Recipe: Rendang Tok (Peranakan Beef Rendang)

"The time does the cooking."

When non-native speakers of English translate one of their language's sayings into my mother tongue, I often hear a more poetic (although sometimes comically poetic) phrase.

"The time does the cooking," is how my friend Tong put it. He was talking about beef rendang, a Malaysian comfort food.

Because I would have (and in fact have) used dozens more words in a cumbersome and mangled explanation — "You put all the ingredients together and then leave them alone in the pot, on the stove or in the oven, for four or five hours" — I appreciated the simplicity of Tong's turn of phrase. A simple sentence to explain a simple process.

I tasted a few bites of beef rendang while I was in Malaysia, but I confess that I did not actually order or eat a full meal of it. (It was on my last night in Kuala Lumpur, and my belly felt too full from all the other amazing food we had earlier that day.)

While the meal and cooking instructions are rustic and simple, the experience of eating beef rendang is anything but. It's a hearty stew-like meal (seems simple enough, right?), but with layers and layers of complexity. One bite, and your tongue is spelunking down, down, down through spices and flavors. The coconut milk comes through first, then cinnamon and tamarind, then the mild bitterness of lemongrass, a hint of cardamom, a little ginger, is that clove?, a touch of heat?, and on and on it goes.

When the weather in New York starts to cool off a bit, when the leaves change color and it feels good to leave the oven on low for 4 hours, I'll make this version, which is from the book Food From the Heart: Malaysia's Culinary Heritage (page 132).

The title of this recipe is Rendang Tok, a Peranakan or Nonya style of beef rendang.

Normally, I would adapt this recipe to my preferences, but seeing as I haven't cooked it yet, I'll copy it verbatim.

Rendang Tok
1 1/2 kg beef cut into small cubes 1cm thick
200g shallots, thinly sliced
120g garlic, thinly sliced
150g ginger thinly sliced and julienned
1 1/2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
150 g grated coconut, fry dry (kerisik), set aside
3 cups coconut milk or milk
2 tblsp oil

To be ground finely:
2 tblsp coriander (ketumbar)
2 tblsp chili powder
1 tsp cumin (jintan putih)
1 tsp fennel (jintan manis)
1/2 tsp peppercorns
6 pods cardamom seeds (buah pelaga)
6 pcs cloves
3 cm fresh turmeric (kunyit)

5 cm cinnamon stick
2 stalks lemon grass (serai) bruised
2 turmeric leaves finely sliced

Marinate the beef slices with the sliced shallots, garlic, giner, 2 cups coconut milk, salt, and kerisik for 2 hours.

Heat oil, saute lemon grass, cinnamon stick and all the grounded ingredients until aroma rises.

Add the marinated meat and stir well. Allow to simmer gently until tender.

If mixture thickens too fast, lower flame and add more coconut milk until all has been used up.

Cook until dry and dark in color.

-Some people like to add in 3 turmeric leaves (daun kunyit) sliced thinly; and also 2 stalks of lemon grass (batang serai); just cut it up and beat it to give it added flavour. This is optional.

- 1/2 shredded coconut (to be fried slightly so it gives off an amazing aroma) to be added later to the dish.

- 3 1/2 cups of coconut milk can be extracted from 3 1/2 grated coconut. Alternatively, normal milk can be used. With coconut milk, the dish is richer in taste.

- Best served with rice, nasi hempit, nasi kunyit or ketupat.

-Can be kept in the freezer for a week or more.