Beef rendang is a classic Indonesian dish where you slow cook beef is a mix of spices and coconut milk. The result is incredibly tender meat, packed with flavor. Yes it takes some time, but it's mainly hands off and most definitely worth the wait.
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While I grew up learning to appreciate different herbs and spices, their uses tended to be either more European or Indian influenced. It wasn't until I was in my teens that both my parents and I tried Thai food and started to appreciate the different flavors in that and other South East Asian cuisines.
Over the years, I have been lucky enough to travel to the region a few times, although there are still many more places I would love to visit. Some I have more learnt to explore through restaurants and at home, for now.
Indonesian food is in that category for now. Though thankfully our time in Australia at least gave us a bit more exposure to the food and culture. I quickly grew to love the cuisine's flavors, with wonderful aromatics and lots of vegetables (urap sayur is a great example). This classic dish maybe doesn't have the veg, but it's packed with wonderfully delicious Indonesian flavors.
Where is rendang from?
Rendang is generally traced back to 16th century West Sumatra. It was created by the Minang people and is actually more about the cooking process than an exact list of ingredients. Meat is slow cooked in a mix of coconut and spices until it becomes tender and the texture is quite dry.
The end result, if cooked properly, actually preserves the meat very well and so the method became popular before refrigeration. And the delicious flavor has made it a firm favorite in many places as well.
The Minang people migrated to various places around the region which is why you find the dish in Malaysia, Singapore and elsewhere, as well as Indonesia.
Most typically, rendang is made with beef or sometimes water buffalo. You can use other meats as well as vegetables as the base, though some may not be cooked quite as long.
What's the difference between Indonesian and Malaysian rendang?
Unlike some dishes, the answer to this question is not all that straightforward. For one thing, you will find many variations within the countries as well as between them.
Malaysian versions more typically use brown sugar rather than coconut sugar or just relying on the sweetness in the coconut milk after a long cook. The spices can also have more that might be thought of as Indian-influenced. Though the spices can vary in all versions.
One main difference, though, is that 'dry' rendang is less common in Malaysia. You could argue this is what rendang truly is, at least traditionally. It's where the coconut milk cooks down so the oils release and the liquid is almost all gone.
In Malaysia, you are more likely to find the 'wet' version which is more of a red-brown color and has more sauce. This is mainly because you cook it for less time. Sometimes this style or stage goes by the name 'kalio'.
The version I'm sharing here is based mainly on Indonesian versions so it's a little drier and takes a while to cook. I've drawn on a few recipes in creating this take, including this What to Cook Today recipe and this Singaporean and Malaysian Recipes recipe.
In the pictures above, you see the initial cooking then the mixture after around 30 minutes then 2 hours when the oils are separating, but it needs a little more to get the wonderful tenderness in the meat and dry, dark sauce,
But as I mention above, it's largely hands off cooking. You just need to check it now and then but otherwise leave it to it. The wonderful smell as it cooks can be very tempting, but try to be patient!
You might find some of the ingredients a little less common, but you should be able to find all in any Asian supermarket. Below are some points to keep in mind.
- Beef - not that this is unusual, but more a note on what to get. The meat should be boneless and relatively lean but you don't want to waste a prime cut. Boneless rib, chuck or shank are all good choices.
- Makrut lime leaves (also sometimes called kaffir lime leaves) are the leaves from a variety of lime and have a wonderful citrus aroma. Look for fresh ones in the chilled produce area rather than using dried leaves. If you can't find them, a little lime zest could work as an alternative though it's not quite the same.
- Galangal - this is a relative of ginger and looks quite similar. It's a bit sharper and more peppery, while ginger has a little sweetness, so it's worth having both in this. If you can't find it, however, increase the ginger quantity a little.
- Lemongrass - while I use ready-minced lemongrass for ease in some other dishes, here I think it's worth using a fresh stalk if possible. They are pretty widely available these days in the chilled produce section.
- Star anise - these are a star-shaped spice, hence the name. It's one of the distinguishing flavors in Chinese five spice. Here you want to use the whole spice to help infuse the gravy.
- Coconut milk - this is widely available these days, but it's such a key ingredient here you want to use a good one. If you can find a Thai brand then that may be your best bet. Make sure you use an unsweetened one and not light/lite.
Beef rendang is an Indonesian favorite, and it's easy to understand why. It's packed with spice and depth of flavor, the meat is tender and melts in your mouth. Yes, you need to wait a little while to enjoy it, but it's largely hands off cooking. And believe me, it's worth the wait.
Try these other spicy meals:
- Goan fish curry
- Pineapple shrimp curry (Nyonya-style)
- Thai red curry
- Plus get more main dishes and Southeast Asian recipes in the archives.
For spice paste
- 2 shallots (2 shallots is approx ⅓ cup once diced)
- 2 cloves garlic (2 cloves is approx 1 ½tbsp chopped)
- 1 tablespoon chopped ginger (fresh) approx ½in/1.5cm piece
- 1 ½ tablespoon chopped galangal (fresh) approx ½in/1.5cm piece
- 1 stick lemongrass white part only, approx 2tbsp chopped
- 4 dry red chilis eg arbol chili or you can use cayenne
- ¼ teaspoon turmeric
For rest of dish
- 1 lb boneless beef rib or chuck/shank
- 1 tablespoon coconut oil
- ¾ cup coconut milk
- ½ tablespoon tamarind paste/pulp softened in double amount of hot water then strained, or use 1tsp tamarind concentrate + 1tsp water for ½tbsp non-concentrated paste
- 2 cloves
- 2 makrut lime leaves (or 3 if smaller)
- ½ cinnamon stick
- 1 star anise
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon coconut sugar or brown sugar
- ¼ cup desiccated coconut (see note)
- Roughly chop the spice paste ingredients - shallots, garlic, ginger, galangal and lemongrass and add all to a small food processor/blender. (Depending on how strong your processor/blender is you may want to -pre-chop more or less.) Add the dry chilis and turmeric and blend everything together into a paste. If needed, scrape down the sides and blend again. It may not be completely smooth, but you want to avoid having large chunks.
- Dice the beef into medium chunks, around 1in/2.5cm dice.
- Warm the coconut oil in a medium pot over a medium heat. Add the spice paste and cook, stirring now and then, for around 5 minutes until the paste is fragrant.
- Add the pieces of beef and cook a minute or two to gently brown the meat (you just want more of a gentle color rather than a strong sear).
- Add the coconut milk, tamarind paste and the other spices - cloves, lime leaves, cinnamon stick and star anise - as well as the salt and coconut sugar. (You can also add the green part of the lemongrass stem, if you like.) Stir so that everything is well combined then cover and bring the pot to a simmer.
- Reduce the heat to a very low simmer. After around 1 ½ - 2 hours you will see the oils separate and rise to the top with a brown gravy underneath. At this point, remove the lid and increase heat slightly, if needed, to keep the mixture at a simmer.
- Continue to cook until the coconut milk has largely evaporated and reduced to just a slight oiliness and the darkened paste, about another hour. Be sure to check on it now and then as it is cooking and stir a little to try to avoid it cooking too much on one side. Remove the whole spices from the mixture, scraping back any sauce that is stuck to them into the pot.
- As the meat is cooking, gently toast the desiccated coconut either under the broiler/grill or in a dry skillet until gently brown. Add this to the meat mixture once the liquid is reduced to oiliness and mix in, then serve over rice.
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