Chong’s Beef Rendang

I’ve always believed you have to have been born in the Orient to be a dab hand at making curry, or slow-cooked meats, or spicy sauces. How else can you get close to understanding the flavours that come from a teaspoon of this, a cup of that, an infusion of something else? These are the smells and flavours that become second nature to those lucky enough to be born in a house of spice.

We’re not just talking of one lifetime here. We’re talking of generations on generations. And we’re talking about a way of life.

Cook books, guide books, travel essays, tourism, and back home, multi-culturalism, all help a little bit, but in the end nothing teaches like experience — taking it all in from the experts. You need to see, and hear, and smell, and taste. You need to be with the dish from the beginning to understand how it comes together. You need to smell the difference a soup├žon of fenugreek, or fennel seeds, or cardamom pods will make on the way through, and to the final result. You need to ask why some spices need to be roasted, why some don’t, and why some are happy each way. You need to be told why chilli, and why not; why tamarind water and why not; the difference between galangal and ginger, lemon grass and lemon zest, fresh and dried. You need to see the way a dish bubbles: fast, medium, slow, slower; and when done is done.

Simple if you happen to come from Bangkok, or Kuala Lumpur, or Delhi, or Jakarta, or Phnom Penh, or Hanoi. Not quite the same if you come from Bondi or Burwood or back of Bourke.

Whenever you come across a dish you enjoy, ask about it; ask how it came together, ask for the recipe. You’ll get it, and you’ll know then exactly how it should look, feel and taste. That’s how this dish came into my repertoire. I took lunch in an oriental garden in the inner suburbs of Melbourne. The host, Chong Weng-Ho, a proud son of Malaysia, put on a magnificent spread: the flavours were clean, the combinations flawless and the presentation simple, yet ultimately appealing; every dish was completely appetising, with not a touch of excess oil or fat.

The day’s highlight was the Beef Rendang, so dry, yet so moist and tender at the same time.

‘How is it so?’ said I.

‘Most people’, he said, ‘don’t cook it long enough.’.

2kg beef shanks — Clean the meat as tightly as you can, eliminating any sheaths and sinews. From 2kg you will end up with about 600g of waste. Chop the beef into similar-size pieces.

2 onions, quartered

4 cloves garlic

1 walnut-sized piece of ginger

walnut-sized piece of galangal root — Galangal root is from the same family as ginger and looks a little like its rougher brother/sister. Its aroma is more in tune with a sweet shop than a bar. Galangal can be found dried, sliced and powdered. The powdered form is known as Laos powder.

4 chillies — more if you like them

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

enough coconut milk to cover the beef — about 2 tins

2 teaspoons salt, perhaps more

2 stalks of lemon grass, top green section and tough outer leaves removed, sliced finely

1 cup tamarind liquid: tamarind is

a pulpy pod resembling a large pea

pod, native to India, and is a terrific

souring agent — It is brownish-black and tastes like a sour prune. When fully mature, tamarind pods are peeled and pitted and the pulp is compressed into cakes. Only the pulp form is suitable for cooking, as the pure juice is too acidic. To make tamarind water from pulp, soak a piece of tamarind — the size of a blood plum —in boiling water, or put pulp and water into a microwave and heat until boiling. Squeeze as much juice as possible through a sieve. It is remarkable to note the difference in flavour that tamarind water gives to a slow-cooked dish. Even after several hours cooking, its subtle sourness still comes through.

3 large, whole carrots, peeled only

teaspoons crushed black

peppercorns

some parsley or coriander, chopped

1

Brown the beef in the same heavy-based pot you intend to use to cook the dish, cooking only two or three pieces at once. Be careful not to burn the pot or the beef.

2

Whizz the onions, garlic, ginger, galangal and chilli with a little water. Grind the coriander seeds, cumin and fennel in a grinder until they form a fine powder.

3

Toss the beef with the onion-garlic mixture, cover with the coconut milk, and mix through the ground spices and the salt.

4

Bring to the boil and reduce the heat to low, so the pot merely bubbles. Add the chopped lemon grass and the tamarind water. After about an hour, add the carrots. Carrots are not part of the original recipe, but I can’t stand the thought of a slow-cooked dish without carrots. After another half an hour, add the peppercorns.

5

It should take about two and a half hours before it is close to done. The liquid will have just about evaporated, or been taken up by the beef. Check the seasoning. If the beef is cooked just right, and there is still too much liquid, remove the beef and reduce the liquid, stirring all the way. Add back the beef, stirring through again. At the end, the beef should be just touched by a thick, flavoursome gravy.

6

Sprinkle the parsley or coriander over the meat. It can be served hot, or warm, or at room temperature.

WINE: Pinot meuniere is a variety used in the Champagne district of France to make bubbly (blended with cbardonnay and pinot noir). We are using it in small quantities for Aussie sparklers now, but Bests at Great Western have made a dry red wine from the variety for years. When young, it’s fresh and fruity, not unlike a pinot noir. The interesting thing is, it does age well. Serve it slightly chilled, young or aged. By the way, the sediment won’t hurt you; it is just the tartrates that have fallen out of the wine during maturation.