When it comes to making the ever-popular rendang, patience is indeed a virtue. Persevere and you'll be richly rewarded with a dish of delicious complexity, writes Tony Tan.
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.
And 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.
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.
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.
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 kaffir 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.