Of all iconic beef stews around the world, beef rendang is the one closest to my heart. I have lived in Indonesia for a few years, on the island of Sumatra (or should I say Sumatera?) where this dish has its origin as a way to preserve beef.
Heavy on the spices, traditional beef rendang is supposed to keep for days, without refrigeration, at tropical room temperatures. There are stories of mothers preparing the dish and sending it to their student children by post, with the instructions to reheat on arrival – and the dish arriving in a state suitable for human consumption. Most importantly, it’s delicious.
As the dish spread and gained popularity, it has been adopted and changed by many people and everyone cooks it in their own way. I, too, have cooked the dish many times – always aiming for the taste I remember, the taste that in my mind it should have. There is no such thing as the One True Authentic Recipe for this dish, but there are plenty of opinions about it. Just look up rendang recipes on the Internet, and you will find swathes of people having an opinion on what the dish is, and on what it isn’t. And there seems to be some sort of consensus amongst them; most importantly that beef rendang cooked by others is not the real thing (and surprisingly often, that is indeed the case).
What rendang isn’t: Avoiding mistakes in style
Before we move on to what beef rendang is, let’s get straight about what it isn’t.
First of all, rendang isn’t Malaysian food any more than a full English breakfast is Irish. Rendang has its origin in Minangkabau, Sumatra. Rendang isn’t Thai food, so do not use plum sauce, fish sauce or cilantro in there. Rendang isn’t Chinese food either – avoid the soy sauce, and you do want galangal root in there rather than just ginger.
The most renowned in Indonesia is Rendang Padang (Padang style rendang). And let’s set the record straight. Padang style rendang isn’t mild. Think 100 grams of dried chillipeppers per kilo of meat – 1 part per 10. Or perhaps you like it a bit hotter at 300 grams worth of chillies per kilo of meat? How much chilli heat is in there depends on one’s tolerance, but without peppers, rendang isn’t rendang. You’ll see recipes vary wildly in this regard, but even given the varying proportions, the peppers clearly bring more to the dish than mere heat – even when ignoring the heat factor, the character of the dish depends on having peppers in there.
Traditional rendang isn’t vegetarian – it’s best made with beef, which brings a fairly strong taste to the dish and managed to hold its own amongst the heavy spice mix. Yet, the spice mix plays such a prominent role in the dish that the beef is easily replaced by goat, chicken or pork – or indeed potato, mushrooms or young jackfruit – in which case, you can use a bit of yeast extract (marmite!) to give the broth a beefier flavour.
Traditional rendang isn’t a soup. If you’d describe the sauce as liquid, you have made a kari – which is nice, but you’re not done cooking yet.
Traditional rendang isn’t an Indian-style curry. If you have chunks of beef in a thick sauce that you could serve with a ladle, you have made a kalio – this too is nice, but you’re still not done cooking yet.
Traditional rendang isn’t burned, roasted or toasted. Completely dry or almost completely dry is fine, but you don’t want to develop a crust on the meat. At the end of the cooking process you want to go very, very slow. Occasionally you may need to add a bit of water and take your rendang back to kalio stage to prevent it from toasting. As you will have understood by now, rendang isn’t a dish to cook if you’re in a hurry. It takes quite a bit of time to get the meat tender and develop the flavour. Some recipes call for cooking it a few times, several mornings in a row, which helps gives it its coveted near-black appearance.
What rendang is
According to the Great Dictionary of the Indonesian Language, rendang is “meat which is curried with coconut milk until the sauce is altogether dry, what remains is only pieces of meat with their seasoning”. Even the Malaysian dictionary agrees – rendang, as a verb, is “cooking until dry with coconut milk”.
Next, let’s go through a list of ingredients commonly listed in rendang recipes.
The recommended cut is chuck (Indonesian: senkel, Dutch: Schenkel) – the front shoulder of the cow. I’ve found brisket to work well too. Cut it quite chunky – too small and it will fall apart too easily in the lengthy cooking process.
Any old industrially processed coconut will taste like coconut, but avoid dessicated coconut. Coconut cream blocks work. Tinned coconut cream works better. But proper old coconuts give the best flavour and range of textures for the dish. Old coconuts are the easiest kind to find in the West – the hairy kind, not labelled “young” is what you’re looking for. Not only are you likely to find old coconuts; some of them may even be past their prime. When buying coconuts, choose coconuts that feel heavy and slosh when you shake them. This is an indicator that they aren’t so old that they have dried out and gone soapy.
Most rendang recipes call for two or three coconuts per kilo of meat. I find two is plenty.
One of the three eyes of the coconut is soft. Puncture it with a kebab skewer and let the coconut water drip out. Hit the coconut with a hammer around its equator of the coconut until it cracks open. Remove the flesh and grate or put in a food processor and chop as small as it goes. Add a cup of boiling hot water. Squeeze out, separating the coconut solids from the coconut milk. Toast the coconut solids on low heat (or in the oven, 80°C/175°F) until completely dry. When you leave the coconut milk to stand, it will separate into the thicker coconut cream, which will float on top, and thinner coconut milk at the bottom.
For rendang, toast some of the dry coconut solids until light brown and fragrant; the resulting toasted coconut is called kerisik and gives the dish an additional layer of flavour and texture.
The kind of onion typically used in Indonesian cooking is the small, red shallot, and called “red onion” when translated literally from the Indonesian term “bawang merah”, and garlic, or “bawang putih”, which literally translates to “white onion”. The main thing to keep in mind here is the size and proportion of these ingredients. Indonesian red onions are just a bit bigger than a chunky clove or two of garlic. As long as proportion between onion and garlic is kept in mind, I find medium sized onions (approx. 100 grams) work reasonably well, red onion works a bit better – but for the most authentic results, I get my small red shallots at my local Asian supermarket.
Rendang recipes will use chillies – lots of them. If 300 grams mixed chillies per kilo of meat is too much for you, tone things down a bit so that your rendang experience matches that of the locals with a higher heat tolerance. Typically rendang uses lombok (your average long chilli pepper, which is relatively mild), cabe rawit (very hot birds-eye chillies) and cabe keriting (dried lombok).
Your heat tolerance is likely a bit lower than that of the natives. Don’t be tempted to leave out the chillies altogether. Just look at many there are in there; they will not only bring heat to the dish, but also lots of flavour. If you must tone things down, start by de-seeding the chillies, then change the blend to contain milder chillies. Worst case, use red bell peppers instead of chilli peppers. Without a good kick, it won’t be a proper rendang, in my book, but at least it will still be tasty.
An essential flavour in rendang. Do not leave out. Use whole seeds, toasted, about a tablespoon per kilo of meat.
Ginger / galangal (jahe / laos or lengkuas)
These are ALWAYS used together in rendang. Do not use powdered; either fresh or frozen ginger and galangal root will give a much more vibrant flavour. Galangal is a major flavour component of rendang, do not leave it out. If you use ginger only, this will be a guarantee that the dish won’t taste like the real thing. Crush the galangal before use.
Lemon grass (sereh)
Use 2 stalks of fresh lemon grass, crushed. Do not use powdered lemon grass, it’s pointless.
No tamarind (asam vs. asam kandis)
Rendang recipes might call for tamarind. Do you use tamarind in the pod, from a pressed block or syrup? The answer is neither. The Indonesian word for tamarind is “asam” which also means “sour”. The sour component of rendang however is often not “asam” but “asam kandis”, the seed of Garcinia xanthochymus, related to the mangosteen family. You may not be able to find this. In your local Indian supermarket, you may be able to find Garcinia indica by the name of kokkum, kokam or black mangosteen, which can be used as a substitute.
Khaffir lime leaf (daun jeruk purut)
Add a few khaffir lime leaves. They push your rendang towards that authentic flavour. If you can, use fresh or frozen rather than dried lime leaves, the difference is remarkable.
Bay leaf / salam
You’ll be forgiven for using bay leaf. It’s both a common substitute and a common translation for daun salam. They serve a similar purpose and even look alike. They are however not the same thing. Bay leaf (Laurus nobilis) has a flavour which reminds a bit of eucalyptus. Salam (Syzygium polyanthum), on the other hand, has a flavour which reminds a bit more of tea leaves.
Plenty of rendang recipes call for turmeric – both original Indonesian recipes and translations. There is one problem with turmeric: it prevents the dish from developing its trademark blackened colour. When in doubt, leave it out. However, turmeric also brings some flavour to the dish. Because of that, several authentic recipes call for turmeric leaf.
It is fairly unlikely you’ll be able to buy this at your Asian supermarket. It’s fairly likely, however, that you’ll be able to find fresh turmeric root. It looks a bit like a small ginger root, but with an egg yolk yellow hue.
If you keep it in water for a few hours a day for a few days in a row, you’ll see it start to sprout. Plant it and water it regularly; it likes a lot of sun and doesn’t mind the heat much. Within a few weeks your turmeric leaves should be ready to harvest.
Further spices and flavouring
Salt and pepper. Sure.
Further spices are optional and vary wildly from one recipe to another.
Jintan manis (“sweet cumin” – fennel seeds). Some call for star anise. I would recommend these.
Nutmeg and cinnamon. Opinions on these are divided. Are said to help darkening the dish, so I like adding a bit of both; a pinch of powdered cinnamon and half a grated nutmeg, added at the end of the cooking time.
Cardamom (kapulaga). Not a bad flavour but I associate this spice mostly with Indian cuisine. I tend to leave it out.
Coriander seed (ketumbar). Used in some recipes, not in others. I leave it out, it doesn’t seem right to me. If you must use it, toast about a tablespoon of whole seeds, then grind them up.
Cloves (cenkeh). Works for me, in moderation. Rather than adding whole cloves I add these ground.
Some recipes call for candle nut (kemiri). Perhaps unsurprisingly, I haven’t found this to add much to the flavour of the dish. It might provide some a subtle nuttiness, but it is entirely lost in a dish containing coconut cream, toasted coconut and lots of spices.
Sugar. Perhaps a teaspoon.
Terasi (fermented shrimp paste) – Not commonly found in traditional recipes; this seems to be added mainly in Dutch adaptations of the dish. Can help boost the savouryness (umami) of the dish without affecting the flavour too much but should probably be used sparingly, if at all.
That trademark dark colour
Say no to turmeric root (use turmeric leaf instead), but do add nutmeg and a pinch of cinnamon. Reheat as needed and cook over the course of several days. When drying too much, add a bit of water to allow re-reducing the sauce and darkening it further.
If you have any strong opinions on rendang, corrections or tips that will push my rendang even closer to the Real ThingTM, by all means let me know. I’ll be happy to hear about it!
For a veggie version, try mushrooms. Sprinkle them with salt, leave to stand for a while, then squeeze out the juices. Proceed as for beef. Add a teaspoon of marmite to approximate the beefy flavour more closely. If you forage, look for beef steak mushroom around August. Alternatively use potato, firm fried tofu (might fall apart) or jackfruit. I’ve found jackfruit to have a nice texture but it has trouble absorbing the flavours – try seasoning overnight and let me know how it went.
Cook-off speed tweak – Cut beef smaller than usual, puree a kiwi and mix. Leave standing overnight. Otherwise prepare as normal, but with less moisture and use coconut cream from a block instead of fresh coconut. Start off with cooking the beef from a cold pan. This should allow you to cut down your total active cooking time to under half an hour.