I’ve always believed you have to have been born in the Orient to be a dab hand at curries, or spicy sauces or any slow-cooked dish—vegetarian or protein. How else can you get close to understanding the flavours that come from a teaspoon of this, a cup of that, an infusion of something else? These are the smells and flavours that become second nature to those lucky enough to be born into a house of spice.
We’re not just talking of one lifetime here. We’re talking of generations on generations. And we’re talking about a way of life. There’s nothing really new about that. The home cooks of France use recipes that have never left the hearth of home; the diaspora of Europeans and Asians that has made Australia such a wonderful melting pot brought their families’ handed-down, never-to-be-meddled-with methods with them.
To understand the food of all cultures, cookbooks, guide books, travel essays, tourism, and eating out, all help a little bit, but in the end nothing teaches like experience—taking it all in from the experts. You need to see, and hear, and smell, and taste. You need to be with the dish and all its ingredients and methods from the beginning to understand how it finally comes together.
When cooking French or Italian or Greek, the method is generally the key to a positive outcome, but with the foods of Asia you need to understand the impact that a soupçon of fenugreek or fennel seeds, or a crush of cardamom pods, can make on the way through, and to the final result. You need to ask a wise old cook why some spices need to be roasted, why some don’t, and why some are happy either way. You need to be told why chilli, and why not; why tamarind water and why not; the impact of long-cooked onions on the body of a curry, the difference between galangal and ginger, lemongrass and lemon zest, fresh and dried. You need to see the way a dish bubbles: fast, medium, slow, slower; and when done is done.
Simple if you happen to come from a cooking environment in Bangkok, or Kuala Lumpur, or Delhi, or Jakarta, or Phnom Penh, or Hanoi. Not quite the same if you come from Bondi or Burwood, or the back of Bourke.
Whenever you come across a dish you enjoy sourced from afar, ask about it; ask how it came together, ask for the recipe. You’ll get it, you’ll try it, and you’ll probably need to ask again so you’ll know then exactly how it should look, feel and taste. That’s how this dish came into my repertoire more than 25 years ago. I took lunch in an oriental garden in the inner suburbs of Melbourne. The host, Chong Weng Ho, a proud son of Malaysia, and the design guru behind the work of the Text Media Group then and now, put on a magnificent spread: the flavours were clean, the combinations flawless and the presentation simple, yet ultimately appealing; every dish was completely appetising, with not a touch of excess oil or fat.
The day’s highlight was Chong’s beef rendang, so dry, yet so moist and tender at the same time.
“How is it so?” said I.
“Most people,” he said, “don’t cook it long enough.” This is his recipe, modified for the Thermomix.