In light of the current BBC Masterchef “crispy rendang” controversy, here is my own “hot take” (hot as in pedas, that is): my personal rendang recipe (beef, rather than chicken), based on much eating of Padang cuisine over the years:
Amongst the pyramid stacks of loaded plates in the window of every Nasi Padang restaurant in Indonesia – be it a grimy concrete room in a fishing port in Nusa Tenggara or an air-conditioned dining hall in downtown Jakarta – there is always one bigger bowl. Its contents are as ominously dark as a monsoon thunderhead, looking more like something mined from the depths of an old volcano than cooked in a kitchen. The flavour too seems to come from somewhere earthy and ancient: hints of garlic and ginger rendered far beyond their last traces of astringency; the citrus tang of lemongrass and lime leaves, somehow matured and deepened; and a ghost of coconut and chilli. The name of this dish is rendang, the essential base note of all Padang cuisine.
A dish described as rendang sometimes turns up on the menus of pan-Asian restaurants in Western countries. It is often quite delicious, but it most certainly is not rendang; it’s usually more like a Thai red curry. For the point about real rendang is that it is dry. There was a sauce, it’s true; but its alchemical vanishing is the crux of the cooking process.
In the Minangkabau villages of western Sumatra in times past there was no electricity, still less refrigeration. When a cow or a buffalo was slaughtered and distributed amongst the families there was a great need to do something with it that would fend off decay – and that something was rendang. A slow, deep, spice-laden cooking process to simmer away the liquids and draw out the natural oils creates meat that will keep for several weeks. But more importantly, it also creates one of the most complexly flavoured of all Indonesian dishes.
There is magic in the long procedure of cooking rendang, and the first time you try it you may well feel a pang of regret as you watch what looks like a very decent curry sauce slowly vanishing before your eyes. But rest assured, you are creating something far more substantial.
Ingredients (serves four)
- 1kg of beef, diced as if for a stew – I cannot stress enough how important it is that the beef should be from a cheap cut with a fairly high fat content. Shin/shank is absolutely ideal. Using a more expensive cut is not only a waste of money; the rendang actually won’t taste as good.
- 2 cans of coconut cream, or dried coconut cream powder, made up with water to 800ml
- 4 kaffir lime leaves – Try to find fresh lime leaves if possible; Asian supermarkets often have fresh-frozen ones that work really well. Otherwise the dry ones you find in mainstream supermarkets are just about better than nothing. If all else fails, replace the lime leaves with the zest of a normal lime.
- 1 tablespoon of dark brown sugar
- Juice of half a lime, or half a tablespoon of tamarind paste
- 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
For the spice paste
- A 3cm piece of fresh ginger, peeled
- A 3cm piece of galangal – If you can’t get galangal, the recipe still works well without it; simply double the quantity of ginger instead.
- 2 sticks of lemon grass with the green outer leaves stripped off, roughly chopped
- 5 large cloves of garlic
- 10 small shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
- 2 teaspoons of ground coriander seed
- 2 teaspoons of ground turmeric
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- Chilli to your taste – Two medium-size red chillies work well, but you could add more if you like some fire, or less if you don’t.
- Take all the ingredients for the spice paste. You have two choices here. The quickest, easiest option is simply to throw them all into a blender and blitz them to a smooth paste in a matter of seconds (if you do this, you should slice the lemon grass thinly by hand first, to avoid ending up with stringy fibres in the paste). However, an Indonesian cook would pound them by hand, and I do recommend using a pestle and mortar if you have one. Not only does this let each flavour element keep its integrity in the finished dish; you also get to enjoy the tantalising scents of ginger, garlic and lemongrass as they slowly succumb to your efforts. If you do use a pestle and mortar you’ll have to work at it for a good while to get the paste smooth – adding a splash of oil at the start helps.
- Add the oil to a thick-bottomed pan – and it really does need to be thick-bottomed – and place it over a high heat. When the oil is hot but not quite smoking add the spice mix and fry it for around two minutes until it begins to darken. You’ll need to keep stirring it vigorously at this stage.
- Add the beef pieces and continue to fry on a high heat for around three minutes, until everything has picked up a good deal of colour.
Add the sugar, lime juice/tamarind, lime leaves, and coconut cream. If you’ve managed to get hold of fresh (or fresh-frozen) lime leaves there’s a magical moment as their scent comes rocketing out of the pan in an instant evocation of far-off street markets. As soon as the liquid comes up to the boil turn the heat down to the lowest possible level, and leave to simmer until almost all the liquid has evaporated, stirring occasionally. This should take around two hours. If the liquid is vanishing too quickly, top it up with a little warm water.
Seasoning rendang is a little tricky. If you taste the liquid at an early stage, it will certainly be under-seasoned. However, if you immediately add more salt the finished dish will likely end up over-seasoned. It’s important to add some salt to the spice mix, but you’ll need to wait to the very end to get the seasoning just right.
- After a couple of hours the liquid will have reduced to a thick gloop, coating the beef pieces, and beginning to catch on the bottom of the pan. If you look closely you’ll see that it has taken on a gloss, with little beads of oil forming on the surface. The natural oil from the beef, the garlic and shallots, and the spices has now been drawn out. At this point it’s time for the final, fast-paced part of the process. Turn up the heat and you’ll instantly hear a sizzle as the rendang begins to fry in its own oil. You’ll need to keep stirring vigorously for the next two or three minutes, and the entire colour and consistency of the dish will change dramatically before your eyes, the last liquid vanishing and the meat darkening to a rich, chocolaty tone. Make sure that the meat has taken on a good deal of colour from the frying, add a little more salt to taste, and the rendang is finished. Tempting as it is to tuck straight in, it will taste much better if you save it for the next day – or the day after that.
English-language recipes for rendang often reduce the cooking time, but the two hours suggested here really is the minimum required to sufficiently deepen the flavours and draw out the oils; some Indonesian cooks take half a day over it. English-language recipes also often include spices such as cardamom and cinnamon, but I’ve never seen these used for making rendang in Indonesia, and I suspect that the authors simply add them for extra culinary exoticism. They create peculiar fruity notes that have no business in rendang.
Some Indonesian cooks omit the initial fry of the spices and the meat. Instead they simply throw the raw spice paste into the coconut cream and simmer it until droplets of oil start to rise to the surface, before tossing in the uncooked meat. This works well enough, but you’ll find an astringency from the raw garlic, still lingering at the end. Indonesian cooks also usually use a huge number of shallots – quantities never replicated in English-language rendang recipes, for some reason. To cook the quantity of rendang described here, some Indonesians would use as many as 20 shallots! They actually make very little difference to the flavour, but they do bulk out the paste, leaving more of a coating in the finished dish.
Several hard-to-find ingredients are often used to make rendang in Indonesia. The galangal and tamarind can be replaced by extra ginger and lime juice, as mentioned in the list above, and if you can’t find kaffir lime leaves the zest of a regular lime will just about work as a stand-in. Other ingredients that sometimes turn up in Indonesian versions include kandis, a sour fruit of the garcinia family, but this is simply an alternative to tamarind or lime juice. Candlenuts also sometimes feature. You can replace these with cashews, but they add little to the flavour of the rendang, and their thickening properties are of no value in this cooking process.
As a Padang dish, rendang isn’t really meant to be served alone. As well as rice, Padang-style yellow curry sauce makes a good accompaniment. Indonesians usually eat rendang cold, but reheating it will bring all sorts of subtle flavour notes to the fore. Finally, for a flagrantly inauthentic but fragrantly fabulous way of serving rendang, reheat it as a sort of instant curry in a little extra coconut cream with a pinch of freshly chopped lime leaves.
© Tim Hannigan 2018