Historically, this beef dish originates in Western Sumatra, Indonesia with the Minangkabau ethnic group, and dates back at least 500 years in literature. Or that’s what I’ve gleaned from Wikipedia, anyway. My personal experience with the dish dates back to a lunch-time cafeteria in Singapore. I remember enjoying the dish, but otherwise have completely forgotten the flavour. Maybe that’s a good thing, since cheap cafeterias ordinarily don’t produce the greatest versions of things. Who knows?
Whatever it was, though, it impressed me enough to inspire an ongoing quest to make rendang (pronounced ren-dahng, daging is dah-ging) at home, here in Canada. I found some Indofoods rendang spice packets at Loblaws, so it is popular enough to infiltrate the Western marketplace in some form, but the resulting mess was sub-standard. Hell, most of those spice packets produce only a pale imitation of the real thing. For many Southeast Asian foods, you need fresh ingredients. Lemongrass, ginger, shallots, garlic, and so on. Which means I needed a real recipe. For rendang, specifically, you need all of those aromatics and spices, plus one more crucial ingredient: infinite patience.
You see, to achieve fall-apart-tender beef, the rich, complex flavours, and exotic perfume of a good rendang, you’ll have to slow-simmer the meat for several hours. Let me put that right up front before you even think of starting this meal; this is not a weekday meal. That disclaimer aside, rendang has a quality that helps to offset the time investment – it ages well. In fact, rendang will actually tasted better on the 2nd day. It was also pretty good on day 3. It didn’t last longer than that. The fresh ingredients, kerisik (toasted and grated coconut paste), and whole spices, given more time together, will meld into a delicate and complex blend – something very unique and memorable (more memorable than cafeteria food, I hope). In short, make a large batch of rendang and you’ll have delicious leftovers for days.
The other great thing about rendang is that it’s dead simple to make. The only hard part is challenging your conceptions. Years ago, I would’ve been uncomfortable with cooking beef for 2 hours, for fear of ruining it, or “drying it out”. Then I learned how different cuts of beef behave when they’re heated, and I shop smarter now; we use stewing beef in this recipe, and stewing beef won’t even tenderize until it’s been braised for quite a while. Any of the tougher cuts can be used here: chuck, brisket, plate, etc. Do avoid actual “good” or tender cuts of beef – they won’t hold up in this preparation. The tougher cuts of beef also tend to be cheaper, so let’s add another point in its favour. Anyway, stop wasting time! Get some rendang started now, and you’ll eat like a king in about 2 hours.
- approx. 500-600g stewing beef, in 1-2″ cubes
- 2 stalks of lemongrass, cut tops of the stalks and the bottom base off, leaving about 5-6″, then gently crush the stalks with the flat edge of a large knife, or a kitchen mallet (view this video from 2:29 onwards)
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 6 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1 1/2″ ginger, peeled and chopped into a few large chunks
- 1″ galangal, peeled, or 2 tsp galangal powder
- 1 medium onion, peeled and cut into large chunks
- 3-5 tbsp sambal oelek (fresh chili paste, see photo), according to taste preference
- 1″ turmeric root, peeled, or 1 tsp ground turmeric
- 1 blade of mace, crushed (optional)
- 1 cinnamon stick, 3″
- 3 star anise
- 4 cloves
- 4 green cardamom pods
- 1 398mL can thick coconut milk
- 2 lime leaves, cut into very thin (1 mm) strips
- 1/2 cup kerisik, see notes below
- 1 tbsp palm sugar (or brown sugar)
- 1 tsp salt, plus extra to taste
Notes: To prepare the kerisik, add a little over 1/2 cup of unsweetened grated coconut to a frying pan over low heat with no oil. Stir the coconut frequently to prevent burning, and toast the coconut until it’s a golden brown colour. This will take somewhere between 5-10 minutes. Once it’s browned, remove the coconut to a plate to cool for about 15 minutes, then process it into a powder/paste with a spice grinder or mortar and pestle. If you don’t have either of these, just use the toasted coconut in this recipe as is.
Serve with: rice, coconut rice
What you will need: measuring cups and spoons, large saute or deep-sided frying pan, wooden spoon/spatula, knife and cutting board, blender or small food processor, some small bowls for organization
1. Make a paste out of the following ingredients: the garlic, ginger, galangal, onion, chili paste / sambal oelek, turmeric, and mace by running them all through a blender or small food processor until they are fairly smooth and evenly mixed.
2. Finish preparing ingredients: fill a measuring cup with the coconut milk. Measure out the kerisik, sugar, and slice the lime leafs and arrange them in bowls near the stove. Count out all the whole spices and place them in a bowl together, as well.
3. Put the saute pan on medium-high heat (5-6 on my dial) and add the oil. Give it about 5 minutes to heat up.
4. Add the spice paste, and stir it in the oil for a minute to prevent it from sticking to the pan. Then add the whole spices. Fry the mixture for about 3-5 minutes until the spice paste is fragrant, sweet, and lightly browned.
5. Add the beef cubes and the crushed stalks of lemongrass, and stir them into the spice paste. Cook them for about 1 minute until the beef has lost most of its red surface.
6. Add the coconut milk to the pan, stir and bring it to a gentle simmer. We want to cook the beef cubes lightly for about 10 minutes here, while bringing the liquid to very gentle bubble.
7. Add the sliced lime leaves, kerisik, and palm sugar. Stir them into the liquids. Lower the heat to low (about 2-3 on my dial) or just enough heat to keep the liquids gently bubbling.
8. Simmer the rendang this way for about 2 to 3 hours, depending on how fast your liquids are bubbling. Keep checking the rendang every 10-15 minutes (to make sure it’s still bubbling – if not, turn the heat up a notch) and give it a stir, especially during the second hour, as the meat could begin to stick to the pan as the sauce dries up. Don’t be shy about cooking here – what we’re doing, basically, is boiling off almost all of the liquid, and if you do not do this, the watery sauce will be very weak tasting and unappetizing. A thick gravy, however, will be dense with flavour and delicious.
9. Add the salt near the end of the cooking process, and stir it in. Use your discretion – add a dash or two more if it needs it.
I was in my parent’s kitchen for this recipe, making rendang for my dad’s birthday (Happy Birthday, dad!). I thought it was appropriate; traditionally, rendang is served for ceremonial purposes, or to greet honoured guests. Why not for dads’ birthdays?