Beef Rendang was my mother’s claim to fame. It was the one thing she did, as far as I could remember, that gave her a small slice of public recognition in 1960s Singapore.
It took me totally by surprise. Umi (the Arabic word for mother) was a homebody. She had very little education, barely being able to sign her name in Arabic — and very slowly at that. It was the only thing she could write. But she had learned — and mastered — the art of cooking.
There were no cookbooks. Umi memorised all her recipes and guess-timated all the measurements. They were either by the handful, the finger length, a pinch or by sight. But it came out tasting exactly the same way everytime. Her secret weapon was her tongue. She could detect the slightest irregularities with a quick tasting. It made it impossible for anyone to follow her recipe by looking over her shoulder.
There were no shortcuts. Umi made everything from scratch. Coconuts were bought shelled but left whole to be hand grated and pressed several times with water for varying concentrations of coconut milk. Chilis, shallots, garlic, ginger and galangal were pounded with a mortar and pestle. Larger amounts of spices were ground and blended with a stone roller to make wet pastes. Raw rice was ground in a hand-powered millstone to make rice flour for steamed cakes.
Cooking was the one thing Umi did very well. She had maids to clean the house and do the laundry but she alone cooked the family’s meals. Lunch, the big meal of the day, was at one o’clock. And everything had to be fresh. Promptly after breakfast at 9 a.m., Umi would begin her daily trek to the market for the freshest ingredients. She cooked something new and different every day. She had amassed a large repertoire of meals.
Of all her recipes, a select few made it to the yearly menu reserved for holidays and special occasions. Beef Rendang was one of them. The way Umi made it was torturous. It was made a day or even two in advance. Still, the extra time allowed the flavors to meld and deepen further.
Having lived in Indonesia, Umi had learned to cook this native dish from the locals. As I got a little bit older and tall enough to stand over the stove, Umi would recruit me to dry stir-fry over a giant wok the 8-10 whole coconuts I had grated by hand. Once they became a toasty golden brown, my job was then to pound them in small batches with a mortar and pestle. The entire process of making the toasted grated coconuts alone took two hours.
Umi’s skills in making Beef Rendang had not gone unnoticed. Word had reached the mother of the then young Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of her Indonesian beef stew. Mrs. Lee’s son had led the country first out of British colonial rule in the late 1950s and then join Malaysia in 1963 as an independent country only to separate two years later after violent riots between the Malays and Chinese. It was a tumultous time. But Mrs. Lee was a Straits-born nonya and spoke Malay, a language Umi was very comfortable in. It was a unifying bond between the two communities. Mrs. Lee urged Umi to enter her Beef Rendang is a nation-wide food competition at the Victoria Memorial Hall, the renowned British-built exhibition hall next to the historic City Hall. It was a move designed to reduce racial tensions and generate a new sense of national identity for the fledgling country.
Umi agreed to enter the competition. Umi set about making her Beef Rendang. We all pitched in feverishly as kitchen helpers. By the time the job was done, she placed a strategic bunch of fresh curly parsley to the side of the huge platter of Beef Rendang and off she went to Victoria Memorial Hall.
I couldn’t be prouder of my mother when she returned announcing that she had been placed for Special Mention at the competition. No, she didn’t place top honors but she made Special Mention. I beamed at my mother.
RECIPE: Beef Rendang (Rendang Daging) or Spicy Beef Stew with Coconut
An Indonesian dish made by simmering beef for hours in coconut milk and spices until the liquid has evaporated. It is then fried in the oil the meat releases, caramelizing what’s left of the sauce around each piece of meat.
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground coriander seed
1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 inch ginger roughly chopped
4 large cloves garlic roughly chopped
4 large shallots roughly chopped (about 7 ounces)
3 tablespoons chili pepper flakes
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 pounds beef shanks or shortribs cut into large cubes
2 stalks lemongrass white part only, smashed
4 kaffir lime leaves
1 inch galangal sliced into coins
1 can thick coconut milk
6 tablespoons toasted coconut
1 tablespoon palm sugar; brown sugar can be substituted
1. Add all the salt, coriander, turmeric, ginger, garlic, shallots, and chili flakes to a food processor and run until there are no clumps left and you have a smooth spice paste. You’ll need to scape the bowl down a few times.
2. Add the oil to a heavy bottomed pot and heat over medium high heat until shimmering. Fry the beef in batches, allowing each surface to brown before turning. Transfer thebrowned beef to a bowl and repeat with the remaining meat.
3. Add the lemongrass, lime leaves and galangal to the hot oil and fry until fragrant. Transfer to the bowl with the browned beef, leaving the oil in the pot.
4. Turn down the heat to medium low, and then add the spice paste. Fry, stirring constantly until very fragrant and most of the moisture has evaporated (about 10-15 minutes). If the paste starts burning, reduce the heat and add a bit of water. Add the coconut milk, toasted coconut and palm sugar, and then return the beef and herbs to the pot, stir to combine the turn the heat down to medium low and loosely cover with a lid (you want some steam to escape). Stir the rendang periodically and simmer for 3-4 hours until the meat is very tender.
5. Once the meat is tender and most of the liquid has evaporated (about 4 hours), remove the lid and turn up the heat. You’ll need to stir the mixture constantly to prevent it from burning, but you want to evaporate as much liquid as you can without burning the meat. At this point there should be quite a bit of oil in the pot from the meat so you’re essentially frying the sauce and concentrating the flavors.
6. The rendang is done when there is almost no sauce left. Ideally you’ll let this sit overnight for the flavors to evenly seep into the meat. During this time, the meat will turn a deep dark brown and the flavors will deepen. Serve the beef rendang with steamed rice.