Penang. One of the best places in the world for food. And I challenge anyone who has been there to dispute that. The sheer variety alone is staggering, the collision of Malaysian, Indian, Chinese and Nyonya cuisine making for a kaleidoscope of styles and the selection of fresh ingredients, from fruits you can’t find anywhere else, to fish straight from the sea, and all those spices that made the country so very attractive to colonisers Penang food just can’t be beat. (And that doesn’t even cover their coffee and tea). I insisted on bringing an authentic cookbook back with me from Malaysia, and since then it’s been sat gathering dust in my bookcase; the food was amazing but I just didn’t see how I could recreate it at home in my completely non-exotic, not-especially-warm, and definitely-not-stocked-full-of-Malaysian-ingredients kitchen. Pandan leaves? I’ve a hazy recollection of what they are, but as for finding them in this grey and chilly land, I don’t fancy my chances. However, in the interests of, I don’t know what really, a new year I guess, I decided it was finally time to cook the book, as it were.
A little unhelpfully, this book isn’t divided into starters, mains and desserts as I had sort of expected. Instead, and I suppose this is a fair nod to the eating habits of all the Malaysians I met, it’s divided by region, and within each region loosely starts at savoury food and works its way towards sweet food. I don’t think I actually sat down and ate a three-course meal in my time in Malaysia. There were many one- and two-course meals, and possibly a few that extended to more, as well as a couple of magnificent feasts, punctuated by snacks, larger snacks and general grazing, these in turn punctuated by drinks, iced delights and the ubiquitous sweet “pulled” tea. And, by dint of eating as much as I could in each place I travelled to, I did manage to tell the difference (in some cases) between the different cuisines. And I suppose this is a more accurate representation of the food. A “Malaysian” cookbook offering one recipe for Rendang is like a British Isles cookbook offering one recipe for Rarebit; the name is wrong as its full name should be Welsh rarebit, or Irish rarebit, and it’s a lie to suggest that it is the only recipe out there when there are so many variations. Plus, a cookbook laid out on a regional basis, with the names of most recipes in Malaysian I might add, makes for great recipe roulette. Who knows, it might force me to go and try and find pandan leaves in my local supermarket.
Penang beef rendang
From The Complete Malaysian Cookbook
Good rendang should be hot and spicy. I used 1 large red chilli with its seeds (plus the crushed chillies) and it was probably a “medium” as curries go, warm from the moment it hits your tongue, but with a fairly subtle finish. Next time I’d use two fresh chillies for a real kick. If you like, you can scrape the seeds out to make it less spicy, though in my opinion that defeats the point of using a chilli almost entirely.
1 shallot, diced
1 teaspoon dried, crushed chillies
1-2 fresh red chillies, chopped
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 1-inch knob of ginger, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 stalk of lemongrass, chopped
4 cashew nuts
300g beef, cut into strips (I used stir-fry beef, ready cut)
200ml coconut milk
1. In a large wok or frying pan heat a drizzle of oil and fry the shallots for 5 minutes, or until lightly brown.
2. In a pestle and mortar grind the dried and fresh chillies, garlic, ginger, turmeric, lemongrass and cashew nuts to a paste and add to the pan. Fry for a couple of minutes until fragrant and the oil starts to separate out.
3. Add the beef and fry quickly until the meat is browned on all sides. Once the water starts to come out of the meat pour in the coconut milk and stir. simmer over a low heat until the sauce is thick (mine took about 20 minutes to simmer down, but wasn’t as thick as I would have liked. I’d suggest cooking for at least 30-40 minutes to get a good thick sauce).
4. Once the sauce is as thick as you’d like (and good rendang should be really gloopy) add salt to taste. Serve over rice.