I can’t really remember how I first came across this dish. I probably saw an image of it on Food Gawker or Tastespotting or Pinterest and added a version of it to my ever-expanding bookmarks tab. Then it inhabited my subconscious for a few months as a possible dinner I could make but never actually would, or something to bring up in conversation if anyone was talking about curries, mumbling something about coconut and lemongrass and, um, slow cooking.
If I’d done more research I could tell people how spices and aromatics are fried until fragrant then rolled around with some beef and drenched in coconut milk before being slowly stewed as the liquid evaporates and the beef surrenders to tenderness in a dark, sticky, fragrant paste. But I didn’t. I just mumbled.
Then Rick Stein mentioned it on TV around Christmas time and my interest was piqued again. He spoke about a curry dish which originated in Indonesia but was now common across Thailand, Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia. It might have been a show about using Christmas leftovers, though that wouldn’t explain why he was wandering around Asia holding excruciatingly awkward conversations with ‘fans’ who had evidently never heard of him before a TV crew showed up and offered to film them offering their adoration. Also ‘raw beef chuck’ isn’t normally a Christmas leftover. Actually, come to think of it, maybe it was Nigel Slater - whom I love unreservedly and wish was my Dad - who hosted the leftovers show.
Back to Rick’s rendang: He stood around shouting his commentary into a camera as a team of Malaysian cooks worked magic with spices and oil, and then recreated the dish in the comfort of his own studio kitchen. And his instructions, while useful, were peppered with the most awful phrase a television chef can possibly use: ‘available at all good supermarkets and delis.’ Which is really only useful only if you live in Central London and are available to go shopping for obscure ingredients within peak trading hours. His recipe calls for palm sugar, Keffir limes and their leaves, tamarind pulp, and galangal, amongst other things.
And as I can’t drive yet I can’t get to the nearby Sainsbury’s or Morrison’s, my local supermarket is an Asda Superstore, where there is an entire aisle dedicated to bacon but, unfortunately, a somewhat lacklustre selection of Asian spices. That’s no matter, because as I was consulting different versions of this recipe I found that there seems to be very little consensus over ingredients and so narrowed down the spice list to its most common denominators, making for a doable but not overly simplified version of this dish.
So in summary: a fairly large ingredients list which involves minimal preparation but a long cooking process. Luckily it yields maximum rewards and is even better on day two, if it lasts that long.
The basic idea is to create a ‘rempah’ – or spice paste – which contains all of the heat you’ll be adding to the dish and can be adjusted depending on your taste. I was cooking for a fairly spice-neutral crowd so we kept things simple with one fresh de-seeded red chili. This is blended up alongside some other good flavours and then heated in a large pot until fragrant, before the chunks of braising steak are added and lightly browned. With the meat sealed and the kitchen now smelling delicious, three cans of coconut milk and a squeeze of lime are added and allowed to cook very, very, very slowly until almost all of the liquid has evaporated and the meat has absorbed the flavours of its marinade.
I served mine with the freshest salad I could think of – just some cubed cucumber, celery and red onion in a simple lime dressing - and some basmati rice lightly scented with cardamom and cinnamon.
And it was good.
There’s a Malaysian cooking term, agak agak, which means to guess or estimate. And I strongly encourage that it be employed here. If we have a reasonable number of the correct ingredients, including all of the most important ones, we should be able to make something which tastes incredible - at least to a Western palette which can appreciate but does not fully understand the complex mingling of spices so ubiquitous in Asian cooking. At least this is my excuse for giving up on a hapless search for tamarind paste and forgetting to buy the coconut flakes for toasting and garnishing.
Yield: Serves 4 hungry people with leftovers for another hungry person at lunchtime
Time: 10 minutes prep and 2-3 hours slow cooking
Rempah (Spice Paste)
- 1 large red onion, roughly chopped
- 1 tablespoon (about 3-4 cloves) roughly chopped garlic
- 1 tablespoon (about 4cm) ginger, chopped
- 1 tablespoon (about 4cm) galangal, chopped *
- 1 lemongrass stalk, outer leaves removed and roughly chopped
- 1 red chili, seeds removed and roughly chopped **
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
*If you can’t find galangal, substitute another tablespoon of chopped fresh ginger.
** Add more to taste. One red chili, seeds removed, produces a very mild curry.
- 2 tablespoons sunflower oil ***
- 6 cardamom pods
- 2 star anise
- 1kg braising steak (beef chuck)
- 1 lemongrass stalk, bruised
- 3 x 400ml tins of coconut milk (I used one full-fat and two light)
- Juice and zest of one lime ****
- Salt, to season
*** Coconut oil, if you have it, would be great. But I don’t and it’s really expensive.
**** I used a lime because I couldn’t find tamarind pulp. If you can find it, add 2-3 tablespoons.
- Toasted coconut flakes
- Red chilli
- Lime wedges
For the Rempah
- Prepare ingredients: roughly chop a red onion, 3-4 cloves of garlic, hunks of ginger and galangal, and a stick of lemongrass. Also chop up some red chilies, deseeding if you’re a wimp. Afterwards wash your hands and do not put your fingers in your eyes (you’re likely already crying from the onion chopping, don’t exacerbate the problem). Add these ingredients to a food processor with a teaspoon of turmeric and two teaspoons of ground cinnamon and whiz until you have created a paste.
For the rendang
- In a really large wok, or just a big pot, add the sunflower/coconut oil until hot but not spitting. Add the spice paste and fry for about a minute, stirring continuously and allowing the kitchen to fill up with spicy aromas. Add the cardamom pods and star anise and continue to stir for another minute or so.
- Add the braising steak to the pot and stir to thoroughly coat in the paste until all sides are seared. Add a bruised stalk of lemongrass and three tins of coconut milk (other recipes used varying amounts of coconut milk, but my thinking went like this: more liquid = longer to slow cook = more tender. And it worked!). Don’t be disconcerted if the mixture looks a little green at this point – it’s very milky with the coconut milk and will darken as the liquid evaporates and you can deglaze the pot.
- Add 2-3 tablespoons of tamarind pulp, or, if unable to find, the zest and juice of one lime. Add a generous seasoning of salt. Bring the mixture to a boil and then reduce the heat to allow the dish to lightly simmer, uncovered, for 2-3 hours. You will need to stir occasionally to ensure the meat doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot.
- You will need to watch the dish more vigilantly as the coconut milk evaporates. The sauce should become very thick and the meat very tender, and is done when it has reduced to a sticky paste which coats and clings to the meat rather than a sauce, per se. If you want a completely dry rendang (this is a thing), continue to cook until the liquid has gone completely.
- 1 tablespoon sunflower oil
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 5 cardamom pods
- 375g basmati rice
- 900ml water
- Sea Salt
- 2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander
- Wash the rice thoroughly until the water runs clean. Angle the sieve on the sink to drip-dry while you prep a small pot for its arrival: add a tablespoon of oil and heat. Add the cinnamon stick and cardamom pods and fry for around a minute.
- Add the rice and fry for a further minute, stirring constantly, until the grains become an opaque white. Add the water and season. Bring to a boil and then let the rice bubble away until almost all of the water has disappeared.
- Put the lid back on the pot. Keep the heat on for 1-2 minutes – this will allow the remaining water to convert into steam. Allow to stand for five minutes without removing the lid. The rice will keep warm this way for about half an hour while you get everything else ready to serve.
- 1 cucumber, peeled (optional), cored and cubed
- 1/2 red onion, finely diced
- 2 sticks celery, chopped
- Juice of 1 lime
- Olive Oil
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh coriander
- Quarter a cucumber lengthways and then chop into chunks. I didn’t bother removing the skin or coring it but that is an option. Finely chop a red onion and two sticks of celery. Add all salad ingredients to a bowl. In a separate glass/ramekin, make the dressing: I squeezed the juice of a lime with two/three tablespoons of olive oil and some salt and pepper, mixed, and combined into the salad.
Drawing everything together
To serve, add the chopped coriander to the rice. Divide the rice into bowls and top with the rendang. Garnishes include fresh coriander, chilies for the spice fiends, some lime wedges to squeeze over the lot, and toasted coconut flakes if you have them handy (which I did not).