Beef rendang has always been one of my favourite dishes. When I was little, my parents used to take my sister and I to Malaysia on holiday quite a fair bit. While waiting for my parents to check in, I used to get a beef rendang puff at the nearby kiosk. Later in life, I worked at Candlenut, a Peranakan restaurant in Singapore. One of the most time-consuming dishes to make at Candlenut was beef rendang.
Much like curry, beef rendang begins with the frying of a rempah, to which coconut cream and water is added. However, here’s where it deviates. Beef rendang is much drier, as it is cooked until the gravy thickens and begins to ooze oil. The oil essentially fries and caramelizes the gravy, coating each chunk of meat with an incredible amount of complex flavours. While curries tend to be smooth, the grated coconut in rendang that coats the meat provides the slightest chew.
The rendang at Candlenut was a full-day affair. The huge pot of rendang would bubble over the stove for hours, simultaneously tenderizing the meat while reducing the gravy. Some traditional recipes online call for at least 7 hours of braising. Its time-consuming nature caused me to relegate it to something best reserved for chefs, rather than the home cook.
Our friend Tony Tan, the revered teacher of Southeast Asian cooking in Melbourne, invited us for dinner one day. When we arrived, he mentioned that we were going to be having beef rendang for dinner. I was surprised at how calm and collected he was, given his choice of dish. I took a peek at his pot. It looked very much like a braise and I wondered why he appeared so serene.
Tony proceeded to test how tender the beef was with a fork, his cut of choice being the oyster blade. Happy with the texture, he lifted the beef out – here’s the genius – proceeded reducing the sauce over high heat. Before long, the sauce had lost its moisture and began to look curdled, the oil rising to the top. Continuing to cook the gravy, Tony fried what could now be described as a paste in its own oil. His kitchen filled with those familiar, caramelized notes of coconut and spices and I stood there amazed at how simple and quick it all was!
A quick coat of the beef with the paste and we were ready to eat. And what a joy it was over rice. Ugly, but very very delicious indeed.
Adapted from Tony Tan’s recipe on Gourmet Traveller
13 red chillies or 6 chilli padis
5 garlic cloves
850g beef brisket or oyster blade, cut into 5cm cubes
70g desiccated coconut, toasted till deep brown
270g coconut cream
2 teaspoon each turmeric, coriander, cumin and cinnamon powder
1 star anise
3 kaffir lime leaves
Blend the red chillies, onion and garlic cloves to a coarse paste.
Blend the lemongrass, ginger and galangal to a fine paste.
Heat the oil in a pot and add both two pastes. Fry for 5 minutes on medium heat. Add the beef and coconut, and toss to coat.
Add the rest of the ingredients and 1L water. Bring to a boil before simmering on low heat for 3 hours, or until the beef is fork tender.
Remove the beef from the pot and reduce the braising liquid until paste-like and oil begins to ooze out from it.
Return the beef to the pot and toss through. Serve immediately over steamed rice.