Reno Andam Suri: 'Rendang', between food and culture
The Jakarta Post
Reno Andam Suri turns into a chatterbox when it comes to rendang (beef simmered in coconut milk and spices), and those listening to her passionate description of this wondrous food from the Minangkabau people in West Sumatra and her business, will always get engrossed in her fervent account.
It all began in her family when Reno was very young. For the ethnic Minangkabau community to which she belongs, rendang is an indispensable dish to be served during the Idul Fitri holiday and important family events. Traditionally, this food is prepared by several family members.
When Reno's entire family moved to Jakarta, they found themselves involving her a lot more frequently while cooking rendang, most likely due to her great flair and passion for cooking. 'We've continued to cook rendang by traditional means, using iron frying pans with wood-burning stoves,' Reno said.
One day, much of the rendang that should have been eaten by the family was still left unconsumed, which Reno later gave to her friends. The following year they ordered Reno's rendang for the Idul Fitri celebration and everyday consumption. Their orders increased in subsequent years but Reno had not yet started her business. As a culinary buff, she also experimented with macaroni, roasted rice and other dishes.
The graphic design graduate of Jakarta's Trisakti University finally chose rendang for her business after some of her close friends suggested that she focus on a single specialty that could make people recognize Reno, as well as the cultural background of this food. So she opened her business, Rendang Uni Farah, named after her daughter.
Reno said her venture had made gradual progress without setting any target. 'I made no blueprint, targets and product diversification preparations as required by various seminars on entrepreneurship,' she revealed. Innovations were made according to customers' demands and input, such as vegetarians' requests, resulting in rendang made of eggs, ferns and black sticky rice.
Reno faced challenges in the early period of her business, before rendang was named the number-one dish of the world's 50 most delicious foods in an online poll. People could also buy it at restaurants at reasonable prices. When she introduced vacuum-packed rendang for traveling, it turned out to be premature. 'At the time [2000s] people weren't yet used to traveling with rendang as a gift,' noted Reno.
Reno also tried to promote her products by joining several bazaars and festivals, but nobody seemed interested. 'Visitors would just stop by for a moment before walking on,' she recalled. She eventually changed her strategy by utilizing a website as a medium for marketing.
Reno's graphic design capability also helped her create attractive and distinctive packages. She became even more determined to make her rendang a unique gift item with a better than average shelf life. Her strategy worked; her business in the virtual world facilitated promotion through her friends' recommendations to many other people, causing orders to flood in.
There was another challenge, however, that turned into a blessing, when she was zealously stirring the beef she cooked, only to find that the meat broke to pieces and the rendang reduced in weight. 'After that, I noticed that my customers were pleased to get rendang in shreds.' With this experience, she produced a new variant called suwir or shredded rendang.
Reno's daily cooking and innovative activities prompted her to delve further into the cultural feature and early growth of this food in its original region, West Sumatra. She discovered that rendang had formerly served as a symbol of success and prestige for a family holding a ritual feast. In some such ceremonial occasions, rendang was only displayed on the left and right sides of the table. The findings from her field study are contained in a book entitled Rendang Traveler.
Rendang, for Reno, also represented a tradition. For this reason, she has the original tools of the trade: iron frying pans and wood-burning stoves. One of the pans is over 40 years old, inherited from her aunt, while the rest are made in Yogyakarta. The stoves are made from cut oil drums and scrap wood is burned as fuel.
Despite the lack of preparation at the initial stage of her business, Reno is now starting to consider business targets and planning. 'At least I understand how I should overcome price hikes. Fortunately, my customers are quite aware of current economic conditions so they don't complain if they have to pay more,' she pointed out.
Reno is now developing rendang oil, which is derived from the process of cooking rendang and functions as a flavor like chili oil. It can be infused into various kinds of cooking such as noodles, ramen and many other things, so rendang is expected to become better appreciated. She has also been requested to be a consultant on Minangkabau food in a film with a culinary theme. 'I'm interested in assisting because little attention has been given to this cuisine,' she added.
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