Rendang with Beef Cheeks


Rendang is one of the dishes I wrote about a long time ago when I hardly had any visitors. I have been meaning to repost it for quite a long time because it has a special place in my heart (and my palate!). If I mention it twice on my blog it’s obviously because it’s one of the most extraordinary Asian dishes I know, but, most of all, because, apart from steak tartare, this is actually the only beef dish I am fond of and the only one where I  wouldn’t substitute beef with any other meat.

For those of you who have never heard about it, rendang is a very famous Indonesian meat stew from Padang, a city on the Sumatra Island, and is sometimes called Padang Style Spicy Beef. It consists of the meat slowly simmered in a mixture of coconut milk and spices and herbs. The most frequent version found in Indonesian restaurants is prepared with beef. I still remember the first time I tasted rendang in a restaurant and was amazed how excellent a beef dish can taste.

My first home experiments with rendang were good but I the crucial moment was when a butcher advised me beef cheeks instead of the usual “simmering” beef cuts. The difference in taste and texture was so huge that since then I have been preparing rendang exclusively with beef cheeks and am still convinced this is the best cut for this dish.

Beef cheeks, one of the most delicious and unjustly ignored part are quite lean (if the butcher removes the fat, but it’s possible to do at home), they are obviously very dense and literally all muscles (everyone knows what the cows are doing with their jaws all day long…), they contain a lot of gelatin and are cheap. When raw, they are very tough, ugly and if you can’t ask the butcher to cut them up into pieces, they require a very good big knife and a certain dexterity. In my kitchen the only utensils able to deal with them is a Chinese cleaver and a ceramic knife… However, these unattractive bits, when simmered for three – four hours, miraculously get transformed into a mouth-melting delight… Needless to say, since I discovered this marvellous beef cut, I have abandoned all the remaining “good for simmering” parts.

Even though the preparation takes several hours and includes quite a long list of ingredients, it is really worth trying. Even the pickiest and least adventurous eaters enjoy it (unless you tell them these are beef cheeks BEFORE they ask for a second serving 😉 ). Moreover, rendang’s preparation can easily be divided in two or even three stages. I usually start simmering the beef at night, then leave it overnight and start again the night I intend to serve it. Obviously this is the kind of dish, which gains on flavour when reheated.

I found my recipe in the  Singaporean, Indonesian and Malaysian Cuisine by Christina Sjahir Hwang. I have slightly adapted the spicy mixture’s amount to be used only in this dish and reduced the coconut milk amount (see TIPS).

TIPS: As I have already mentioned beef cheeks are very difficult to cut, so either ask your butcher to cut them into 5 cm/about 2 in cubes or make sure you have a cleaver or a very sharp big knife (and make sure you cut them carefully).

This recipe (like many Indonesian recipes) calls for candlenuts. I found these here twice and twice, according to my Chinese friend, they were rancid. She advised using macadamia nuts instead, which I used to use until last week when I discovered that almonds are a great (though tasteless) substitute here. I always have ground almonds, so it’s very convenient, especially since the recipe calls for so many ingredients.

Coconut milk evaporates at the end of the simmering process and the sauce becomes really greasy and very rich. I prefer it lighter, but still creamy, hence the radical reduction of coconut milk (200 ml instead of 500ml). I dilute it with water which will evaporate anyway and the thickened sauce at the end is much lighter.

Rendang tastes great sprinkled with coriander, but I have accidentally discovered another plant, perfect for this dish: Vietnamese mint (on the photo above). It’s a pungent plant, somewhere between mint and coriander and I have only discovered it a couple of weeks ago.

Before I pass to the recipe I wanted to say that telepathy does exist  in the blogging world and this post is the best example. I haven’t prepared rendang for long months and as soon as I did, I took some photos, prepared today’s post and… only last night I saw beef rendang as Shu Han’s most recent post! And guess which beef cut did she use in her dish? Beef cheeks! I hope you might hop to Mummy, I can cook! and find interesting to compare her original version which also includes venison…

Special equipment:

a very good big, sharp knife or a cleaver

a food processor or a mortar

Preparation: 4 – 6 hours (depends on the animal)

Ingredients (serves 3-4):

3 teaspoons salt

600g-700g/about 1,5 lb beef cheeks, without fat and cut into chunks

500 ml/about 2 cups coconut milk (I use 200 ml coconut milk diluted with water; this makes the dish lighter, but of course depends on your preferences)

Spicy mixture:

3 tablespoons chili

2 big garlic cloves

1 small shallot 

1 tablespoon candlenuts or macadamia nuts or almonds

1 tablespoon mixed or chopped fresh galangal

1 stalk lemon grass, crushed with the knife handle

1 teaspoon fresh chopped ginger

6 makrut lime leaves (known also as kafir)

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon tamarind juice (or 1 tablespoon tamarind seeds and flesh mixture diluted in water and strained)

Cut up the makrut lime leaves, the lemon grass, the galangal and the shallot very finely (this is important; otherwise you might end up with big threads or unpleasant chunks if you mix bigger pieces in some types of food processors…).

Mix the spicy mixture ingredients in a food processor or in a mortar into a homogenous paste.

Put the mixture into a big pan with coconut milk and bring to boil.

Lower the heat, add the beef cheeks and salt. Cover and simmer for 4-6 hours, adding water if necessary.

Take off the lid and let it simmer until the sauce thickens and the meat falls into pieces when “cut” with a teaspoon.

Serve with rice.

56 Replies to “Rendang with Beef Cheeks”

  1. i am surprise you can also cook a good rendang..Usually Malaysia version, we also add turmeric leaf and kerisik (roast coconut).

  2. Sissi I travelled across Indonesia for several weeks by myself when I was younger. There were several dishes that I LOVED and this is one of them. However I have never tried to make it — mostly because I have never seen a recipe. I remember loving the coconut flavour as well as the unique flavour combination of all the spices melded into the tender beef. Thanks for the recipe and for bringing back many fond memories!

    1. Barb, I wish I could visit Indonesia too. (At least I’m sure I would love the food!). I have made this recipe at least 20 times, so it’s really foolproof (unless I’m bad at explaining 😉 ). Do give it a try one day.

  3. Awesome dish, and its not a very long list of ingredients.
    I think you should tell guests that you used beef cheeks, and even show them photos of the cheek. Guests will eat less, more for you:)
    I like to prepare thai curry this way, cook until most of the coconut milk has evaporated.

    1. Thank you so much, Mr. Three-Cookies. You are right! I should warn people before serving this dish 😉 (I should even show them some raw cheeks just before serving! They really look not appetising). I must try your Thai curry method.

  4. Blogging telepathy, I love it! (and believe in it). A blogging buddy of mine just spoke to the “subliminal, virtual inspiration” of my orange ginger shrimp… 😉 – it does exist for sure and it’s so cool to think how that works…I know what you mean about wanting to revisit recipes that were posted when we first started out our blogging journeys… some great stuff didn’t get the attention that it may have deserved before we had followers, including this delightful number. I always love how you work with a few super tasty ingredients to lift your recipes sky high on the flavour front. The coconut milk must bring all of these delicious herbs/spices together in a warming bowl of delight!

    1. Kelly, it has happened to me several times. I still remember, I think with Mr. Three-Cookies we made exactly the same recipe the same day. It was incredible! “Subliminal, virtual inspiration” sounds beautiful. I am glad you like my reposting idea. I am very happy myself when bloggers go back to their old recipes and repost them or at least mention them, so I hope some of my visitors feel the same. Thank you for the compliments. Here I have always exactly followed the precise Indonesian recipe and must say that the flavours are extraordinary.

  5. Hey Sissi! Beef cheeks? I’ve not cooked with that cut of meat before, and to tell you the truth, the idea makes me feel a bit uneasy for some reason, the image of Andrew Zimmern comes to mind… Though I definitely trust your recommendation!

    Love the photography by the way, the little tray adds so much to the foodscape.

    OK, onto candle nuts, my Indonesian friend (who is an excellent cook) introduced me to them, I was so excited when I bought them at the Asian market, then came home to Google, come to find out they are poisonous before cooking, and that alone stopped me from ever opening the package. Almond sounds like a much better alternative!

    1. Thank you so much for the compliment, Jeno. It’s so difficult to make rendang look attractive… Beef cheeks are just big muscles and if you didn’t know, you would never guess these are cheeks…
      My Chinese friend has also warned me they were toxic if raw but she said that of course after hours of simmering there is no danger (you know, raw potatoes are also toxic! When I was a child I knew that if you eat a piece of raw potato you get fever and can cheat if you don’t want to go to school, but I also remember that eating a whole raw potato might be really dangerous). They are not as easily available as macadamia or almonds and since I bought them rancid I stopped even trying. I buy ground almonds in 1 kg packages (I bake a lot with almonds for my husband), so it’s at least one ingredient I don’t have to worry about.

  6. I too believe in blogging telepathy! What a coincidence that you both used the same cut of meat. I have never heard of using beef cheeks, now I’m intrigued and must try it. In my fitness class the other day, a group of us girls were talking about food around the world, specifically Indonesian food! can’t wait to tell them about your recipe!

  7. What an tasty sounding recipe, I’ve not cooked beef cheeks before but I do see them on menus all the time. I’m going to look for your previous post to see this recipe, Sissi. I’m sorry I didn’t know you back then.
    Yes I do believe in blogging telepathy, it’s such an interesting phenomenon.

    1. Thank you very much, Eva. This is an incredibly good dish and definitely worth the long cooking time. I suppose it must be easier to prepare in a slow cooker.

  8. The beef dish sounds very tasty but unless I’ve already had a dish and loved it, accumulating a long list of ingredients and an extensive preparation method makes me less likely to try it out. I’ll have to see if there are any Indonesian restaurants around. 🙂

    1. Thank you, A_Boleyn. Actually, since I cook Thai from time to time, I usually have frozen galangal, fresh lemon grass is sold in my “normal” supermarket’s exotic section and I couldn’t live without ginger. Tamarind keeps practically for years in the fridge and other ingredients are quite often used in the dishes I cook, but I understand that for someone who doesn’t cook Thai or Indonesian regularly, the list must mean buying lots of stuff only for this dish. If however one day you feel like playing with a very original new mixture of flavours, I recommend rendang (strangely I have never heard anyone disliking it! even my pickiest friend loves it). Of course if there is a good Indonesian restaurant, tasting rendang will be easier 😉

  9. Rendang is really delicious and your recipe sounds perfect. I made Rendang with an ox leg cut some time ago, this meat part works too. I love slow cooked meat dishes, stews, the sauce and the meat develop such deep flavours. The colouring of rendang is one of the best for meat stew I have ever seen because the coconut sauce seems to caramelize during cooking. The first time I read about rendang I was very surprised usally the cooking methods in far east asia seem to be quick and hot but looking at Indian curries it makes sense. What makes me wonder, my recipe called for some palm sugar (did not use candle nuts too). Maybe it was not the real one. I will try your recipe for sure.

    1. Thanks a lot, Kiki. I have never cooked with ox leg. It sounds very intriguing. Maybe your recipe was Malaysian? In my cookery book candlenuts are quite regularly used. I hope I will have an Indonesian visitor who will tell me the truth one day 🙂 I hope you will like it!

  10. I love beef rendang! You did such a wonderful job with the dish! I’m also going to try to find that cookbook that you wrote about. I can’t have enough Indonesian cookbooks in my collection!

  11. Have cooked rendang for more than three decades and still oft turn to itfor fast and known simplicity : lovely recipe, but, to me, it has always had a Malaysian base and all the Oz ‘readymade’ mixes [and some are actually wonderfully good] denote it as such?

    1. Well, I don’t always believe wikipedia, but both Wikipedia and my cookery book (which covers also Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine) place this dish as Indonesian in origins. Maybe the Malaysian version is the most known in Australia, hence the Malaysian origins of what is served in your country?

    2. I have also just checked the very famous blog, Rasa Malaysia, whose author is Malaysian. She also says rendang has Indonesian origins.

    1. Thank you so much, Karen. In certain countries this beef cut is practically non-existent or sold at butcher’s for almost nothing as dog food 😉 In France it’s highly praised for slowly cooked dishes and every butcher sells it (although I think it’s not sold in supermarkets; it’s a “gourmet” cut 😉 like flank steak for example).

  12. I am yet to cook with beef cheeks Sissi, but having sampled them at various restaurants I see how it would be a perfect cut for something like rendang. Great to see you made the spice mix from scratch, and of course thanks for reminding us of the less popular but delicious cuts of meat out there!

    1. Thanks a lot, Martyna. I have never seen a ready-to-use rendang mix, but I like making everything from the scratch because rendang takes so much time anyway and I don’t cook it often…

  13. LOL!! I love how you’ve tagged this … HOT. Beware people!
    Honestly, you really should make your way to this part of the world and have your fill of hot, hot and more hot curries, rendangs, kerabus … and I’m just talking about Malaysia (you can get food from Thailand, influences of Indonesia in our local Malay dishes, Nyonya, Chinese, Indians, Portugese, Punjabis … ) or just hop over to the neighboring countries from here.
    I love your rendang. Beautifully done! And your butcher is right … beef cheeks work beautifully! I haven’t tried it with Vietnamese mint tho. Must do so the next time we have rendang. I love adding finely sliced young (so that you don’t get your throat poked) kaffir lime leaves at the end of the cooking process. It adds a lovely fresh fragrance.

    1. Thank you so much, Ping. It’s hot, but I would say rather medium hot. You bet I will go to Malaysia one day to sample all those delicacies your write about. Thank you for the compliments, I really appreciate them especially from you. The funny thing is that rendang is the first dish where I cooked beef cheeks 😉 It would make laugh many French people I’m sure because it’s available at every French butcher’s and the French cook of course French dishes with it. Thank you for the kaffir leaves idea, I will try it next time with smaller leaves hoping they are younger. I remember I once used them at the end sprinkled on top but as you say they were probably too old because it was tough and not very pleasant.

      1. Hope this helps … the lighter colored leaves are younger and the center stems are soft unlike the older dark green leaves, altho beautifully fragrant, can be quite tough and we usually remove the hard center bit before slicing up the rest of the leaves. It isn’t easy to find the younger leaves. I have a plant in my garden 🙂

        1. Thank you very much, Ping. I’m not sure I will be able to find very young leaves (no kaffir lime tree in my house or on my balcony alas… and I think that what I can buy here are rather older leaves from what you describe). I will remember your tip about the hard centre. I never remove it!

  14. yay good to see your recipe up too! I like using beef cheeks with a mix of short ribs as I find all-cheek too rich, but didn’t think of removing fat first like what you did. i actually dont find rendang very hot, but then again, I hardly find any dishes spicy enough hehe.

    instead of candlenuts or macadamia which are more expensive, brazil nuts work great because they have that same oily savoury taste. almonds are sweeter and less oily in my opinion, but I can see how it will work well in rendang which is kind of sweet too (:

    and great telepathy as usual! (;

    1. Thank you, Shu Han. I always remove the fat from beef cheeks (most of the fat is already removed by the butcher, but there is still some on, so I cut it off because it becomes too heavy and fatty for me). It’s not very hot for me either, I would call it “medium hot” or maybe slightly hot (I have labelled it hot because most visitors don’t have the same resistance to heat as those who, like me, are addicted to chili 😉 ).
      I must confess I have never been served any dish I would consider too hot because I have been eating hot since I was a child and with time my resistance increases. The only exception is when I go to the only Indian restaurant in my city where it’s possible and ask them to make a curry so hot that I cry, but if I tell them “very hot”, it’s still not hot enough! I think I must travel a bit to Asian countries and taste really hot food! Sichuan hot pot is my dream dish….
      Thank you for the Brazil nuts tip. They are as expensive as Brazil nuts here, but I will try with them one day. Almonds worked just for the texture I think. They don’t give oiliness as you say.

  15. Here I thought I had eating every part of the cow, but how wrong I was! Have never had beef cheeks which is surprising considering my mother was such a country girl. Sounds like they definitely need to be slow braised but with all of the fat and cartilage, I bet they are good once cooked to tender. I’ve heard of rendang at Wok with ray I believe but still haven’t made it. With winter moving in, it’s time to get cooking! Thanks for all of the information and recipe for beef cheeks!

    1. Hi, MJ. I am glad that you like this discovery (I know so many people who are disgusted…). Beef cheeks are very popular in France, but by “very popular” I mean that they can be bought practically only at butcher’s (not supermarkets) and are considered as “gourmet” cuts (cheap though!), a bit like flank steak. I know many European countries where it’s impossible to get them.
      They are not actually fatty (butchers usually cut off most of the fat and I make sure there is not fat when I cut them up at home). The gelatin and the coconut milk make it rich enough without the fat.

  16. Dear Sissi,

    Growing up in Malaysia, beef or chicken rendang is truly one of the essence of Malaysian flavours, especially when paired with nasi lemak or nasi biryani. All these years, I still make sure I pack loads of frozen homemade rendang curry paste whenever I visit my parents in Malaysia to be brought back to Sydney. Nothing can compare with the correct blend of herbs and spices for a good rendang.

    1. I have heard that the Malaysian rendang differs slightly from the Indonesian one. I have to try making the former and compare.

  17. I’ve only seen Malaysian version of rendang on blogs I follow. Unfortunately it’s a bit spicy for my and my kids, but I’m always curious to taste (and burn my tongue! hehe). On the other hand, hubby will be sweating to eat this. But lately he said his palate is changing and cannot handle too much spice and garlic anymore (it tells Japanese food is lacking these). I am really impressed that you have such a wide variety of cuisine repertoire!

    1. Thank you, Nami, for the compliments. Actually it’s a curse… It means tons of cookery books, tons of different ingredients (for example the fridge constantly half-filled with different seasonings from different cuisines 😉 ).
      It’s the other way round with my husband! The older we are the hotter he (and me) eats because I cook hot food hotter and hotter… You can prepare exactly the same recipe and just skip the chili or serve some chili paste (such as tobanjan) aside for your husband 😉 It would be equally delicious but not hot. I once made it for people who cannot stand hot food and just reduced the chili amount.

  18. Mmm, cheeks – sounds so darn appetising! 😀 Actually, I’ve never had them before, but you make them sound very good… what are they called in French actually? I don’t think I ever saw them… do they just have them out as normal, sitting next to the sausages and steaks?

    I can’t believe you and Shuhan both post a rendang at almost the same time… and I’ve never even heard of the dish, hehe. It looks really nice – so thick and saucy and warming too – I bet it’s wonderful with the coriander, as you say… never tried Vietnamese mint I don’t think.

    By the way, did you ever try cutting tough meat with poulty shears? (maybe you don’t own any poultry shears?). It’s not as “precise” as a knife but it’s very useful for cutting tough cuts of meat (and pizza, haha).

    1. Thanks a lot, Charles. Beef cheeks are a real revelation! They are quite known in France, but few people cook them, so they are what I would call a “gourmet” cut (like flank steak for example). I don’t know about Britain but in France most people who cook such rare cuts, buy their meat at the butcher’s not supermarket, so I have never seen them in a supermarket yet. All the butchers carry them, but often you have to order (my butcher orders always a bit more for his clients, so I often stumble upon them on Saturday, especially in cold seasons).
      As for Shu Han, not only has she posted rendang, the dish I prepare maybe five times a year, but also with beef cheeks (she calls them ox cheeks).
      By the way it’s joues de boeuf in French.
      (Oh, and when you see monkfisk cheeks one day (joues de lotte) I highly recommend them. Simmered in a curry sauce, they often taste better than scallops… but in a more “meaty” way).
      Vietnamese mint is something I discovered two weeks ago and I’m crazy for it. I have planted several branches and hope it will grow inside of the house. It’s like a cross between coriander and mint with a citrusy freshness.
      Thanks for the cutting tip. I will try it. Although I must say I’m very excited to use the cleaver. I almost feel like a butcher 😉

    2. Haha! And I was thinking about your butcher because beef cheeks are this type of meat cut that gets respectful looks from butchers, especially if they don’t know you well. (I don’t recommend pork cheeks though. They smell stronger than other cuts and while in beef’s case it’s very welcome in pork’s case it’s not that easy to like… although maybe it’s only my impression).

  19. Sissi, you certainly have a ‘knack’ for the most unusual and exotic recipes. As for Beef Cheeks, which is mainly a French Bistro delicacy, and also one of the favorite delicacies in Spain, here in the U.S. we don’t even have them on our supermarket meat shelves, and would not…could not ask the butcher to special save, and cut this type of meat, which is the cheapest of all the cuts…ie. less than $2.00 pr. lb. You could do some marvelous specialty dishes with it, just takes up to 5 to 6 hrs of cooking time to break down the hard muscles, but then its fork tender ‘melt in your mouth’…which I haven’t had in over 3 decades, purchased at a local butcher up north…here, in Florida; ‘forget about it!’

    Your method with the Rendang style is courageous, and amazing, and ‘hats off’…(as the Hungarians say, to your patience in preparing this fabulous and beautiful dish!
    I can tell you, as a ‘fact’…there isn’t an interested customer for this particular cut of the meat…#1. because of the name=cheeks…#2. because its tough, and #3. because they don’t have the patience or the experience to bother with this unique and ‘true delicacy!’ Sorry for rambling on, and now I will have to visit my former Italian butcher 20 miles @ my previous place to special order this, just like I did to order the pork fat for the TÖPÖRTYÜ…to make POGÁCSA. My Hungarian food blogger friends (mostly very young) were shocked and amazed that I actually made my own TÖPÖRTYÜ!

    1. Elisabeth, I had a good laugh reading your outraged comment! I also react the same way to the fact that some food products are impossible to get only be people’s ignorance or laziness or fear. In France it’s also impossible to get beef cheeks in a supermarket because, as I have just told Charles, in France there are many butchers and people who use such “gourmet” cuts don’t even look at meat in supermarkets (I never buy meat in supermarkets either, apart from free-range chickens). It’s true that you never get such a good quality meat as at a good butcher’s and you know he doesn’t cheat with freshness and of course you can have lots of different cuts, ask him to prepare roasts the way you want… Flank steaks are also available at butcher’s.
      I pay my cheeks the equivalent of 20 dollars (they are free-range though), and I think they are slightly more expensive than the cheap standard “braising beef” (probably because they sell well). I still remember when I told my Polish cousin to ask for beef cheeks in a meat shop (in Poland they no longer have real butchers, but shops selling meat and cold meats from one producer or supermarkets of course). The women looked at her in such a way that she refused to ask elsewhere.
      I prepare rendang rarely, but I am always happy and think it’s worth long waiting (I think in the US everyone has a slow cooker; this would be perfect here!). The funny thing is that I’m not a beef fan. Apart from steak tartare and some exceptional slowly and long simmered dishes like rendang beef could disappear from the earth for me.
      I have never tried ordering pork fat, but I wanted to make my own pork fat spread… it would include something like töpörtyü, but made from pork belly. I will see what happens (the French are not as big fans of pork as me so my butcher will be surprised).

    1. Elisabeth, beef cheeks are great simmered in thick sauce in any dish really. I hope you can get them again soon and experiment more!

  20. Recipe looks great. I’m in San Antonio, tx & bought beef cheeks at the farmers market (I got there late and this is what was left). I didn’t have all the supplies for your dish so I just made it how it’s done here… They call it barbacoa & it’s served in tacos (Mexican food). I’ve eaten tons of it but never prepared it. So I just guessed about how to make it & it turned out great. Next time I’d trim it more. (I wasn’t sure what was edible in the ‘raw’ form … Most wasn’t. Lol) super easy slow cooked with peppers, onions, red wine, cumin etc. I’m looking forward to trying yours next time! Thanks 🙂

    1. Hi, Jeni. I am glad you liked the results. Beef cheeks can be tricky to prepare before cooking, you are right. I also remember first time I wasn’t sure what to trim… it also depends on the butcher’s preparation (some trim if for you). Thank you for commenting and sharing your experience.

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