Beef rendang, one of Indonesia’s national dishes, is the spicy meat dish that should be at the top of your Asian recipe book. Twice crowned most delicious plate in the world, this dish counts on meat that’s slow-cooked and braised in a spice paste with coconut milk until tender. At which point, if that wasn’t enough, it's fried together with the remaining braising juice until the liquid caramelizes, creating a coating around the beef.
You are left with the most unctuous meat, slicked with just a little intensely flavoured sauce.
The name rendang comes from the word merandang, which means “slowly” — fairly portraying the 4+ hours it takes to prepare this dish. The word can also be used as a verb to describe the cooking technique of frying in oil or fat until dry. Due to its long cooking process, intense stirring method and precise mixture of ingredients, the dish has been linked to patience, wisdom, and persistence.
The origins of rendang
Rendang originated in the region of Minangkabau in West Sumatra, Indonesia. Dubbed by some as “dry-curry” it’s believed that the dish was heavily influenced by the Indian curry which was brought by merchants to Indonesia many centuries ago. The Minang people adapted the process of cooking meat in coconut milk and developed three stages for it. First came gulai which was the wettest, then kalio which was a little denser and finally the even thicker and drier rendang.
Beef rendang was initially created with the purpose of preserving meat under the high Indonesian temperatures. For travelers on long journeys and wealthy Minang farmers, rendang's dryness, high-fat content, and spices that were found to be antimicrobial became the solution for making meat last longer.
Traditions behind the dish
In Indonesia, this dish was traditionally served at ceremonial occasions, such as weddings, to honor the guests. The prestigious beef rendang was referred to as kepalo samba, meaning “head of the dishes.” With globalization, the dish has now spread to most Southeast Asian countries and other places around the globe, but the traditions associated with it somewhat dissipated. Nowadays, it’s also common to see different kinds of rendang, with more variations of spices and chicken, duck and other more exotic goods as a substitute for beef.
Eleanor Ford’s beef rendang recipe
Food and travel writer, Eleanor Ford, spent much of her childhood in Indonesia and returned as an adult to research her latest book, Fire Islands: Recipes from Indonesia (£25, Murdoch Books). Follow her on Instagram @eleanorfordfood and check-out her delicious recipe below.
- 800 ml (3¼ cups) full-fat coconut milk
- 900 g (2 lb) beef brisket or chuck steak, cut into bite-sized pieces
- 1 tablespoon dark palm sugar (gula jawa), shaved
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 lime leaves
- 2 turmeric leaves (optional)
- 1 lemongrass stick, trimmed, bruised and tied in a knot
- 1 cinnamon stick
- Bumbu spice paste
- 8 small red Asian shallots, peeled
- 5 large red chillies, seeded
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled
- 2.5 cm (1 inch) Thai ginger (galangal), skin scrubbed
- 2.5 cm (1 inch) ginger, peeled
- 2.5 cm (1 inch) turmeric, peeled, or 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- ½ nutmeg, grated
- pinch of ground cloves
Roughly chop all the ingredients for the bumbu and whizz to a paste in a food processor. Add a good splash of the coconut milk to help the blades do their work. Once smooth, transfer to a large wok or large, shallow casserole pan.
Add all the other ingredients to the wok, making sure there is enough liquid to submerge the meat – add a splash of water if needed. Bring to a boil, stirring to stop the coconut milk splitting. Lower the heat and cook at a slow-medium bubble, more lively than a simmer as the liquid needs to reduce. Cook uncovered for about 2 hours, stirring from time to time. The meat should be tender, most of the liquid evaporated and the oil will have separated from the coconut milk. Remove the lemongrass and cinnamon.
At this stage, the meat and spices that have been braising will start to fry in the hot oil. This is called ‘tempering’ and needs to be done with care. For about 10 minutes, you will need to stir gently but frequently over a medium heat until the coconut oil becomes thick and brown. The stir-frying then needs to be continuous for the final 15 minutes or so, until the oil has been absorbed by the meat, which will be a dark chocolaty brown.
Leave to rest for half an hour or more before serving at room temperature. Rendang keeps well in the fridge and the flavours only improve with age.
Tried making your own version of rendang at home? Then make sure to share your creation on social media and tag us at @skyhour for a chance to be featured on this article.
Rendang always tastes better the next day & it makes for great for meal preppers due to its long-lasting properties.