• Monday, Nov 30, 2020
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How a toothache helped me rediscover the world’s best curry

  • Published at 03:56 pm August 26th, 2020
D2_August 2020_Slow-cooked beef rendang,
Photo: Azfarul Islam

Mastering slow-cooked beef rendang

“Ah, so you want to make beef rendang?”, asked my dentist with a glint in her eyes. Pandering to the escalating tension, she had even leaned conspiratorially forward. 

A few confessions must be made at this point. Firstly, she was not really my regular dentist (who is, brilliantly, called Dr Fang - and also a brilliant dentist); having developed a toothache during our sojourn to Malaysia and terrified that sweet things would be denied to me for the rest of the trip, a check-up was essential. Secondly, feeling a sense of smugness that the near-5-star Google Maps rating was about to be vindicated. Yes, I Google good.

“The most important thing is to take grated young coconut, toast it until it’s very brown, pound it until the oils are extracted, and you end up with a nutty paste.” (I may be paraphrasing since this conversation was half a decade ago). Rapt attention was paid and notes taken, with the only regret being not asking if this paste (known as kerisik) was going to be bad for my teeth, and if so, was it a ploy to make me go back to the clinic.

Time for a third confession: I had attempted rendang for the first time during an Eid for my wife as it’s her favourite dish, and unfortunately, it didn’t go to plan. Where gristle and sinew should have been slow-cooked to soft compliance, was a tough and chewy embarrassment. Aromatics, despite liberal blitzing in a food processor, remained fibrous and raked the roof of the mouth. Worst of all was the colour: ochre, when it should have been an earthy, deep russet. Despite having cooked countless types of dishes over the years, curry was not something I had really made. I mean I had made curry a few times, but not really. I needed to speak to a true expert. 

My mum’s ethos for curry (and life) is patience. Patience to have everything organised, patience to wait that little bit longer even when you think it’s done, and patience to try again. The next time I attempted rendang would be when I had better understood the meaning of patience. And in that wonderfully circular way the universe works, it was dear mum who suggested, for no particular reason, a few weeks ago: “Why not make rendang?” Pratchett (RIP) and Gaiman, I would suggest this is part of the Ineffable Plan, but then again, it is ineffable so what do I know ?

Ren-Dang, you did what?

Similar to dishes from neighbouring Thailand, one of the fundamentals of rendang is galangal - a ginger-like rhizome that is definitely not like ginger at all. How important is this? Important enough that, when faced with a galangal shortage in our local oriental supermarket, I drove an hour across London to my friend Wing’s house to collect some. His bemused question with a signature wry smile the moment we met, and definitely not before I began my pilgrimage, was: “Why not just use ginger?” Being a supremely passionate foodie and talented chef, he was obviously being facetious but still managed to get a rise out of me. Despite maintaining that it was a little crazy to go on a two-hour round-trip for a single ingredient, it was kudos to him that I was able to make no compromises. Because, while a generous amount of ginger is involved in a rendang, both aromatics add completely different flavour notes. Ginger is peppery heat and mild sweetness, whereas galangal is subtle citrus, tones of pine (Febreze, please make a galangal-scented air freshener), and floral interludes. Continuing to expand the citrus spectrum, another friend and stalwart foodie (hi, Derek!) also came to the rescue by braving his local oriental supermarket to acquire some frozen, imported kaffir lime leaves, simply known as lime leaves in Bangladesh because my life is ironic like that. With culinary forces almost marshalled, where was my heavy artillery?

Beef by any other name would… not taste as delicious

Rendang calls for any cut of beef, really - slow cooking being a great equaliser. Previously mentioned recipes talk about “inexpensive” or “cheap” cuts in a blasé fashion, which is precisely why I was glowing once my Wagyu short ribs were delivered the Friday prior. My dad, who is the manifestation of dad humour, remarked while filming this culinary journey that the price of meat was best left unspoken. And when my mum wasn’t looking, he proceeded to join me in pan-frying a couple of ribs to see what they tasted like when unencumbered by gravy. For science, obviously.

Mortar and pestle in hand as weapons of choice (because I am committed to the military analogy), I contemplated the process of grinding all my key aromatics (lemongrass, galangal, ginger) and shredded coconut into pastes. The kerisik was concerning in particular. With coconut toasted to the point of burning, it needed to be worked on while still hot. A crumbly texture was easily achieved, but no oils manifested for an age. Naturally, this was the perfect time to re-watch the third Lord of the Rings film. Having memorised the dialogue years ago, it was an epic background accompaniment while I rhythmically ground away. And yes, I managed to complete preparations before the multiple endings for Return of the King started. Thank you, Peter Jackson.

Patience is a virtue, but all I want is (to) chew

The cooking part of a rendang is surprisingly easy. A major change was in taking cues from the proper technique for braising short ribs: beautifully marbled beef (sawed into neat squares by our local butcher) was liberally salted (with my Cornish sea salt, obviously), and seared in a hot pan. The key is to start with as little oil as possible because short ribs treat searing like New Year’s resolutions - with an ardent desire to shed as much fat as possible. While the browned ribs rested, various pastes were fried in reserved beef fat, incorporated in a prescribed order to maximise intermingling of flavours. Once the meat was added, and creamy coconut milk poured in, it was time to do the curry thing: wait, and be patient. I shall be honest: seeing the initial ochre colour made my heart skip a beat. Checking in on the curry by stirring every thirty minutes for over four hours, while my family checked in on me for updates, I watched disparate ingredients bubble together beautifully into a redolent, russet whole. The fragrance was utterly intoxicating, and a taste test rapturous. And I hadn’t even added the kerisik and lime leaves yet.

As our family broke into the rendang with steamed chicken rice, there was silence as tender beef simply melted in mouths, headlined by a bold orchestra of flavours. It occurred to me then that this wasn’t merely a curry but life lessons in microcosm: be patient, never compromise on quality, and definitely keep justifying to whoever is patiently listening that driving from one end of the city to another is worth it for a single ingredient. To my friends and family who look at me as if I’m crazy when I do these things but always rally wholeheartedly to the cause: thank you for believing in me.

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