This recipe comes from Rohati, my cooking guru in Padang, West Sumatra. She offered me a few sage words of advice when she gave it to me. First, she said, allow plenty of time to make it. Rendang has its own lethargic cooking rhythm, so that the more you try to rush it, the longer it seems to take. I know what she means. I've often underestimated how long it takes to cook and have left hungry dinner guests waiting while it continued slowly to simmer away. Second, she said, use a shallow, wide pan, such as a skillet, rather than a deep soup pot. The less enclosed the cooking space, the easier it will be for the liquid to evaporate—in other words, the opposite of how you want to cook a curry. And third, Rohati advised me always to use the best-quality beef I can get. In America this means avoiding precut stewing beef, which is of inconsistent quality. Instead, choose boneless chuck or bottom round laced through with bright white fat and cut it into cubes yourself.
"Rendang is sacred food in West Sumatra," Rohati said. "If you skimp on ingredients, you risk upsetting Allah."
If you decide to use the maximum number of chiles this recipe calls for, you may need to use a standard-sized food processor, rather than a small one. An excellent garnish for this dish is a tablespoon of very finely sliced fresh or thawed, frozen kaffir lime leaves. Be sure to remove the center stem of each leaf before slicing it.
2. Add the shallots, garlic, chiles, turmeric, ginger, galangal (if using), and candlenuts to the ground spices. Pulse until you have a chunky-smooth paste the consistency of cooked oatmeal.
3. In a 12-inch skillet (nonstick works best), mix the beef and the flavoring paste until well combined. Add the coconut milk, lemongrass, cinnamon, whole lime leaves, daun salam leaves (if using), and salt. Stir well to combine and bring to a gentle boil over medium heat. Immediately reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer uncovered at a slow, steady bubble, stirring every 10 to 20 minutes with a spatula to prevent the meat and coconut milk from sticking and scorching. You'll probably need to adjust the heat periodically to maintain an even simmer.
4. The meat, coconut milk, and flavoring paste will now go on a fascinating journey. At first, the broth will be thin and gorgeously bright orange. As it cooks, the coconut milk will reduce, its fats (as well as the fat the meat renders) separating from the solids. It will become progressively thicker and darker, eventually turning brown. Continue to simmer gently until the liquid has reduced by about 95 percent, stirring every 15 minutes or so to prevent sticking. Only the meat, oils, and a bit of very thick sauce will remain in the pot. This will take anywhere from 2 to 3 hours, depending on the skillet that you use, how hot the fire is, and the richness of the coconut milk. Test the meat; it should be tender enough to poke easily with a fork. Taste some of the liquid for salt, and add a pinch more if needed.
5. When all the liquid has evaporated, reduce the heat to low (the meat and the remaining sauce are prone to burning) and allow the beef to brown slowly in the rendered fat. (The fat may be foamy at this point, but it will settle down when the cooking stops.) Stir every 5 minutes or so to prevent sticking and scorching, being careful not to break the beef apart. Continue sautÃˆing the beef until it's the color of roasted coffee beans, 5 to 10 minutes longer. The surface of the beef should be barely moist and have an appetizing oily sheen. (If there is too much oil in the pan for your liking, skim some of it off with a spoon and set aside for later use; it's wonderful for sautéing potatoes.)
6. Remove and discard the cinnamon, lemongrass, lime leaves, and daun salam leaves (if used), and then transfer the beef to a serving dish. (Alternatively, serve this dish with all the aromatics, for a more rustic presentation.) Garnish with the shredded lime leaves, if using. Allow the beef to rest for at least 30 minutes before serving. Slightly warm room temperature will best show off its intensely aromatic flavors. This dish will taste even better the next day.
"Often you find that there are ways you can improve techniques or recipes," says J. Kenji López-Alt, author of The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science.