Never put sugar in a rendang – and other spicy advice

Ajesh Patalay takes a lesson in Indonesian cooking with two stars of the cuisine

Spring rolls
Spring rolls | Image: Louise Hagger

Originally the plan was to cook together. By which I mean in the same kitchen. Then we had to adapt. Haven’t we all? That was how I ended up on a video call with two Indonesian cooks from either side of London, tackling the classic West Sumatran dish beef rendang. As an experience, it was weird and yet oddly familiar – like cooking with family – which was kind of the point.

“My rendang is always my grandmother’s,” said Sri Owen, the 85-year-old doyenne of Indonesian cuisine, speaking from her care home in southwest London. “The recipe is simple: shallots, garlic, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, turmeric, bay leaves and lots of chillies. She’d cook it for 20 people at a time in a very large steel wok.”

Beef rendang
Beef rendang | Image: Louise Hagger

On the other half of my iPhone, her protégée, 36-year‑old supper-club and street-food chef Lara Lee, who was standing in her kitchen in east London. Her debut cookery bookCoconut & Sambal (Bloomsbury, £26) is out this month. She was readying herself to cook beef rendang according to her recipe, which is similar to Owen’s but adds ground cumin and coriander and kaffir lime leaves.

Lee trimmed the fat from 1kg of brisket beef, cut the meat into 3-4cm cubes, whizzed up the spice paste in a food processor, added it with the beef and aromatics to her Le Creuset pot and poured in 800ml of coconut milk, before bringing it to the boil, while Owen gave me the lowdown on what makes a good rendang. In Malaysia, she explained, you will sometimes see the addition of desiccated coconut, cinnamon, even tamarind. “I quite like tamarind in chicken rendang,” she pronounced, “but not in beef. Also I don’t like mine sweet. Sometimes the coconut milk gives a lot of sweetness. As do shallots. You should never put sugar in a rendang.”

Advertisement

Beef rendang was among the first dishes Owen and Lee cooked together when they met almost three years ago. Lee, who trained at Leiths School of Food and Wine, was planning a cookery book on her family’s culture that aimed “to bring Indonesian cuisine to the forefront of the British food scene”, as she boldly put it in her introductory email to Owen. She hoped Owen might be a mentor.

Lee, who grew up in Sydney the daughter of an Australian mother and Indonesian father, had always felt largely alienated from her Indonesian heritage. “We didn’t visit Indonesia as a family till I was 20,” she recalled. “The only glimmer of Indonesian life I had was through food.”

Sri Owen and Lara Lee
Sri Owen and Lara Lee

The cooking of her late Timorese grandmother (or Popo) made a big impression – “kroket kambing, these crumbled balls of spiced lamb mince wrapped in mashed potato; ikan bakar, grilled fish coated in a spice paste or sambal; and sweet soy stewed pork belly called babi kecap” – but Lee had long forgotten how to recreate her meals.

Lee’s new book, a transporting jaunt across Indonesia, contains all these recipes and more, sourced from her six months spent cooking with chefs and families around the archipelago, and through relationships she forged there via Owen. “From the start I admired her passion and determination,” said Owen. Not that she gave the young chef an easy time. On her first visit to Owen’s house in Wimbledon, Lee found herself unexpectedly cooking for 12 (a group from the South East Asian Women’s Club) under Owen’s strict tutelage. Dishes included beef rendang, gado-gado (a cooked salad with peanut sauce) and bebek betutu (Balinese duck).

Lara Lee’s grandmother Margaret at her bakery in Kupang, Timor
Lara Lee’s grandmother Margaret at her bakery in Kupang, Timor

Nonetheless, Lee came back every week for more. “Sri taught me everything she knows,” she said. “She also helped me to relax. I didn’t trust my ability to freestyle. She had an intuitive way of cooking, like my grandmother. It wasn’t grams or teaspoons, it was a handful of chillies, a thumbful of ginger. We’d be constantly tasting and tweaking. It was about feeling rather than being prescriptive about a recipe.”

By then, the beef rendang was simmering. Apart from regular stirs, there wasn’t much to do until it reached the kalio stage, when the coconut milk splits and a reddish-orange oil rises to the surface, marking your cue to turn up the heat, reduce the sauce and stir-fry the meat so it browns and turns crispy. Lee and I agreed to reconvene, and I said goodbye to Owen.

Corn fritters
Corn fritters | Image: Louise Hagger

Later I asked about Owen as a mentor and Lee recalled the long discussions they had after their sessions in Wimbledon. “Sri would often poke fun at me for being a messy chef and not cleaning up as I go. But while I was washing up, she would sit and sip coffee, and I could ask her questions about her life and Indonesian cuisine. She had a thousand and one stories, and I was keen to know them all.”

In 2018, Owen moved to a care home with her husband, who has Alzheimer’s. She couldn’t take many kitchen possessions and so gifted some to Lee, including all her jars of spices and her prized steamer and wok, which her mother had given her on her wedding day. It felt like a baton had been passed.

Margaret and her husband Liong as a young couple
Margaret and her husband Liong as a young couple

That evening, I took delivery of Lee’s beef rendang. The meat was spicy, aromatic, tender, melt-in-your-mouth delicious and not too sweet. As comfort food goes, it couldn’t have been better. 

@ajesh34

Advertisement

See also

Advertisement
Loading