Rendang is a traditional beef curry that is a staple of Indonesian cuisine. And let me tell you — it’s glorious.
About a dozen different spices and ingredients make up the bulk of rendang’s flavor, which are mashed together into a brown paste. Then, the rendang paste is slow cooked with beef and rich coconut milk. This process can take hours, but that just ensures the entire dish will absorb every ounce of flavor from the rendang paste.
My mouth is salivating just writing about it.
While I recognize that my own rendang uses a pre-blend packet with most of the spices, I still like to think that cooking rendang is one of those things connecting me to my Asian heritage.
However, the last time I raved about rendang with my Indonesian family, I apparently offended my cousin.
“Aaron, you’re vegetarian,” she said. “You can’t like rendang.”
Let’s put aside the fact that veggie meat is something that exists, or that the majority of the rendang flavor comes from the vegetarian spices — my cousin’s response perfectly illustrates my personal struggle as an Asian American. Somehow, my other identities have become obstacles and roadblocks that prevent me from being “truly” Asian.
You might call it imposter syndrome; other Asians like to call it “white-washed” or “a banana.”
I prefer describing it as if I’m caught between two worlds, and I don’t completely belong in either. It’s more complicated than just my Asian and American sides — it’s pitted against every identity I hold (like being vegetarian).
Whether it’s true or not, I feel like many of these identities ostracize me from the rest of the larger group. Even though my brain tells me there has to be other Asians struggling through the same questions, it often feels like I’m the only one.
I sometimes wish one of my competing identities would win and dominate my personality, yet I never know which identity would be victorious.
And that leads me back to rendang. Because rendang says that my competing identities don’t actually have to compete.
There are an excessive amount of spices and flavors that make Indonesian rendang so addicting. These ingredients often include candlenut, galangal, white pepper, shallots, chili, lemon grass, coriander and umami (or monosodium glutamate, better known as MSG). Each of these ingredients have their own claim to flavor, but on their own, they don’t make rendang.
Rendang is the combination of all these spices. In fact, in some sub-cultures, the skill of finding and mixing these flavors into delicious rendang paste is considered wisdom. So let me reapply some of my culture’s wisdom.
I’m starting to think of each of my identities as an ingredient in rendang. Because I am more than just Asian, and I am more than just American. Rather, they are just two of the many ingredients that make me, me. So rather than let one single identity dominate my core essence, I’m going to let each of them slow cook together into a rich curry. I’m hoping I’ll be all the wiser for it.