There was a time when I was convinced I would become a professional food and cooking writer. I had a food blog through my teenage years, and read lots of classic food writing – M.F.K Fisher, in particular – and figured it was my destined path in life.
This all changed at age 18, when a certain Iraqi professor at my first college verbally tore my head off over it, when I told him I was really just interested in food journalism, thank you very much. “There is all this suffering in the world, and you want to write about FOOD?” he shouted at me.
I cowered. And rather quickly shifted gears.
Now I write about depressing things related to geo-politics and drones (so much with the drones) – but occasionally, the desire to write about food again re-emerges. In this case, it’s because I made a really fantastic beef rendang and I’d like to let everyone know about it.
Rendang is probably the best known Indonesian dish out there, derived from the excellent, spicy Padang cooking of West Sumatra. In simplest terms, it’s a caramelized coconut milk beef curry that is braised for a very long time, breaking down the beef and giving it a remarkably deep, complex flavor. If you’ve had Thai massaman curry before, it’s a lot like that, but better.
While easy to find in Asia and Australia, for some perverse reason, Indonesian cuisine has yet to become popular in the US. So you’ll have to make it yourself. Let me explain. For this dish, I modified it to my own taste from a few different versions online. I believe the fresh curry leaves were probably my brightest idea, as they lend a delightfully peppery, smoky, South Indian influence. They are well worth hunting for.
Most credit is due to Saveur’s version, which had the brilliant idea of using macademia nuts. Some other versions include toasted coconut, star anise, cardamom pods, and Kaffir lime leaves, among other modifications. You can find all the ingredients listed below at any half-decent Asian/South Asian grocery store.
My first rendang tasted good but came out much more soupy than the versions I’d had in Indonesia. I realized my error was cooking the rendang at low heat for the entire four to six hours I let it go – it needs a period of reduction at higher heat to really get the caramelized flavor. The cooking technique, conveniently, helps to preserve the meat for long periods, and beef rendang tends to mellow pleasantly over the course of a few days. Make lots.
WHAT YOU NEED:
2 lbs beef. I used half beef spare ribs, and half chopped beef stew meat. Chicken will do nicely as well, although it will require less cooking time.
1 whole nutmeg, roughed up a bit in a mortar and pestle.
5 whole cloves.
3 chopped Thai chiles (green). Dried chiles work as well, or Mexican chiles.
5 chopped shallots.
1 tablespoon palm sugar. You can buy dried “cakes” of it at the Asian market, which can be simply thrown into the pot.
2 teaspoons tamarind pulp, moistened with water and zapped in the microwave for a minute.
5 macademia nuts.
3 cloves of garlic
Tablespoon of chopped fresh ginger
6 or 7 fresh curry leaves. Frozen works, too.
Minced lemongrass – roughly a tablespoon. If you can get whole lemongrass, trim a stalk, tie it into a knot, and throw it in for flavoring.
2 cinnamon stick, broken in half.
2 1/2 cups unsweetened coconut milk.
Salt and pepper at your own discretion.
Chop the cloves and nutmeg until fine in a food processor – and yes, you use the entire nutmeg. Add the shallots, Thai chiles, ginger, minced lemongrass, garlic, and macademia nuts to the food processor, and run it until you’ve got a nice paste.
Throw the paste in a skillet and sweat it for a couple of minutes at high heat, softening up the vegetables. If you’re using a big soup pot for this dish, which I advise, put some oil in the pot and begin to brown the beef on all sides as you are stirring the vegetables.
Put the softened vegetable paste into the pot with the beef. Add the coconut milk, which will ideally cover but not drown the meat. Put in the tamarind pulp, the palm sugar, and the fresh curry leaves. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low. Stir it, taste it, and modify it as you see fit.
Let it cook for at least 3 hours, preferably longer, ensuring the meat is very tender. After at least 3 hours have passed, raise the heat to a medium rolling boil. This will reduce the sauce. Let it rip for about 30 minutes, stirring every 4 or 5 minutes or so to ensure it doesn’t burn. (This is a good time to catch up on TV).
Once the sauce has reduced and taken on a dark appearance and a richly caramelized flavor, it’s ready to serve.
Garnish with curry leaves if you’d like. It was nice with eggplant sauteed with sweet soy sauce, and an Asian slaw.