When we were all a little younger than we are now (i.e., college-aged), it seemed that everyone fell into two camps on the subject of New Year’s resolutions. We were ardent believers, list-makers, inquisitive interrogators (“what are your New Year’s resolutions?”). Or we were hardened cynics. New Year’s resolution haters. I have to confess I fell more into the first category. I was extremely anxious if I hadn’t identified my New Year’s resolutions by Christmas, and I took them very seriously. The problem is: the day after one of the most dedicated partying nights of the year is not the best time for personal fortitude. Nor was it possible (for me, anyway) to rectify personality defects by sheer force of will. By mid-February, if I made it that far, like almost everyone else I invariably had broken my resolutions.
Now that we are older and the gloss of our idealistic zeal has been tarnished by years of hard living, the best that most of us can manage is a dry January. That is why I propose that we take a leaf from the book of that lofty body the United Nations, and adopt the more gentle practice of making non-binding New Year’s resolutions. The high-minded sentiment is there, without the guilt.
This year, I have made a couple of non-binding blog-related resolutions. They are rather earnest. I will do my best to keep them, but don’t castigate me if I don’t.
- I will cook other people’s food. I resolve to make a concerted effort to actually cook recipes written by my favorite bloggers, instead of merely saying I will.
- I will push my boundaries. I resolve to challenge myself by cooking unfamiliar foods, using new ingredients, and occasionally failing spectacularly. Hopefully this means that I will be posting new and interesting recipes that you haven’t seen a million times before on the internet.
That’s it, although I’d also like to get really good at this food photography thing, with which I still struggle.
Which brings me to rendang, a dish I’ve wanted to cook properly for at least a year or more. Rendang is a gorgeous curry that originated in Indonesia, although it is now made in Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and southern Thailand. It is traditionally prepared with beef, which is slowly cooked with coconut milk and a variety of spices and aromatics – lemongrass, garlic, shallots, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, star anise, tamarind, cinnamon, cardamom, and chillies, to name a few – until the liquid mostly or entirely evaporates, the meat fries in the rendered fat, and becomes saturated with flavor and coated with spices. A rendang which has been reduced like this is a dry rendang. (The hilariously biased Wikipedia post on rendang makes the case that this is the true rendang and “the most delicious version … quite different than rendang from other Malay realm.”)
Before I set out to create this dish, I probably read 40 recipes for rendang, although none quite so closely as the venison and ox cheek rendang created by captivating Singaporean cook and blogger Shuhan Lee. I owe her a debt of gratitude, even though I’ve modified her recipe. (As she says, a lot of Asian cooking is “agak agak” so I’m sure she’ll applaud my going off-piste, as it were.)
There are, essentially, three stages to a rendang. First there is the spice paste, which is fried over high heat, seasoning the pot and creating the foundation for the dish. Then meat and coconut milk and other seasonings are added and cooked, very slowly, until the sugars caramelize, and the sauce gradually turns from gold to brown to brownish-black. In Malaysia and Singapore at least, a few hours into the cooking, toasted coconut is stirred in. Then the dish goes through a final stage of reducing. It is as delicious as it sounds. I recommend that you do what I did: prepare your rendang a couple of days before you plan to serve it, stopping right before the final stage. On the day that you intend to serve it, reduce it to your desired consistency. Rendang, like most stews, is a dish that benefits if the spices and the meat have time to sit around and get to know one another.
If you can find them, use beef stewing cuts that are still on the bone, such as shin; failing that, throw a couple of beef bones into the pot for flavor. One final thing: at the last minute, I did something very naughty and utterly unconventional, and threw a couple of pork cheeks that were in my freezer into my pot. HARAM. I will burn in a fiery hell! But it was quite spectacular how the pork fell apart and clung to the meaty chunks of beef. I hasten to say that I do not necessarily recommend that you compromise your authenticity in this way. I’m just telling you what I did.
For the spice paste:
3-4 cm (about two inches) galangal, peeled and cut into chunks
2-3 cm (about an inch) ginger, peeled and cut into chunks
2 cm (about an inch) fresh turmeric, peeled (If you can’t find fresh, substitute about a teaspoon of turmeric powder)
120 grams (about ¼ pound) of shallots (two large), peeled and cut into chunks
One small bulb of garlic, cloves peeled and cut into chunks
About 8-10 hot red chillies, seeded
2-3 lemongrass stalks (just the white part, cut into chunks; discard the coarse outer layer and tough green part)
For the pot:
3-4 tbsp coconut oil
6-7 green cardamom pods
1 black cardamom pod
3 tablespoons tamarind concentrate, or tamarind pulp, softened in water and strained
5-6 whole star anise
1 cinnamon stick
1 kg (2.2 pounds) stewing beef, on the bone if possible, and cut into bite-sized chunks, or 1 kg of stewing beef and a few beef bones
2 pork cheeks (totally optional)
50 g (about two ounces, or ¼ cup) palm sugar or unrefined sugar
2 lemongrass stalks, coarse outer layer and green part removed, white part cut into finger length pieces
3-4 cm (about an inch and a half) galangal, peeled and thinly sliced
400 ml coconut milk
½ cup water
1 tbsp salt, plus more to taste (it sounds like a lot, but you need the salt to balance the flavors)
1/3 cup dessicated coconut, toasted in a pan until it is golden
10-15 kaffir lime leaves
Fresh coriander (to garnish)
Combine the ingredients for the spice paste in a mortar and pestle and pound to a fine paste, or process to a paste in a food processor. Heat the coconut oil in a large heavy-bottomed stewing pot or casserole dish until it is very hot. Stir in the spice paste and cook, stirring constantly, until it is brown and aromatic. Add the two types of cardamom, cloves, star anise, cinnamon stick, and the meat, and toss with the spice paste over medium high heat until the meat has started to color, about four or five minutes. (Use additional coconut oil if the meat is sticking to the pan.) Add the water, coconut milk, tamarind, lemongrass, galangal, and sugar, and cook until the mixture has started to bubble. Stir in the salt, reduce heat to a low simmer, and cover the pot.
Cook for about three hours, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking at the bottom of the pan, until the meat is soft. Stir in the toasted coconut and lime leaves and continue to simmer, uncovered this time, until the sauce is very dark brown. You will need to scrape the bottom of the pan frequently at this point with a wooden spoon, although do so with care so as to keep the meat from disintegrating.
At this stage, you can – if you wish – chill or even freeze your rendang until you want to serve it. Or you can keep on cooking. Either way, for the final stage, reduce the rendang over low heat (at least another hour of cooking) until the sauce is very dark brown and thick. If you wish, you can continue to cook until the sauce has evaporated completely. Or not.
Congratulations! You did it. Serve with rice, sprinkled with fresh coriander, with sliced cucumber on the side. I also served this with a coriander chutney and a chilli-garlic hot sauce, but this again is completely up to you.
Makes about 6 servings.