I had been planning to make some rendang for some time before I finally got around to it. As much as I hunger for it, I only make it four to six times a year. A quintessentially Indonesian dish--slow, incredibly rich yet unpretentious, spicy with a steady heat that sidles up to you--it's a dish that demands your time and attention. Essentially a stew that is simmered until almost all the liquid has been absorbed or cooked off, like many stews it seems even better the next day.
I first tasted rendang on a picnic in Java. I had only been in the country a few weeks when one of my students and her husband took me to Sarangan, a mountainous lake in Central Java. Vivi was originally from Solok, a small town near Padang in West Sumatra where rendang originated. The rendang that Vivi made was from beef and beef liver.
Liver is something I abhor. My gag reflex kicks in whenever I have to eat it. The first bite of rendang I had was simply beef. Then I got a piece of liver. Even rendang could not disguise that distinctive texture and taste of liver. However, the sauce was so luscious I didn't mind at all. Vivi had made a large batch (rendang is not a meal to cook for two) and I could have eaten all of it by myself. When they dropped me off at my room later that evening, Vivi and her husband gave me a pint or more of leftovers (half of which I ate as soon as I was alone). The rest I ate the next morning, cold, and it was still phenomenal.
Several years later, I got the chance to visit Padang, and even made it to Solok where I met Vivi's mother. Padang was a quiet, unassuming city, much quieter and more sparsely populated than cities in Java. It was a wonderful city to visit, one I hope to return to again some day.
The recent earthquake there apparently caused extensive damage. At least 3,000 people died as a direct result of the quake. People who had little were left with nothing. It is hard for us in the United States, especially those who have never been in developing countries, to appreciate how so many who have so little can face such devastation. The disasters attract our attention and sympathy for a minute but then we're distracted by the next bit of fluff, a shiny ballon drifting over a desert, or the pop star du jour's latest meltdown. We can't bring ourselves to acknowledge that but for the luck of being born where we were, we too could be facing such loss.
In the face of such disasters and poverty and children dying for want of clean water or mosquito netting, it seems almost obscene to be blogging about food. I don't know quite how to reconcile my feelings about this dichotomy. I have put in some time volunteering to help people less well off than I, but is that enough? What's the point of sharing recipes? Perhaps people tasting the food of a country will take a moment to think of the people in that country. Perhaps it's just a selfish act. I don't know. Any ideas or feedback is certainly welcome. In the meantime, here's Vivi's recipe for rendang.
A printable version of the recipe is available here.
3 pounds chuck roast cut into 2 inch cubes
2 15 oz cans coconut milk
2 cups water
1/4 to 1/3 cup finely chopped or ground red chilies (can use sambal oelek if fresh hot red chilies aren’t available)
1 head of garlic (about 50 grams), coarsely chopped
6--8 shallots (about 150 grams), coarsely chopped
5 kemiri (candle nuts)
1 tsp coriander seeds, ground
1/2 a nut of nutmeg, ground
5 cloves, ground
1 two-inch finger of turmeric, peeled and chopped (2 tsp ground turmeric)
3 thumbs of ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 thumb of laos (galingale) peeled and sliced
1 tsp kosher salt
3 daun salam
6 kaffir lime leaves
2 stalks of lemongrass, bruised with a pestle
Pulse the chilies, shallots, garlic, spices and salt in a food processor until you have a somewhat smooth paste.
In a dutch oven or similar pot, mix beef and spice paste. Add coconut milk, water, salam and kaffir lime leaves, and lemongrass and bring to a boil over medium heat. Lower the heat to maintain a steady simmer and stir every fifteen minutes or so. Open a beer, or the beverage of your choice, turn on some good music and relax. Like good barbecue, the secret to good rendang is cooking it low and slow. You can’t rush it.
James Oseland, in his excellent book Cradle of Flavor, recommends using a shallow, wide pan to cook rendang to speed up the evaporation process. I disagree for two reasons. One, I think you just need to give it the time it needs. Two, as you get near the end the oils tend to sputter and pop; with a shallow pan you will find your kitchen spattered with turmeric freckles.
As the liquid reduces you need to reduce the heat and stir more often. The rendang is done when the sauce has been reduced to a thick paste and is a chocolate brown.
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