When I left for Australia in July, my knowledge of the food culture there was limited. I’d heard that the restaurant and coffee scenes were pretty good. I’d tried a flat white and had taken a stab at making Lamingtons. I expected to see novel fruits and veggies, and beer served in tiny glasses. Everything else would be a surprise.
It turns out, what surprised me most – above finding that a custard apple looks mostly like a dinosaur egg and nothing like an apple, or that Australians order pasties and Devonshire tea without a hint of irony – was the curry.
People were throwing around unfamiliar words like rendang and laksa like they were no big deal. Grocery stores were stocked with premade pastes whose names I’d never seen. I’d thought I had a handle on curries, but in an instant I saw how broad (and somewhat meaningless) the term ‘curry’ really is, and how silly it was for me not to realize that Indonesia and Malaysia, being about as far from Australia as New Zealand is, would influence the country’s foodscape.
In the face of new food, what else do you do but dive in? So my travelling companion and I ate brothy laksas and, especially, coconutty rendangs. We sought out restaurants serving the stuff, and improvised simpler version while camping using prepared curry pastes. The results were spiced more warmly, and with more citrusy flavours (lemongrass! fresh lime leaves!), than the curries I’m used to. And they were just as addictive. A big pot of of complex, fragrant, spicy vegetable stew on a cold night, yes please!
Recreating a rendang now that I’m home is proving to be a challenge. I failed to write down the ingredients’ list on the jar of rendang paste I came to love. And, having now Googled a fair few recipes, I’m finding that internet rendangs lack the nutmeg and cloves that I remember, and also instruct you to boil off the coconut milk rather than leave it as a tasty sauce.
So now, I’m on a mission to improvise my way back to the dish I remember, my saucy take on rendang. And today’s recipe, my first attempt, turns out to be…well, nothing at all like what I remember.
It’s hearty, spicy and citrusy – an excellent combination if you, like me, are surrounded by snow. But next time, I’ll up the coconut milk by half a cup and toss in some nutmeg and cloves. I’ll also swap the starchy potatoes for more rice-friendly veggies like snap peas and greens.
But it’s a start, and a tasty one at that. So while you wait for Rendang: Round Two, dig into a bowl of steaming, coconut-covered potatoes and think of adventure!
Adapted from Serious Eats, Raging Cravings, and the BBC (phew!)
Note: To try to replicate the flavour of the dish I first tried, I’ll add a few cloves and a bit of grated nutmeg at the same time as the veggies and coconut milk (which I’ll up by a half cup). You can also try swapping other veggies for the potatoes and cauliflower (peppers, carrots, snap peas and greens would all be tasty). Make sure to adjust the cooking time downwards so that your veggies don’t get soggy!
Ingredients - Curry Paste*
1 small onion
4 cloves of garlic, peeled
2 stalks of lemongrass, woody layers discarded and remaining stalks bruised with the flat side of a knife
2 inch knob of ginger
2 tsp ground tumeric
2 tsp dried chile flakes
2 tsp ground coriander
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
Water as needed
Ingredients - Everything Else!
2 tbsp oil (olive, coconut and vegetable will all work)
1lb baby potatoes, washed and halved (~3 cups)
1lb cauliflower, washed and quartered (~ 3 cups)
2 cups coconut milk
1 tbsp tamarind paste (or 1 tbsp lime juice)
1 tbsp brown sugar
3/4 tsp salt
zest of 1 lime
1/2 cup unsweetened, grated coconut
juice of 1 lime
For serving: Fresh cilantro, lime wedges and (optional) cooked rice
Roughly chop your onion, garlic, lemongrass and ginger. Transfer the ingredients to the bowl of a food processor and add the turmeric, chile flakes, coriander and cinnamon. Blend until you have a reasonably smooth paste, adding water a teaspoon at a time as needed to help the paste come together (I used 5 teaspoons total).**
In a wide saucepan set over medium heat, heat your oil until hot. Carefully add the paste to the pot and cook for 5-7 minutes, until the paste is super-aromatic and beginning to brown, stirring regularly.
Next, add your potatoes, cauliflower, coconut milk, tamarind paste, salt and lime zest to the pot, stirring until the potatoes and cauliflower are evenly coated in the sauce.
Bring the pot to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and cook until the potatoes are nearly tender, 25-35 minutes, stirring regularly. Stir in the grated coconut and cook over medium heat for 5 minutes, or until the potatoes are cooked through. Stir in the lime juice.
Give it a taste, season as you see fit, and serve with cilantro, lime wedges and, if you’re up for carbs upon carbs, freshly cooked rice. I found the starch on starch to be a bit much, and would serve the dish without rice next time around.
*In Edmonton, ingredients like tamarind paste and fresh lemongrass can be found at Superstore. You can also find lemongrass paste and, sometimes, fresh lemongrass at Save On Foods.
**If you don’t have a food processor, you can blend the ingredients together using a mortar and pestle. If you go this route, chop your ingredients a little finer to make the blending process easier.