Food Expeditions: Beef Rendang – A dish steeped in history and spice.

If you’re talking about some of the most satisfying food items in Southeast Asia, you can’t go much further without mentioning the Beef Rendang. Where most dishes are made by searing and seasoning the meat with spices during the cooking process, the Rendang is different. It’s drowned in a mixture of intense spices for an extended period of time until it has absorbed all of the flavors. It’s a stew, yes, but at the same time, it’s a robust dish that, in one way or another, explains exactly why Indonesia was such a prime location for colonization all those years ago.

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From nutmeg, cloves, and cubeb pepper in Maluku, Indonesia is home to some of the most exotic spices in the region, and maybe even the world at the time it was first colonized. This meant that around the 16th century, Indonesia was not only a very strategic trade route for spices, but also one of the most prolific producers of these spices that was very sought. 

We can see traces of this even today as most Indonesian dishes are made with heavy use of spices to provide aroma and flavor, something that reverberates throughout the Southeast Asian region. If you look at the big three within this region – Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, you’ll see a common thread. All three have been colonized – the British and Dutch being the main players in terms of colonization – at some point or another thanks to their strategic location and the spices that they produce.



1 1/2 lbs. (0.6 kg) boneless beef short ribs, cut into cubes
5 tablespoons cooking oil
1 stick cinnamon, about 2-inch length
3 cloves
3 star anise
3 cardamom pods
1 lemongrass, cut into 4-inch length and pounded
1 cup thick coconut milk, coconut cream
1 cup water
2 teaspoons tamarind pulp, soaked in some warm water for the juice and discard the seeds
6 kaffir lime leaves, very finely sliced
6 tablespoons kerisik, toasted coconut
1 tablespoon sugar or palm sugar to taste
salt to taste

Spice paste
5 shallots
1 inch galangal
3 lemongrass (white part only)
5 cloves garlic
1 inch ginger
10-12 dried chilies, soaked in warm water and seeded


- Chop the spice paste ingredients and then blend it in a food processor until fine.
- Heat the oil in a stew pot, add the spice paste, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, and cardamom and stir-fry until aromatic. Add the beef and the pounded lemongrass and stir for 1 minute. Add the coconut milk, tamarind juice, water, and simmer on medium heat, stirring frequently until the meat is almost cooked. Add the kaffir lime leaves, kerisik (toasted coconut), sugar or palm sugar, stirring to blend well with the meat.
- Lower the heat to low, cover the lid, and simmer for 1 to 1 1/2 hours or until the meat is really tender and the gravy has dried up. Add more salt and sugar to taste. Serve immediately with steamed rice and save some for overnight.

(SOURCE: Rasa Malaysia.)

Now, about the beef rendang. We need to first understand how the dish itself was made. Although its origins are a main source of dispute these days with many countries in the region claiming the dish as their own, none of that really matters in this context because they’re all made with the same process regardless of the country. They’re all made by basically boiling cuts of beef, usually the chuck, in a mixture of spices for a while so that the meat absorbs all the flavor and tenderizes in the process, giving it the flavor and texture that rendang is most known for. 

Beef Rendang. (CREDIT: Gunawan Kartapranata)

This means that rendang is categorized as a stew, and like most stews, it’s always better served the next day over a warm plate of rice. The reason these dishes are only found in the Southeast Asian region is that spices are not treated as precious commodities, it’s quite the contrary, since spices grow natively in the region. Since Indonesia produces so much spices that they can be bought for pennies on the dollar, using a lot of these spices to flavor food is just how things are done. Basically, these countries can afford to create dishes that are basically steeped in spices and make them accessible to the population because spices aren’t seen as an exotic commodity. 

DID YOU KNOW? The strong flavors that result from searing meat are due to the Maillard Reaction. It is a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that gives browned food its distinctive flavor. Seared steaks, fried dumplings, cookies and other kinds of biscuits, breads, toasted marshmallows, and many other foods undergo this reaction. The reaction is a form of non-enzymatic browning which typically proceeds rapidly from around 140 to 165 °C (280 to 330 °F). At higher temperatures, caramelization (the browning of sugars, a distinct process) and subsequently pyrolysis (final breakdown leading to burning) become more pronounced.

This accounts for the Dutch colonization of Indonesia. They saw prime real estate with an abundance of spices within the region. It’s only logical that they would want to colonize the country as spices were the single most valuable commodity at the time. But to see how these dishes play a role in teaching us more about history, and to show the younger generation that Indonesia is indeed a country rich in spices, they need not look further than the food we serve at the table. 

WORDS: Jovi Harrison. (Check out her travel blog Teapot Buddha or find her on LinkedIn.)

IMAGE CREDIT: Miansari66.

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