Making Makan: The Rendang Diaries

Degree of difficulty:   MEDIUM TO HIGH. 

The cooking process is time-consuming, but – as The Firm’s Banking & Finance partners used to reassure juniors about esoteric finance law – there’s no magic to it. 

Individual steps are simple.  It’s just that there are many steps.

Will do again?  YES.

Methodically working through the steps is oddly relaxing.

I put aside a chunk of time and get uplifting music or an uncomplicated movie going.  See, it’s not too tricky if one can fit in a movie while cooking this.  

Tip

Cook heaps and freeze.  You’ll thank yourself when you effortlessly pull an ambrosial dish out of the freezer.

*Long post coming up.  Have a seat.*

“IT’S THE REAL DEAL!”

…said the recipient of my beef rendang.  I was gratified.  By night, this guy sniffs out authentic Malaysian fare like Julia Gillard sniffs out misogynists.  By day, he is a builder – experienced, resourceful and ethical.

Because of this comment, The Real Deal is now a key pillar of all FITK events.  If I find an eatery serving food that is authentically prepared and tastes great – bing! – it’s The Real Deal.  That spells automatic inclusion in my FITK shortlist.

MY FIRST RENDANG

Other people reminisce about their first kiss.  Alright, so I’m different (cue hands fluttering around face…what, you haven’t seen Fantastic Mr Fox with George Clooney and Meryl Streep?).

I made my first rendang after inviting the owners of Spinoza the dog to my place for a Lucky Raw Fish Salad (yu-sheng) party.  Everybody was going to help make the yu-sheng (now that’s another multi-ingredient, multi-step dish).

Now, Spinoza’s owners are a family of exceptional cooking skills and sophisticated tastebuds.  Case in point: when else would a blase-looking chap say, “Oh, Dad’s making honeycomb…again”?  He sure wasn’t making it by scraping the chocolate off a Violet Crumble bar.  He used glucose, sugar, water, baking soda and His Bare Hands (as my 7-year-old son said, reverentially).  Spectacular kitchen theatre.

 

Seeing as it’s inhospitable to serve just salad for lunch, the yu-sheng was followed by a mainly Southeast Asian meal of:

  • beef rendang,
  • som tum (Thai green papaya salad, now a breeze to make with pet gadget Kom Kom),
  • MOTH’s charmingly named sambal prawn with stink bean (petai),
  • MOTH’s guaranteed crowd-pleaser tamarind chicken, and
  • crisp-skinned, salty roast pork belly from the best Chinese barbeque shop in Burwood…and some say Sydney.

Spruik alert:  Three of the above dishes are available from eateries featured in FITK’s events.

Our shredder collection.
~ Orange Kom Kom is perfect for long strips of green papaya.
~ White one is deadly sharp. Finely shreds juicier items like cucumbers and yam beans.

LIKE QANTAS PLANES, EVERY RENDANG IS SUBTLY DIFFERENT.

Like spag bol, kimchi or curry, countless rendang recipes exist.  Rendang is a spiced meat dish that uses beef or, less commonly, chicken.  Note that chicken rendang is a proper dish in itself, and isn’t the poor cousin of beef rendang.

Different versions of rendang are found in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
– Some recipes contain dry spices and use kerisik (toasted coconut) to thicken the sauce.
– Others omit those components and just use fresh aromatics, thickening the sauce by boiling off coconut milk.

Rendang is one of those dishes that’s deceivingly complicated.  Unlike a cryptic crossword, you don’t need special techniques to make rendang.  Gather your ingredients, follow the preparation and cooking steps methodically, and voila, you’re on your way to mealtime applause.

The beef rendang featured here calls for:

The use of dried spices and kerisik gives it a Peranakan bent.

I divided it into 3 preparation stages and 3 cooking stages.

Prep stage #1:  Toast and grind dried spices.

Prep stage #2: Chop and grind aromatics.  I wore gloves so that I could handle the turmeric and chillies with gay abandon without fear of stain or pain.  Incidentally, did you know turmeric is a precursor to Banana Boat?  It is traditionally made into a paste with water and used as sunscreen.  Just like a fake tan, it also imparts an orange tinge!

Prep stage #3:  Marinate meat in spices and aromatics.

Cooking stage #1:  Make kerisik.  

The aim is to dry fry grated coconut til it turns a nutty, sweet-smelling light brown.  The question is, does one start with:
~ desiccated coconut from the supermarket, or
~ grated fresh coconut?

I’ve tried both. Desiccated coconut, being already dried, browned in a flash.  I had to watch it like a hawk to stop it burning.

Grated fresh coconut makes Sydneysiders write to food columns entitled “Where can I buy…?”.  I buy mine from the Indian man’s stall at Flemington Markets, but only on Saturdays.  He’s also handy for 500ml bottles of squeezed-before-your-very-eyes fresh coconut milk.

Toasting grated fresh coconut is laborious.  It’s very moist.  Making kerisik from 750g of fresh coconut took nearly an hour of dry frying.  PPP (Pure Peranakan Pal) later told me it’s okay to squeeze out all the liquid richness from the coconut first, then use the wrung-out remnants to make kerisik.  That way, you salvage the coconut milk, and shorten the toasting time.

Prolonged toasting made the house smell heavenly – in a sweet-smelling way, not the deliciously-savoury-today-but-stale-in-the-drapes-tomorrow way.  Sprogs inhaled deeply and sighed, “Our house smells like Por Por’s house.”

To explain, when staying with my mum-in-law in Malaysia over Chinese New Year, we consumed love letters by the giant Milo tin.  Love letters are wafers made from coconut milk and shaped like cigars or quadrants.  The best ones are featherweight, crisp and swooningly fragrant – my Kryptonite!  Open the Milo tin and its coconutty scent permeates the room.  But I digress, as usual.

“What’s with the star shape?” asked MOTH, peering into the wok during his Masterchef ad break.

Well, now, a lady has to keep herself entertained somehow, especially with Masterchef blaring in the background.  All those dramatic crescendos of Elimination Round Music were stressing me out.  And I don’t even watch the darn program!  So I distracted myself by playing with my cooking.

So, desiccated or fresh?  My conclusion: for its convenience in sourcing and cooking, my vote goes to desiccated coconut.

Cooking stage #2:  Tenderise the meat. 

Cook the meat with the spices, aromatics and coconut milk.  I pressure cooked it, but a lengthy simmer in a normal pot also works.

While the pressure cooker did its thing, we watched The Art of Seduction, an entertaining Korean film about a man-eater and lady-killer who meet their match in each other.  A bit like George Clooney and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Cruel Intentions.  The verbal sparring was a joy to behold.  I don’t understand Korean, but the wit came through in the brilliant English subtitles.  My enjoyment was complete.

Cooking stage #3:  Get the sauce to its right consistency. 

Reduce the sauce and thicken it with kerisik.  Then season to taste.

Patient people who practise delayed gratification will wait 24h before consuming the rendang.  It really is one of those dishes that develops its flavours overnight to properly come together the next day.

FUSION CONFUSION.

Confession time.  I used the beef rendang in what some would consider a fusion abomination, in a move bound to be roundly condemned by Malays and Japanese alike.

I put rendang sushi rolls in my kids’ school lunches.  Nori sheets, cooked rice, cucumber batons, shredded beef rendang.  This, from a person who views tandoori chicken pizza with disdain.  In my defence, PPP (Pure Peranakan Pal) had my rendang in sandwiches for five consecutive breakfasts (this guy likes a savoury breakfast).

To my utter delight, the sprogs gave the sushi rolls top marks: “10 out of 10, Mum!  No, not too hot.  Will we have the same thing tomorrow?”

Am I messing too much with these kids?

RECIPE NOTES

You’ll notice this blog post doesn’t contain a recipe.  That’s because all Making Makan posts are for the casually curious, and just for kicks, not for serious instruction.  More about this on the Making Makan: Fun Pics, Not Recipes post.

Rendang recipes abound on the internet.  Check out Not Quite Nigella’s mum’s beef rendang recipe or Poh’s beef rendang recipe. Ambitious bods can channel Julie and Julia and work through each Malaysian State’s rendang, using The Complete Malaysian Cookbook by Betty Saw.  (Get it from Fishpond or your favourite book store.)

I highly recommend the Rendang Ayam Perak (chicken rendang, Perak-style) in that book.  Here’s a pictorial chronology (yes, the fresh aromatics are similar to my first beef rendang):

Betty Saw’s Rendang Ayam Perak is very do-able because the recipe:

  • has a relatively short ingredients list,
  • requires a relatively short cooking time (no pressure cooker tenderising needed),
  • doesn’t require kerisik or dry spices, and
  • produces something that tastes just phenomenal

You also get to experience a revelationary and utterly satisfying moment when, after a somewhat lengthy simmer, the coconut milk finally splits to produce a top layer of oil…just like her recipe said it would! 

COMMENTS?  I welcome your comments on this blog post.  Please post them on FITK’s Facebook page.  Thank you!