Simmer

Rendang Rigatoni

April 14, 2020
Photo by James Ransom
Author Notes

There’s something uniquely comforting about ragù over pasta. Whether it’s a Neapolitan ragù with chunky hunks of meat cooked long and slow till spoon-tender, or a classic bolognese with strands of spaghetti swimming through a beefy red sauce, a ragù always provides an abundance of warmth, contentment, and if you’re not careful, a couple of saucy flecks on your white T-shirt too.

But you don’t have to look solely to Imola—the birthplace of the first documented ragù—or even Italy, for a heart-enveloping sauce to go with your pasta. In Southeast Asia, there is a dish that is a ragù in every sense but the name. I’m talking about rendang.

Rendang is an Indonesian dish of stewed meat buttressed by garlic, shallots, and chilies, with top notes of herbaceous lemongrass, galangal, and turmeric leaf. But what defines a rendang is really the coconut milk that the meat is braised in. Coconut milk (called santan in Malay) lends a jammy coating to the meat, and thick, caramel richness to the sauce as a whole.

As for the protein, most rendangs call for slow-cooking cuts of beef like chuck and oxtail. Though uncommon, I’ve found that ground beef works just as well—and in half the time.

Ground beef is synonymous with ragù, and in particular, Bolognese. Like a Bolognese, this version here starts with a bouquet of sweated aromatics. Then, the minced meat, aided by a few punchy accompaniments—commonly pancetta and bay leaves for Bolognese, cumin and coriander powder for rendang—join the party. A heavy pour of coconut milk brings everyone together.

And, just like a Bolognese, when married with pasta, rendang delivers the same filling, lip-smacking satisfaction. My bias is to go with a heftier pasta like rigatoni, but if all you have languishing in your pantry is spaghetti, don’t fret. While some think spaghetti noodles are too thin and unwieldy for a ragù, I’d say that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as you’ll have a pool of rendang to lap up post spaghetti-slurping.

And the best thing? Rendangs keep well. Really well. My mom is a staunch believer in a day-two rendang. According to her—and many Malaysian home cooks for that matter—rendangs often taste better after a night or two in the fridge, after the meat and spices and sauce have had time to really meld. —Yi Jun Loh

  • Prep time 5 minutes
  • Cook time 1 hour 40 minutes
  • Serves 4
Ingredients
  • Spice paste
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 medium yellow onion, peeled
  • 5 shallots, peeled
  • 2 dried red chiles
  • 2 fresh red chiles, seeded
  • 1 1-inch piece of ginger
  • 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
  • 2 stalks lemongrass, tough outer layers removed, roughly chopped
  • Sauce & Assembly
  • 4 tablespoons neutral oil, such as vegetable or grapeseed
  • 1 pound ground beef (preferably chuck and 20% fat)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon ground coriander
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup unsweetened dried coconut, toasted and blended to a paste
  • 1 turmeric or pandan leaf, thinly sliced (optional)
  • 8 ounces dried rigatoni
In This Recipe
Directions
  1. Blend all the ingredients for the spice paste in a food processor or a blender until finely minced. If needed, add a tablespoon or two of water to help the mixture blend smoothly. (Alternatively, you can pound them in a mortar and pestle.)
  2. Pour the oil into a pot, and place it over medium heat, and heat until oil starts to shimmer. Add in the spice paste and sauté gently for 6-8 minutes, or until the paste is thickened and starting to stick.
  3. Season the ground beef evenly with 1/2 tsp salt, cumin, coriander, and fennel, then add to the pot. Combine well with the paste, and cook until beef is lightly browned and the liquid has evaporated, about 5 minutes.
  4. Add the coconut milk, 1⁄2 cup water, brown sugar and the remaining 1 ½ teaspoons salt. Give it a quick stir, then turn the heat down to low. Let the rendang simmer for at least an hour, until the coconut milk turns thick and caramelizes, and the beef becomes soft and tender (like in a bolognese). Make sure to stir the pot every 10-15 minutes so the rendang doesn’t catch and burn on the bottom.
  5. When the rendang is almost done—the gravy should be thick, like the consistency of relish—add in the coconut paste and sliced turmeric leaf, if using, and let simmer for a final 10 minutes. If not using the rendang immediately, let cool to room temperature, then store in the refrigerator for up to a week.
  6. If having the rendang that same day, bring 4 quarts of well-salted water (estimating 1 tablespoon per quart of water) to a boil. Cook the rigatoni until al dente, then drain, reserving a cup of the pasta water.
  7. Add the rigatoni to the rendang, and stir vigorously to bring the two together, adding pasta water if needed. Divide between bowls and serve.

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Engineer + cook + food blogger. All about cross-cultural cooking, funky-fresh ferments, and abusing alliteration.