In essence, rendang is nothing more than a stew, but if you've ever eaten a real rendang, then you'll know it's a dish fit for a king - and it has a fascinating story.
It's linked to an ethnic group known as the Minangkabau or Minang people from West Sumatra, Indonesia; their provincial capital is Padang. The Minangkabau are best known for three cultural traditions: their society is matrilineal; they practise a form of migration called merantau, whereby men are encouraged to move away to earn their fortune; and they are well known throughout Indonesia for their cooking. Their cooking style, which is often referred to as Padang cuisine, makes extensive use of coconut milk, fiery chillies and aromatic plants.
Rendang came to Malaysia when the Minang migrated in the 15th century to settle in Negeri Sembilan state. From here, rendang spread to other states, gradually becoming the most popular beef dish among Malays not only in Malaysia but also in Singapore - and beyond. In fact, when CNN Travel polled its readers in 2011 to come up with a list of the world's 50 most popular dishes, rendang came in at number one, ahead of Peking duck, lasagne, sushi and pad Thai.
What is rendang? It's a dish traditionally cooked with beef, although chicken, goat, lamb, buffalo and even offal and young jackfruit are also used. Its defining flavours start with rhizomes such as turmeric, galangal and ginger, along with lemongrass and a fair quantity of chilli - though you may of course reduce the heat to suit your palate. The dish also uses a lot of coconut milk.
Rendang is usually served with steamed rice, though I have had it served with nasi minyak, rice cooked with ghee, and nasi lemak, rice cooked in coconut milk. I've also eaten rendang with lemang, a delicious sticky rice cooked in bamboo tubes leaning against an open flame.
In Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, rendang is traditionally served on festive occasions such as Hari Raya (Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan), weddings and at circumcision ceremonies, but it is now also enjoyed as an everyday dish in restaurants and in the home. Finding a perfectly cooked version, however, is like finding a pot of gold.
Since rendang was first introduced to Malaysia about 400 years ago, several variations of the dish unique to different parts of the country have developed. Some versions use makrut lime leaves; others include turmeric leaves, pieces of dried asam gelugor (the fruit of a rainforest tree, Garcinia atroviridis), or cumin, coriander or fennel seeds, or a combination. Two of the most famous versions are the spice-rich rendang tok, said to have originated in the royal kitchens of the state of Perak, and rendang Rembau, a super-hot version named after a small town in Negeri Sembilan.
I don't remember where my recipe comes from - probably a Nonya neighbour, or it might have been adapted from one by Sri Owen, the authority on Indonesian food.
Properly made, rendang is said to last for days, even at room temperature, thanks to the antimicrobial properties of turmeric. My advice, however, is to serve it as soon as it's done because it's so extravagantly delicious.
Making a great rendang requires time and patience; it can't be rushed. To yield a dish of intense complexity, it's necessary to reduce the sauce until it turns to oil and the spices cling to the meat. Rendang that's cooked for a shorter time, in which a lot of sauce remains, is not rendang at all; it's really a variant dish called kalio. Cooking a real rendang, then, means ample opportunity to enjoy the heavenly aromas wafting through the kitchen.
One of the secrets of a great rendang is ground toasted coconut, "kerisik" in Malay. Grated fresh coconut is slowly toasted until it's golden, then pounded to a fine paste and added to rendang to help create its rich complexity. It's fine to use desiccated coconut, as we have here, since fresh can be hard to find in Australia. It lacks some of the sweetness and moisture, however, so if you can find fresh coconut, it's worth the effort.
Choose beef cuts with plenty of connective tissue, such as chuck, oyster blade, gravy beef and shin meat. These are perfect because they absorb the spices beautifully and break down to tender chunks of meaty goodness in the long cooking process - just like the water buffalo and working cattle that are often used traditionally. What's more, these cuts are also inexpensive.
- 30 gm desiccated coconut
- 30 gm ginger, finely chopped
- 20 gm galangal, finely chopped
- 2 lemongrass stalks (white part only), finely chopped
- 8 long red chillies, coarsely chopped
- 6 golden shallots, finely chopped
- 5 garlic cloves
- 30 gm turmeric, finely chopped
- 100 ml vegetable oil
- 700 gm beef oyster blade, cut into 5cm cubes
- 425 ml coconut milk
- 2 tsp caster sugar
- To serve: steamed long-grain rice and steamed Asian greens
- 1Dry-roast coconut in a frying pan over medium heat until evenly golden (5-7 minutes), stirring occasionally, then set aside to cool slightly.
- 2Meanwhile, pound ginger, galangal and lemongrass to a smooth paste with a mortar and pestle. (You can do this in a food processor, adding 20ml water or as needed to form a smooth paste.)
- 3Add chillies, shallots, garlic and turmeric and pound to a coarse paste. Set aside. Pound the toasted coconut with a clean mortar and pestle until slightly glossy. Set aside.
- 4Heat vegetable oil in a wok (or a large shallow saucepan or a deep-sided frying pan) over medium-high heat, add spice mixture and stir often until aromatic (5 minutes).
- 5Add beef and stir occasionally until the meat is well browned (5-7 minutes).
- 6Add toasted coconut and cook for a minute, then add coconut milk, sugar and 500ml water. Bring to the boil, stirring continuously to prevent curdling.
- 7Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the meat is tender (2 hours).
- 8Remove the meat with a slotted spoon and reserve. Stir sauce over medium-high heat until very thick (20-30 minutes), then return beef to wok, stir gently, season to taste with salt and serve with steamed rice and some steamed greens.
Note By all means increase the number of chillies to suit your taste. And for extra flavour, you can tie the stalk of the lemongrass into a knot and add it at step 6.