It’s my firm belief that every culture in the world has at least one dish which looks like something the cat dragged in, ate, digested, and left as a gift on the hall carpet twelve hours later. Beef rendang is Malaysia’s offering to this noble pool.
I’ve not come across a dish like rendang anywhere else in the world. Beef is simmered in a thick mixture of spices, browned coconut and coconut milk until nearly dry, soaking up huge amounts of flavour during the simmering process; the cooking method turns from simmering to frying as the mixture reduces and the oils from the coconut leach out. You end up with a thick, rich, dark brown sauce, packed with herbs and sweetness from shallots and roasted coconut. It’s a dish that takes a while to prepare, so make plenty and freeze what you don’t eat immediately.
You’ll need to tackle a raw coconut for this recipe. Opening coconuts doesn’t have to be anything like the palaver we seem to make of it in the UK – all that business with towels and hammers. As you can see from the picture, my coconut was bisected neatly. All you need to do to achieve the same thing from yours is to hold it over a bowl, and, using a meat cleaver or large knife (cleavers are available very cheaply at Chinese supermarkets, if you have one in the neighbourhood), tap hard with the blunt edge along the equator of the coconut – the pointy tuft at one end and the three “eyes” at the other are your north and south poles. Keep tapping with the blunt side, not the blade, as hard as you can, turning the coconut as you go, and once you’ve circled it about five times (by which point you will be sweating and swearing that all this work hasn’t made a blind bit of difference) the coconut will split neatly in half, the juice inside falling into your cleverly pre-positioned bowl. It’s magic. Give it a shot.
A word on that coconut juice. It’s not the same thing as coconut milk (the stuff you find in a can), which is the grated white flesh of the coconut, moistened and squeezed. Coconut juice is very pleasant on a beach somewhere when your coconut is green and straight off a tree, a nice man has sliced the top off it with a machete, and you have a few shots of rum and a straw; but once your coconut has turned brown and been shipped to the UK, it will be bitter and horrid. Drink it if you must. If you’re smart, you’ll pour it down the sink.
Coconut milk is a different matter. For this recipe, it’s more important than ever that you buy some without emulsifiers – you’ll be using the thick, creamy part of the milk separately from the more watery part. I always buy cans of Chaokoh, a Thai brand. If you’ve difficulty tracking it down locally, you can find it (and a paradise of other Chinese, Malaysian, Korean and Japanese ingredients) at Wai Yee Hong, an oriental supermarket in Bristol with an internet shopping arm – I order from them every couple of months, and they’re super-reliable.
To serve four, you’ll need:
600g beef topside
1 tablespoon soft dark brown sugar
1½ teaspoons tamarind block (surprisingly enough, I found some at Tesco)
10 blanched almonds OR 2 candlenuts, peeled
2 teaspoons turmeric powder
2 Kaffir lime leaves
2 stalks lemongrass
1 in piece galangal
1 in piece ginger
10 small shallots
3 fresh red chillies
8 dried red chillies (look for Malaysian cili kering in an oriental grocer)
2 cloves garlic
1½ tablespoons palm sugar (or soft dark brown sugar)
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
1 can coconut milk
Salt and pepper
Open the coconut according to the instructions above. Pry the white flesh away from the shell, and use a sharp knife or a vegetable peeler to remove the brown skin from the flesh. Grate the white flesh and dry-fry, stirring regularly, until dry and dark brown but not burned.
While the coconut is frying, soak the tamarind in enough boiling water to cover, poking with a fork until the tamarind is soft. Pick out the seeds.
Cut the beef into pieces and marinade in all but 2 tablespoons of the toasted coconut, the tamarind and its liquid, two teaspoons of sugar and a teaspoon of salt. Set aside while you prepare the other ingredients.
Put the remaining toasted coconut in the bowl of the food processor with the almonds, turmeric, lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal, ginger, peeled shallots, chillies and garlic. Whizz until everything is reduced to a fine paste. Put the paste in a thick-bottomed saucepan with the runny, milky part of the coconut milk, 100ml boiling water, the palm sugar, another teaspoon of salt, a generous grating of pepper and the dark soy sauce. Stir well and bring to the boil over a moderate heat. Add the meat with any juices, and bring back to a simmer. Continue to cook, without a lid, for an hour, stirring frequently to prevent burning. Most of the liquid will have reduced away by this point.
After an hour, add the creamy part of the coconut milk to the mixture and stir well. Add a lid and continue to cook over a reduced heat for another hour, stirring occasionally. The finished rendang should have a thick, dense sauce, and look oily, the fat having come out of the coconut, almonds and coconut milk to fry off the other ingredients.