The dish’s first record of existence was in 1550 but chances are, it’s been around for much longer. The Minangkabau community of Western Sumatra, where the dish originates holds it in high regard. So high in fact, that each ingredient symbolises one social class.
To do this, the dish has to be slow-braised from a pale yellow stew into a luscious gravy the deep brown hue of cocoa. In between, the potent mixture bubbles, breathes and lets out an intoxicating aroma that fills the entire house. And then, as the coconut milk matures, it transforms into coconut oil and the gravy dries.
It seems to call out to you: “I am ready.”
You lower a spoon for a taste and the first bite feels like the heavens have opened to a Beethoven chorus. The meat is fork-tender yet juicy, and the spice paste is a medley of sweet and spicy with a massive kick of umami.
Flavour aside, the dish is also practical. This method of cooking allows the meat to be preserved for days. When you’re traversing the islands of Southeast Asia on ancient trade routes, food longevity is not some airy-fairy notion of grandeur. It keeps one alive.
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“It makes the ingredients finer,” she would say.
These days though, robbed of the luxury of time (and patience), I’ve skipped all these steps, except for cooking over charcoal. Grated coconut can be bought and ingredients can be chucked into a blender but that smoked flavour can never be replicated. Traditionalists would baulk, but it’s the only way one can relish the dish’s authenticity without dying of exhaustion, or resorting to buying a disappointing version from a nearby eatery.
Because here’s a shocker: Unless the stall or restaurant you’re ordering from takes the time to go through these steps, most that’s available commercially isn’t actually rendang. It hasn’t been simmered long enough and lacks that caramelisation to give a deep, smoky complexity. The taste of this form of ‘rendang’ is in fact, so different, it goes by another name: Kailo.
If you’re short on time, this could be the version you can still enjoy, but if you ask me, the best way to enjoy it is in its true form – as the harmonious whole of nature’s gifts. Here’s the recipe.
Recipe for Rendang (Lamb, Mutton, Beef):
500 grams of meat (beef/mutton/lamb)
4 cups of coconut milk
2 tbsp Gula Melaka, and to taste
Salt to taste
1 cup grated coconut
Rempah (Spice paste)
2 cloves of garlic
1 inch of ginger
1 inch of galangal
1 inch of fresh turmeric
3 stalks of lemongrass
5 chillies, sliced
3 pieces of candlenut
3 tbsp water
Spices and Fresh herbs
1 cinnamon stick
3 cardamom pods
½ tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp coriander seeds
5 kaffir lime leaves (finely sliced)
4 Turmeric leaves
1. Make the kerisik. Toast the 1 cup of grated coconut on a hot pan without oil. Stir constantly to avoid burning.
2. Once browned and crispy, place in a mortar and pestle and pound. Do not use a blender as it will not turn the toasted coconut shavings into powder. Set aside.
3. Make the rempah (spice paste). Toss all the ingredients into the blender and blend until pureed. Add water 1 tablespoon at a time if the ingredients do not combine.
4. Heat ghee in the pot and add cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, cumin and coriander.
5. Add the spice paste and two tablespoons of kerisik. Let it simmer for 15 minutes. Once cooked, add in the chunks of meet and mix well.
6. Add the coconut milk followed by kaffir lime leaves, turmeric leaves, gula melaka and salt. Cover partially and let it simmer over low heat for an hour.
7. If it’s still wet at this point, you have kailo. It’s ready to serve as it is, but keep going if you want true rendang. This process can take anywhere from 30 mins to an hour more depending on how long it takes for the meat to soften.
8. If you find that the rendang is getting too dry but the meat is still tough, add water and let it simmer until it dries down again.
9. Rendang is done when the beef has softened considerably, the gravy is dry and a deep brown in colour.