When I attended my friend Aisya’s Hari Raya open house a few years ago, I had the opportunity to eat quite possibly the most delicious beef rendang tok on the planet. Cooked by her mother, Dr Zalina Mohd Ali, a wonderful home cook, the dry rendang was coconut-ey and laced with a rich array of spices, with beef that was tender and malleable. I couldn’t stop eating it – diet be damned! – and begged Aisya’s mother for the recipe.
I am forever indebted to her, because she obliged. I made it the next weekend to oohs and aahs of delight from the rest of my family. Although the original recipe calls for beef, I mostly make it with lamb, as my husband does not eat beef. But because Aunty Zalina’s recipe is so good, the rendang tastes just as phenomenal with either meat.
Rendang tok is traditionally a dry rendang where meat is cooked for hours, yielding a rendang that is rich but also dry, nutty (from the kerisik) and coated in spices.
Since I first made this rendang, it has become a treasured recipe, one that I have made dozens of times for special occasions. I even made it when I was seven months pregnant, simply because I had a craving!
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One of the key requirements to making this rendang is having the “niat” (intention) to finish it once you start. Because it is a very long, arduous (and hot!) process to getting this rendang tasting and looking just right. Aunty Zalina told me repeatedly that I would have to stand watch over the stove, stir the concoction continuously and be committed to making it for the time required to perfect it (my current record stands at 4½ hours when I made a giant batch for Christmas). Although some other recipes simply require the meat to be simmered on low heat with the lid on, I have stuck to Aunty Zalina’s tried-and-tested method, tiring though it may be.
And she is so right – making this rendang is incredibly exhausting, but you do need to put in the work to get the results. When I visited my sister-in-law in London, I made this rendang for her as a pre-wedding treat, but as time was short during the hectic wedding period, I was forced to hasten the process and consequently, it was nowhere near as good as what it would have been, had time not been an issue.
Aunty Zalina also urged me not to reduce the amount of coconut milk she listed in the recipe, as she said it just wouldn’t have the required richness if I chose to forsake it in favour of health concerns. According to her, when making this dry rendang, the amount of meat should be only slightly more than the amount of coconut milk used.
So just like Aunty Zalina has been doing for years, I would strongly advocate making this rendang her way – leave the meat to marinate overnight and slow-cook it over low heat, adding coconut milk “bit by bit”, as Aunty would say.
Although you’re likely to feel the need for a good massage after all those hours of stirring, persevere to the end, because trust me, this hedonistic offering is worth the wait.
AUNTY ZALINA’S BEEF RENDANG
Serves 6 to 8
For blending together
12 red onions
10 cloves garlic
For pounding together
10 cardamom pods
1.5kg boneless beef (daging pejal), cut into bite-size pieces (can be replaced with lamb)
2 heaped tbsp coriander powder
1 tsp cumin powder
1 tsp fennel powder
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
2 tsp cinnammon powder
1 tsp turmeric powder
6 heaped tbsp cili boh
salt to taste
3 tbsp oil
1 litre fresh coconut milk
grated coconut from 1/2 coconut, dry toasted until golden and lightly pounded to make kerisik
To marinate meat
Marinate the beef with all the blended and pounded ingredients as well as all the ingredients for marination. Leave to marinate for at least 2 hours or overnight for best results.
To cook rendang
Heat up a large wok with oil. On low heat, fry the marinated meat, slowly adding coconut milk a little at a time and stirring continously. Make sure to scrape the sides and bottom of the wok constantly.
At first the mixture will resemble a curry, but as you continue cooking, it will thicken up. Keep stirring and adding coconut milk for about 2½ hours or until you get pecah minyak (a layer of oil emerges).
Even after the pecah minyak, you will have to keep stirring until the colour of the rendang turns from orangey-brown to a dark oak shade. When this happens, add the kerisik and continue stirring until kerisik is fully absorbed. Serve hot with rice.