Gourmet Files Magazine

On the Spice Route

Rendang. Photo: Sonia Nazareth  

We went to Malaysia to eat char koay teow, coconutty curries and nasi lemak. Basically, Peranakan, Malay and any other local food on offer. So we drove the length and breadth of the bigger island, doing just that. On the way, we also saw the country. Dense plantations of palm, with shiny, deep green fronds: palm oil trees were everywhere. Distances were comfortable — we had planned the stages; but every now and then, just as I was beginning to feel peckish, a rest and service area with a shaded food court would appear. The impression of the country was that of cleanliness and efficiency. Some of them looked like some of us and yet everything was different — organised and sparkling — and prescient.

Because someone up there knew; and at the first stop, en route to Melaka, there it was: nasi lemak. I’d eaten nasi goreng and in my favourite kind of research had discovered nasi lemak. Traditionally breakfast, it has now become universal and ubiquitous. If my Malay is right, nasi means rice and lemak (with the ‘k’ just hinted at) is coconut. The rice comes in a conical banana leaf-wrapped package, with standard sides: sliced cucumber, hard-boiled egg halves, crisply fried anchovies, hot and sweet red sambal chutney flavoured with dried prawns, and crunchy brown peanuts. At the highway stop, we chose from different stalls and bought several dishes, including red pineapple curry and green leafy stalks in yellow gravy. Vegetables that day were more exciting than in the rest of our two-and-a-half weeks there, when all we usually found were large, steamed bhindi or okra, bursting with fat seeds.

I returned and attempted the rice, adding salt, a hint of ginger, packaged coconut cream and finely grated coconut while cooking. A flavour I first encountered in Singapore and always loved is that of pandan, screwpine, which the Malays use by dropping a knotted leaf into the cooking rice. I managed with bottled essence, sourced with great difficulty: “Ma’am, we just use fresh leaves.”

The food was almost as delicious as the country, but the one dish that was head and shoulders above the rest was rendang. The word means fried-till-dry, possibly what in the North is bhuna. Because that’s exactly what the dish demands: slow, patient bhuno-ing. I ate it in four restaurants, each one was good, some were better, and one was best. I corralled passing strangers and chefs and extracted their versions of the recipe. At our last stop, Kuala Lumpur, we had an evening with a group of friends-of-friends, and a more elegant, warm and entertaining bunch I’m not likely to meet again. They were raucous and rude with each other but embraced the three of us so snugly and so stylishly that now I’ll always remember KL as the most sophisticated city I’ve ever visited. Asri, with his silver-topped cane, introduced the rest, including Din, Zainud‘din’ Noh, who presented me with Medan Selera Odyssey: The Al-Johori Culinary Legacy, a collection of his grandfather’s recipes. The book has one for rendang, and I amalgamated it with the one from the chef at Casa del Rio, adapting it to use with ingredients I could get here. It turned out well: despite a hundred spices and aromatics, nothing is sharp and strident; the taste is gentle and subtly layered; rich but mild.


Serves 8

1 kg beef (or mutton), boneless, cut into 1 cm cubes

To be coarsely ground:

2 tbsp ginger, chopped

1-2 tbsp galangal, chopped

4 stalks lemon grass, finely sliced

10-15 red chillies, soaked 30 minutes

10-15 shallots or small onions

3 tbsp garlic, chopped

2 tbsp coriander seeds, roasted

1 tbsp aniseed

4-5 turmeric leaves (or 1 tbsp fresh raw turmeric, chopped)

1 torch ginger flower (if available), chopped

6 candle nuts (or cashew)

1 tbsp vegetable oil


2 tbsp tamarind paste

1 cup thick coconut milk

2 tbsp kerisik: grated coconut, toasted till golden and ground

5 kafir lime leaves, finely sliced

1 tbsp grated brown gur or palm sugar

Wash and dry the meat and marinate in ground spices. Reserve the rest. After 2-3 hours, heat oil in a heavy bottomed pan, add salt and cook the meat with marinade. Keep heat low, keep covered, and stir occasionally to prevent scorching. When the meat is almost done (this will take more than an hour), add lime leaves, tamarind, coconut milk and kerisik or toasted coconut. Cook till completely tender. The meat should be dry with no “gravy”. Serve with rice.


Vasundhara Chauhan is a food writer based in Delhi.

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 3:49:06 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/vasundhara-chauhan-talks-of-the-rich-yet-mild-rendang/article8629673.ece

Next Story