of tie to Malaysia, though I don’t recall what it was. His dish brought us back to rendang, boasting pork belly, tamarind, kaffir lime leaves, top round, peanuts and lemongrass. I apologize, I’d started drinking, so I remember less of what he was saying at this point, but the dish itself was delicious. Fatty pork belly with slightly leaner beef really worked well to make a lovely bite, and I was intrigued enough that I want to visit SHO (his restaurant) even more now than I already did.
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Next up was Todd English, a last minute addition to the lineup. I recall being confused as I’d never heard of any tie to Malaysia with regard to Chef English… but as his patter began, it became clear that he wasn’t even sure what he was doing there. I don’t know if he was familiar with rendang; he kept talking on and on and on about various unrelated things and focusing was hard when he didn’t seem to have a focus himself! My notes literally say: “doesn’t know what’s in rendang; talk talk talk” – and one of my favorite moments of the night was definitely when Kelly Choi said “The music is playing, Chef” to hurry him along. He took the hint and we were served our individual bites… and while I’m all for creativity and re-interpreting dishes, sometimes re-inventing the wheel as well… Well, serving polenta underneath the beef rendang seemed a bit odd. I’ll admit that overall, the dish was tasty, but the polenta really threw me off and I would have preferred he stick to the classic carb, rice.
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Last but not least, ah… Zak Pelaccio, who’d literally flown in that day apparently FROM Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Zak has long been lauded a huge advocate of Malaysian food, and has several acclaimed restaurants dedicated to very good Malaysian food. (And the first time I visited one, I received a ton of heat for my post on it, even after I went back a second time for a re-try.) He explained calmly and without much flair about his version – which boasted smoked brisket and a lot of other things I can’t tell you because I stupidly didn’t write down. I did write down: “turmeric, lemongrass, galangal, chiles, shallots, lime and coconut” – but that’s it. I was probably too busy inhaling this incredible bite: the meat literally melted as soon as it touched my tongue, with an intense flavor imparte from all the seasonings he’d used, but none standing out as the star. The star was the meat, the soft, tender meat, I just wanted more of it… Sigh. I would have immediately changed my bet to Zak’s dish, except I know a thing or two about people and perception, so I stuck with Angelo.
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The chefs all had a seat and took audience questions while the votes were tallied. Chef English jumped in at one point to ask if we’d rather eat something authentic, or something re-interpreted. My firm answer: something delicious. It doesn’t matter to me what authenticity is; I’ve long talked about on this blog how I don’t know what authentic is, I just know what tastes good to me. If you bring a person who cooks frequently for themselves or their family from another country and stick them in the US, though they may cook the “same dishes” every night here that they did there, they will not taste the same. As any home cook can tell you, substitutions are made routinely based on what’s available (and sometimes, what’s on sale), and that doesn’t make the dish less authentic, it just is what it is. This is how many Chinese-American (ie, takeout) dishes came to be; a matter of what ingredients are more readily available here than elsewhere. Meat is available abundantly and cheaply in the US, while in China, it may not be so. Anyway…
Oh, and those paying attention may be wondering what the result of my ingesting so much coconut was. Well, my face swelled up and my tongue was a little itchy, but more than in the past, I was able to still taste. One of my problems with my allergic reaction to coconut used to be the inability to taste after I’d had coconut, which is a problem when you’re a food blogger. But that night, I had no such issues and continued to be able to taste just fine. I proceeded to test my allergy more in the upcoming weeks, though we’ll see how well that worked…
Then the results were announced. As I’d expected, Angelo Sosa’s excellent dish took first. While my personal preference was actually Zak Pelaccio’s dish, it was easy to understand why Angelo received more votes. A number of reasons, really: Angelo went first, so it was before anyone got tired of eating or stopped paying attention; Angelo is experienced in talking in front of a crowd, ‘selling’ your dish so to speak, and he worked the crowd very well. His dish was very tasty, but Zak’s was better… but, to be blunt, Angelo also just has the look. Take a look at Angelo vs. Zak… Angelo is much more marketable than Zak. Plus – and I respect him for this – Zak didn’t try to win the crowd. He definitely had the air of “let the food speak for itself” – and it did, his dish was incredible! – and didn’t patter too much, he must have been tired after his flight – but c’est ca.
I had a lot of fun at this event, learning about beef rendang and sampling all the different kinds. I really appreciated that we were also given a classic beef rendang to start the event – so we all had a baseline understanding of what to expect in the dish – which made the event all that much more fun. Thanks to Malaysia Kitchen and their PR for inviting me to join in the fun – I had so much fun, and I immediately began seeking out beef rendang in restaurants (posts to come!).
Per usual, I just post about these events so you can all get a taste of the cool things I get to do as a food blogger.