Beef rendang is (understandably) a dish loved by many – after all, it’s hard not to love tender chunks of beef cooked slowly in a collection of spices, herbs and coconut milk until full of flavour.
Rendang is usually prepared as a celebration dish or for a special occasion. It takes a fair bit of time to make, as it is braised slowly to reduce the liquid component to practically nothing until the final dish browns and caramelises in the oils released by the meat and coconut milk.
The consensus is that rendang originated in Indonesia, specifically West Sumatra, though it has been adopted by neighbouring counties in the region, most notably Malaysia. [Trawling around the internet for rendang information has also provided an interesting sideline in people fiercely defending their connections to the dish, with people getting serious enough to suggest filing a patent].
As a result, a quick search online will show you a ton of recipes for rendang, and these vary as much as the people who cook it. So what should we consider to be the foundation of a good rendang? Again, this will be open to interpretation, but here’s mine, based on no authority whatsoever except as provided by my tastebuds…
As suggested by the post title, I’ve deviated here in terms of the cooking method, opting to cook the whole thing in the oven rather than on the stove. By opting for a large non-stick roasting pan, it can do its thing for most of the cooking time with minimal fussing, and the larger exposed surface area allows liquid to evaporate more rapidly. Plus by using a non-stick pan, you minimize the problem of burning and sticking in the final frying stage.
It is usually agreed that rendang should be be pretty much dry, which immediately distinguishes it from other curries with a sauce or “gravy”. And I mean pretty dry, with very little to no liquid component left in the final offering. And I don’t think there’s any argument that the liquid part will always be coconut milk.
You’ll find different combinations of spices and aromatics – some recipes might use both, others leave out spice in favour of aromatics. All will feature chilies with some element of fresh aromatics like tumeric, galanagal or lemongrass to create the base of the rendang’s flavour.
To me, rendang should be rich and complex, hence to achieve that I use a combination of ground and whole spices with a range of aromatics. I also like to make sure my rendang has a good balance of hot, sour, sweet and salty, so I add palm sugar (the dark variety) and tamarind for sweet and sour, and soy and fish sauce for extra umami-ness and salt content.
One element that does vary a bit more is the addition of toasted shredded coconut, called kerisik. It appears to be more common in Malay-style preparations, but I could well be wrong. The toasted coconut is added a little later in the cooking process, and both helps as a thickener and imparts a deep, toasted note.
I did a little bit of testing on a couple of areas, namely what difference it makes to A: fry the spice mix off beforehand, and B: add the kerisik.
Basically, adding kerisik provides a greater depth of flavour and extra toastiness as mentioned earlier. Frying the spice paste has less of an overall impact, but as you’d expect the caramelisation from the frying helps to round everything out.
On the other hand, going with a non-fried paste and no kerisik delivers a lighter almost zingier result, presumably allowing the more delicate aromas to shine through. So some food for thought there – you may wish to experiment a little with this aspect if you wish.
So finally, here’s the recipe! It makes a lot, but you might as well do a big batch if you’re going to spend a few hours doing it. And just as well you’re going to be making a big batch, because it will taste even better the next day!