From the Alleyways of Java

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about travel and Southeast Asian flavors. Here’s an essay I wrote a few of months ago for the Passport & Plate competition. Unfortunately, I did not win the trip to Sri Lanka, but next year I’ll have plenty of travel stories and recipes to choose from.


I first discovered Beef Rendang when my Indonesian couchsurfing host, Steve, took me on the back of his motorcycle in search of the best padang joints. These eateries offer a hybrid between hawker fare and restaurant dining. The entire menu was already cooked and neatly arrayed so that you could simply order by pointing.





I was in the midst of a whirlwind trip through Southeast Asia. In one month, I visited Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Having grown up eating Thai food in Southern Georgia, I was familiar the basic components of Southeast Asian cooking, but what struck me was how many turns the flavors could take by adding an ingredient or two.

In particular, the  flavors of Beef Rendang surprised me. Comparing this dish with beef stew simply does not do it justice. The aromatic flavors of galangal, ginger, lemongrass, and kaffir contrasted with the almost dessert flavors of cinnamon, caramelized sugar, and nutmeg.

Some of the many ingredients that make beef rendang wonderful
Some of the many ingredients that make beef rendang wonderful







Ingredient lists in beef rendang recipes can be numerous. Tragically, they tend to downplay perhaps the most important ingredient: time.

Given the fall-apart texture, it’s no surprised that this dish is braised for hours. But, therein lies another twist. Rather than searing the beef and then simmering as in a western braise, the meat is simmered in spices and coconut milk for hours and then browned.

Final product after hours of braising







I recreated beef rendang as part of my Tour of Southeast Asia party where I served one dish for each of my destinations, in the order that I visited them. Since Indonesia was at the heart of my trip, I made beef rendang my centerpiece course.

While recreating these dishes at home, I spent hours smashing spices in the mortar and pestle. The sheer physicality of making Southeast Asian food made me appreciate the many hours spent by padang joints before their first customers even arrive. This recipe combines ideas from over a dozen recipes and suggests shortcuts while capturing the essence of beef rendang as I got to know it in the alleyways of Java.

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