Off a dirt road in Bukittinggi, West Sumatra, British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay recently faced off against Indonesia’s famed chef William Wongso in a beef rendang showdown.
Set against a picturesque backdrop of cliffs and lush greenery, the duo were cooking for West Sumatra governor Irwan Prayitno and his family.
That was how old Irwan felt about cooking: he thought if you worked hard enough and prospered long enough, you’d get someone like Gordon Ramsey to cook for you.
Still, food for thought, what? If you noticed, no one said anything about Malaysia having any claim on rendang.
It wasn’t like that two years ago.
Remember when a culinary contestant on MasterChef UK got booted after her offering of nasi lemak – comprising chicken rendang among other components – was deemed inedible on the grounds the said chicken rendang “wasn’t crispy” enough.
At the time, Malaysian social media users thought that said fowl had been taste-treated most unfairly and said so in such numbers that it made the pages of the British press.
Even the then British High Commissioner to Malaysia Vicky Treadell got into the act.
“It can be chicken, lamb or beef,” she declaimed poetically, “And never crispy. Heaven forbid, chief.”
Gordon Ramsey shuddered at the verse and recoiled at the idea of chicken in rendang. “Fair was foul and fowl was merely fair,” he agreed with the Bard, “But beef was the answer to life’s problems.”
Still, Mr Ramsey dismissed Messrs Wallace and Torode – the judges in the MasterChef question – as confused cooks who thought that the dish might have been something you got out of Kentucky Fried Chicken
Actually, both the chefs were pretty good at their craft. Mr Wallace wanted to be a great cook because his mother had been terrible.
He only realised this when he was eight and began wondering why his morning toast had bones. Another time he’d cried is when he saw his mum chopping up Onions.
Onions had been his favourite rabbit.
So, when he got to culinary school, he never took anything for granted. In fact, he was indefatigable. If the recipe might have talked about separating eggs, for example, the intrepid Wallace would invariably ask, how far?
Chef Torode, the other judge in question, may have been equally sinister. He was famous for crating the concept of “pre-heating” which is the practice of heating up an oven for a specified time so that one might burn one’s fingers twice – when inserting in the food and when extracting finished product.
Of course, the whole fuss was nothing more than national hubris run amok. The problem was that Malaysians were notoriously touchy about their food.
We shouldn’t be. Now it appears that Indonesia might be the home of beef rendang. It is a horrible thought because it might mean that Chicken Rice actually originated in Singapore.
Maybe we should be less fussed about these things and be like the English. The country only contributed the chip to world cuisine but it’s an important invention nevertheless – to couch potatoes the world over.
We should get over it. I mean, there’s bigger fish to fry.