Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Rendang: A Cook's Journey

That's not rendang! One of my homemade pizzas:
Slightly charred crust, real pepperoni that's just crisp
around the edges, plenty of cheese... ahhh...
As anyone who knows me can attest, food is one of my great passions. I routinely and regularly make flatbread pizzas here, and have even reverted to making regular pizzas, too (making the dough from scratch, as I always did back in Colorado). I'm planning on getting a baking stone on my trip back home for Christmas so I can really do some proper pizzas in my little countertop oven. In the meantime, though, this is typical of the sort of pizza I usually make. Very rustic. Very tasty.

A good pizza is always going to be a big hit with me, but one of my favorite regional dishes to make and to eat is rendang. I've yet to meet any local here who doesn't respond very favorably to the mere mention of this word. And it's easy to understand why: Not only is this dish usually reserved for holidays and special occasions in many parts of Indonesia and Malaysia, it's a sumptuously flavorful way to prepare meat. In fact, I just learned that in a 2011 poll of 35,000 people by CNN International, rendang was chosen as the number one dish for the "World's 50 Most Delicious Foods" list (click to read the list... it's fascinating)! You can use almost anything for a good rendang... chicken, lamb, beef, duck, even water buffalo. The meat is just the carrier for the flavor that comes from a blend of fresh spices and a rather unique method of preparation.

I've actually made this dish a few times before, but never since moving here, which is odd. Here in KL, you can find hastily prepared rendang scooped alongside a serving of nasi lemak, but no one would pretend that such rendang is really in the same league with one that's been made by a local home cook in a traditional village. To put it mildly, rendang is a labor of love... it's a tiring and time-consuming dish, both to prepare and to actually cook. However, one of my friends recently gave me a nice mortar and pestle, so I figured I should break it in with an auspicious dish, and rendang definitely qualifies.

Starting to pound the spices
The recipe I use is from West Sumatra, Indonesia (where rendang originated among the Minangkabau people), uses beef, and absolutely drips with complex flavors. Pounding out a good spice paste to start with is a key step in the preparation. I use a laundry list of spices and aromatics: whole nutmegs, cloves, ginger, shallots, turmeric, garlic, galangal, candlenuts, red chilies, lemongrass, daun salam (the closest we have in Western cooking is bay leaves), cinnamon sticks, and Kaffir lime leaves. Most of these ingredients are pounded in a mortar until a loose, wet, yellow-orange paste is formed... this is the tiring part. You can use a food processor (and I have before), but I wanted to make this one the traditional way. The aromatics (the last four ingredients) are thrown in whole.

And here it is after a LOT of pounding and mashing

I got lucky... when I was shopping for the ingredients, Australian beef (and just the cut I wanted, no less) was on sale for RM26.90 per kilo. To put that in American perspective, it's about $3.80 per pound. Not really cheap, but good beef never is... and saving RM9.00 per kilo was a great thing.

Not as richly marbled as is ideal for this dish,
but still some pretty nice cuts of Aussie beef

So I cut the beef into large pieces and threw them in the pan with the spice paste, then added two cups of coconut milk and the aromatics and started cooking. You can imagine the intense smell at this point!

Mixing the spice paste in with the beef chunks

Adding the aromatics... lemongrass, cinnamon,
Kaffir lime leaves, and daun salam... Note the
coconut milk in the upper right, waiting to be added

This is after about an hour and 15 minutes of cooking
Then began the waiting. I said rendang was a time-consuming dish, and a lot of that is the cooking process. In Western cooking, we have a two-step process called braising whereby a meat is seared at high temperature, then simmered in a liquid. Rendang is cooked in the opposite way. It's first simmered in a liquid (the coconut milk and spice paste) until all the liquid in the coconut milk reduces and, finally, evaporates completely, at which point the meat is "pan-fried" in the fats rendered from the coconut and the meat itself. You can probably get an idea now of why rendang is so redolent with complex flavors. However, the whole process can take hours. Since I was making a relatively small batch (only about 650g of meat -- a bit less than 1.5 pounds), it only took two hours for the liquid to fully cook off. I made a big batch back in Colorado once for a dinner party for 20-25 people and it took over eight hours to cook! 

Garnished with thin-sliced cili merah and
shreds of Kaffir lime leaves
And here's the final product. I had some friends over and served this with mounds of fluffy hot rice that I steamed with coconut milk, lemongrass, a bit of sliced ginger, and a couple of torn Kaffir lime leaves. Outstanding... the rendang came out pretty spicy and delicious, and there was even some left over, which is great. Like plenty of home-cooked dishes, rendang is even better the next day, as the many complex flavors have had time to develop and meld together.

Sorry if this entry made anyone hungry... never a great idea to view my blog on an empty stomach!

Until next time...


barbmerchant said...

yummy ...I had NO idea it took that long to do rendang. A labor of love for sure!

bTW speaking of pizzas...I ate at Frank the Pizza King today with my Cancer Thriving and Surviving class...today was the last class meeting for the 7 participants and we decided to go out for lunch. I suggested Franks' and no one had eaten there but one guy...so we went and they LOVED it of course. We should go when you are home at Christmas!!

Thanks for the post and the great food photos! I have missed them!

Brian said...

the slow process of cooking the rendang actually allows for you to use cheaper parts of the cow. But i am totally impressed. Even as a South-East Asian myself, i do not particularly pride myself on cooking such a dish as it may look simple but when it comes to spice pastes, its all about the skill of balancing the spices which can only be acquired through years of experience for which no recipe in a book would do any justice.
Still, Bravo Chad! looking forward to learning a trick or two in the kitchen with you! =p

KrisKan said...

Really enjoyed the afternoon reading your posts. It's like a storybook about my home from a different POV.