In many countries, the best food comes from nondescript holes-in-the-wall that concentrate on one or two dishes. Instead of the Cheesecake Factory approach of creating a magazine-like menu offering something for everyone, these humble establishments focus on doing one thing right. In turn, the good ones become known far and wide for that one dish. Over time they may add one or two other dishes as a way to increase their appeal, but it's that one dish that draws people to them.
In any town you will find people with strong views on where to get the best soto ayam, rawon, gado gado, mie bakso, or rujak, dishes that are often eaten for lunch or a late breakfast. Warungs (food stalls) and rumah makans (the Indonesian equivalent of a diner) can make a name for themselves by doing one of these dishes right. It's not unusual to see businessmen who have pulled up in Mercedes eating at table with a family of four or five that has arrived on a scooter.
Rawon is one of those dishes that people will argue over. Essentially a beef soup, it is eaten with rice and garnished with young mung bean sprouts. It isn't commonly found on menus outside of Indonesia because its key ingredient, kluwek, is rarely found on market shelves. Besides being central to rawon, kluwek--a black, rounded seed that resembles a roughly triangular lump of tar or coal--is used in a some nonya dishes of the straits Chinese.
While my attempt at rawon tasted good, I don't think it compares with some of the rawon I've had in Java. Maybe when I go back next summer I'll find someone willing to share their secret to that perfect bowl. Until then, this was still very good, certainly worthy of a winter meal.
2 lbs beef brisket
4 kluwek, soaked in water at least one hour to soften
4 long red chilis
1 tsp terasi
8 shallots, chopped
2 tsp coriander, ground
1 inch fresh turmeric, or 1 tsp ground
3 slices of laos (galingale)
2 stalks of lemongrass, bottom half only, pounded
8 kaffir lime leaves, bruised
2 TBS oil
a one inch slice of tamarind paste, grilled to char on all sides
salt, to taste
Boil the brisket in 2 quarts of water with a little salt for one hour. Remove beef from water, reserving water. Cut the beef into 1/2 inch cubes.
In blender or mortar, process the kluwek, chilis, terasi, shallots, coriander and turmeric, adding water as needed from what the kluwek soaked in to make a smooth paste.
Fry the paste with the laos, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves in the oil for a minute or two. Add the diced beef, grilled tamarind paste and reserved water. Simmer for about an hour, until beef is tender. Remove the tamarind before serving. (I tie it up in a piece of cheese cloth to make this easier.)
Serve the rawon with hot rice, young mungbean sprouts, sambal terasi and krupuk ikan.
To make the mungbean sprouts, soak a cup of mungbeans in a bowl of water for ten minutes, then drain most of the water. Cover the bowl with a towel and place in a cabinet. Check in twelve hours to see if you need to add more water. Sprouts should be ready in a day or two.