Behind the Recipes

The Art of Indonesian Beef Rendang

West Sumatra’s tradition of slowly cooking and browning beef with coconut milk and vibrant aromatics until caramelized delivers a braise unlike any other.
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Published Feb. 5, 2024.

Rendang is an nth-degree art form. The Indonesian word refers to both the dish and the technique where food is taken to the farthest possible point of concentration, to a stage of cooking that defies categorization. 

To make it, cooks in and around the province of West Sumatra simmer beef (or other proteins including buffalo, chicken, tempeh, seafood, or eggs) with coconut milk; spices; and a fragrant paste of alliums, chiles, and citrusy herbs for hours.

As the pot bubbles, the beef softens, the luscious milk evaporates, and the aromatics sizzle in the flavorsome fat left behind.

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Rendang’s History as Road Food

As if rendang’s concentrated meatiness and knee-weakening fragrance weren’t reason enough to make it, the dish also travels well.

That’s a deliberate feature tied to the matrilineal society of the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, who pass wealth and property from mother to daughter instead of from father to son. Historically, young men would leave home to wander the world and find their own success, carrying with them a tin of rendang—a source of concentrated calories and minimal moisture that is thus less vulnerable to spoilage—to sustain them on their journey and remind them of their heritage.

Even as recently as a few years ago, the West Sumatran government sent hundreds of kilos of beef rendang to feed earthquake victims on the neighboring island of Lombok.

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What distinguishes rendang from related Southeast Asian preparations such as curries is that you keep cooking it.

You cook it so much that the pot’s contents not only concentrate but undergo Maillardization and caramelization, resulting in tender meat hugged by a tight, unctuous paste whose flavors and fragrance far exceed the intensity of any other braise.

The steamed rice, juicy raw vegetables, sambal, and crisp prawn crackers that often accompany it are there to cut the richness and reset your palate between bites. 

You’re getting that divine flavor, all extracted and reduced into this tiny moment.
Lara Lee, cooking teacher and cookbook author

The Beef Rendang Trio

There are just three components that go into a pot of rendang.

  • Beef: ell-marbled, collagen-rich cuts such as shin or chuck work best; their abundant connective tissue melts into juicy gelatin over the course of the long braise.
  • Coconut milk: The beauty of coconut milk (besides its floral, nutty flavor) is that, after the rich cooking liquid braises the meat and its water evaporates, it serves as a source of sugars that, along with the meat, undergo Maillardization and caramelization during the rendang stage.
  • Aromatic paste: Making the paste typically involves pulverizing shallots, garlic, ginger, galangal, and spices (cumin, coriander, and turmeric) with a mortar and pestle. Many cooks then add to its aroma by simmering lemongrass and whole makrut lime leaves with the meat, fishing them out at the end of cooking. I opted for the increasingly popular shortcut of grinding the ingredients in a food processor with fresh chiles to give the dish a faint kick and (per the lead of some modern recipes) took further advantage of the machine by blending the lemongrass and lime leaves right into the mix. This ratcheted up their already vivid citrus scents, so the paste became truly intoxicating.

Lara Lee, the Chinese-Indonesian-Australian chef and author of titles including Coconut & Sambal: Recipes from my Indonesian Kitchen (2020) likened rendang’s concentrated savor to the corner bits of the lasagna tray: “You’re getting that divine flavor, all extracted and reduced into this tiny moment,” she said.

Along the way, the braise passes through three distinct stages: gulai (the coconut milk is still liquidy), kalio (the milk has reduced, and the coconut oil has broken out), and rendang (the milk has evaporated; the meat and seasonings have browned).

The transformation is remarkable, and according to Lee, the result is so complex and delicious that she can’t help but snack on the flavor-packed bits as she cooks. Here’s a breakdown of the process. 

Stage 1: Gulai

The transformation of the coconut milk is a good indicator of what cooking phase you’re in.

During this first stage, it usually retains a creamy, fluid appearance as it simmers along with the paste and raw beef. But some recipes suggest an adjustment—cooking the paste in a portion of the coconut milk before adding the rest of the milk and meat—that I found expedited the whole process.

The paste and the coconut milk simultaneously lost water to evaporation and concentrated, so there was less water to cook off during the kalio stage. 

Stage 2: Kalio

Oily, “broken”—but still liquidy—coconut milk is the visual cue here; you’ll see it when the liquid has substantially reduced and the meat is fully tender.

Getting to this point tends to be messy work because as the pot’s contents reduce they splatter and start to stick. My tweak: Bring the pot to a simmer on the stove and then transfer it to a 300-degree oven, leaving the cover off so that the excess moisture evaporates.

The oven’s surrounding heat is gentle and even, so you have to stir only once, and the liquid evaporates without splattering.

Stage 3: Rendang

This is the pinnacle of the process: The liquid evaporates, leaving the beef and seasonings to deeply brown in the rendered coconut oil.

By the end of the long cook, the meat has turned spoon-tender (a portion of it will be reduced to shreds), and its protein-rich juices have mingled with the coconut milk, been deposited onto the surface of the pot when the moisture evaporates, and browned deeply.

That’s what you’re scraping up during this final 15- to 20-minute active stirring phase—“a true labor of love,” according to Lee—and those meaty, sediment-like bits impart even more savor than if you’d browned the beef initially. 

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Give It a Rest

You know you’ve reached the peak of rendang when the pot is sticky with the deeply browned, practically desiccated aromatic paste. To make sure none of that flavor-packed browning gets left behind (and to help with cleanup), we spread the meat over the bottom of the pot and let it sit for 5 minutes. As it rests, steam loosens the stuck-on bits so that they can be easily scraped up into your serving bowl.

“One bite, and you’ll just want more,” said Lee, noting that rendang has repeatedly been voted the most delicious food in the world according to a CNN poll. “It’s so unique from other dishes, because it has that beautiful complexity and celebrates all the spices that Indonesia is famous for.”

My last tweak to the process boosted the rendang’s flavor—and eased the cleanup process. Instead of immediately transferring the finished food to a serving bowl, I let it sit for 5 minutes off the heat so that residual moisture would loosen the flavorful stuck‑on bits from the bottom of the pot, allowing me to easily scrape them into the serving bowl. 

I suppose rendang will always be a labor of love, but hopefully now it’s a good bit less laborious. 

Recipe

Beef Rendang

West Sumatra's tradition of slowly cooking and browning beef with coconut milk and vibrant aromatics delivers a braise unlike any other.
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