This exotic treasure, Indonesian braised beef (or dendeng sapi manis), stars steak braised in a sweet and sour sauce that’s fired by Thai bird’s eye chilies and spiced with nutmeg, cloves, tamarind, ginger, cumin, and cilantro. Ours pairs perfectly with a rice and corn dish (nasi jagung) featuring star anise, cardamom, and cinnamon.
Now known as the Moluccas or Malaku, this thousand-plus group of islands in the north of Indonesia used to be — perhaps more evocatively — referred to as The Spice Islands. No wonder. To this day, they are still the world’s premier producer of their indigenous spices — cloves, nutmeg and its sister spice, mace. The area also tops the production charts for cinnamon and palm sugar, and is one of the largest exporters of pepper.
So, it makes perfect sense that such typical, regional ingredients — plus the chilies that were so happily adopted across Indonesia several hundred years ago — should be brought together in a dish that spotlights all the marvels of good beef.
Its magic gets a little lost translation
This is one of those dishes that doesn’t travel well linguistically. It’s called dendeng sapi manis. Now, the last two words translate into culinary English perfectly clearly — sapi for beef and manis for sweet.
It’s that first word, dendeng, that presents a bit of a comprehension problem. The American term, jerky, is sort of close — as is the southern African term, biltong — but both monikers are actually way off the mark. They’re close because dendeng refers to meat that has been sliced into strips, rubbed with ground spices and salt, and sun-dried. It’s then often fast-fried and allowed to finish its slow cooking in a tenderizing sauce.
But both terms miss the mark, since dendeng is not necessarily dried to the kind of boot-leather dryness — or texture — that you might associate with jerky. In our recipe, slices of steak are merely patted dry, and then given a good rub with ground spices and sugar.
The beef to choose for your Indonesian braised beef
Now, you could opt for a relatively inexpensive cut of beef, like brisket or flank. Given some long-and-slow cooking, they’re both grand options and can certainly deliver big, beefy flavors and a melting tenderness. But I wanted a closer-grained cut that would give me a firmer texture and retain its character among all those big-tasting spices in the hot, sweet, and sour sauce.
I thought I could rely on rump steak to fit that bill. And it proved to be an outstanding choice. It’s the sort of steak that always benefits from a little more cooking than, say, a classic sirloin or rib eye. That’s why rump is so good when it’s braised — a little searing heat first, followed by a saucy simmer at a far lower temperature.
Unlike those two classic steaks, rump isn’t at its very best when served juicily rare. For me, it really shines at medium-rare, with the emphasis more on medium. And the beauty of braising rump steak, is that you have so much control over how much of that low, simmering heat you give it — to achieve a level of doneness that suits you best.
Sugar and spice — sweet ‘n sour
Tamarind pulp provides the sour tang that balances the deep sweetness provided by caramelly palm sugar, and a dark, toffee-tasting, molasses-rich, sugar like muscovado or demerara.
This counterweighting of sweet with sour is one characteristic of Asian cuisine that I most relish. Palm sugar is widely used, and I particularly like how it contrasts with the truly unique citrusy sharpness of tamarind — and with the fiery bite of those bird’s eye chilies.
But I also really appreciate the deeper richness of those dark sugars — especially with the big, seriously full flavors of braised rump steak. For this dish, it really is well worth your effort to find a good grocery or health-food store that stocks them.
Nasi jagung: Rice and corn — the Indonesian way
This is the ideal dish to serve alongside your dendeng sapi manis. In fact, it’s so unusually good as a basmati-based side dish that it makes a grand partner for all sorts of sauced seafoods, BBQ meats, and curries. And it’s so easy to make. Like this:
Finely chopped onion and garlic gets fried quickly in a little coconut oil together with fresh ginger, cardamom pods, star anise, clove, and cinnamon. That fast-fry softens the onions and garlic, and really highlights the aromas and flavors of the spices. Together with some sweetcorn, that mix then gets stirred into the basmati rice a few minutes before it’s fully cooked.
If you’re making nasi jagung for the first time, my bet is that you’ll be making it very regularly indeed.
Indonesian Braised Beef With Spiced Rice
For the dendeng sapi manis
- 8 dried red Thai bird’s eye chilies, finely ground. I used dried because they get added to the ground spices for the steak’s dry rub.
- 4 fresh red Thai bird’s eye chilies finely chopped for a garnish to sprinkle on the finished dish
- 2 pounds rump steak I bought one steak that was about 1¼ inches thick — ideal — and had a good edging of flavor-packed fat. Pat the steak dry with kitchen paper, and then cut it against the grain into slices 2 inches long, and 1/3 inch wide.
- 3 yellow onions medium-sized, peeled, halved, and cut into ¼ inch slices
- 6 cloves garlic peeled and finely sliced
- 1 tablespoon fresh root ginger grated, skin and all
- 2 heaped teaspoons ground cumin
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground cilantro
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 6 cloves finely ground
- 2 heaped teaspoons tamarind paste dissolved in 4 tablespoons boiling water
- 1 heaped tablespoon muscovado sugar
- 1 heaped tablespoon palm sugar I used the ‘rock’ variety that comes in round domes, and are each pretty much equal to a heaped tablespoon.
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 3 tablespoons dark soy sauce
- 4 tablespoons odorless coconut oil
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground white pepper Yep, white pepper. In Indonesia, it’s used more frequently than black pepper.
- 1½ cups water
For the nasi jagung
- 2 cups basmati rice
- ½ cup sweetcorn kernels canned are fine, as are frozen
- 1 yellow onion medium-sized, peeled, and chopped into ¼ inch dice
- 1 clove garlic peeled and very finely sliced
- 1 heaped teaspoon fresh root ginger finely grated, skin and all
- 4 green cardamon pods lightly crushed
- 1 star anise whole
- 1 cinnamon stick the piece I used was about 2 inches long and 1/3 inch wide
- 2 cloves finely ground
- 1 teaspoon ground sea salt
- 1 tablespoon coconut oil
Cooking the dendeng sapi manis
- Before you prep anything else, you first want to get your sliced steak into its dry-rub mix.
- So, in a good size mixing bowl that’s easily large enough to hold all the steak, stir together the ground bird’s eye chilis, cumin, cilantro, nutmeg, cloves, and muscovado sugar.
- Now add the sliced steak to the bowl, and use your fingers to give it a thorough coating of the sugar and spice mix.
- Turn the coated steak into a colander and set it over the mixing bowl. You’ll find that some beefy juices will drain into the bowl — which is grand because that juice will later be added to your sauce — so do not discard those juices.
- Set the lot aside while you prep the rest of the ingredients — slicing the onion and garlic, grating the ginger, and dissolving the tamarind paste in boiling water. Once that’s done, you can start quickly browning the slices of steak in a big, heavy-based skillet. I used a deep-sided,12-inch cast iron skillet for this. That’s ideal because you can cook your entire dendeng sapi manis in a skillet of that size.
- Set your skillet on a high heat and add the coconut oil. You want to heat the oil so that it just begins to shimmer, and then — in batches — start giving the slices of steak a good, browning sear on both sides. I browned the slices in three batches.
- You want each batch of slices to fast-fry in an evenly spread layer across the base of the skillet. If you overcrowd the skillet with too much steak, the slices won’t fry hot enough or fast enough. On that high heat, the slices will only need about 90 seconds’ frying on each side. Use a slotted spoon to remove them quickly, and set them aside on a plate — and try to leave as much oil as you can in the skillet. Time now to make the steak’s braising sauce.
- That hot searing of the dry-rubbed steak will have caused the sugar to begin to caramelize — that’s dandy — and you’ll find a little of that darkened sugar has started sticking slightly to the bottom of the skillet. That’s also dandy because you’ve now got the perfect base to add some wonderful dark color to the onions, garlic, and ginger.
- Drop the skillet’s heat to low-medium and stir in the onions, garlic, and ginger. Slowly stir-fry the mix for about 5 minutes until the onion starts to soften and has picked up a dark color from the partly caramelized sugar. Good.
- Turn the heat to medium-high, and thoroughly stir in the dissolved tamarind, palm sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce, white pepper, and water. As soon as the sauce starts to bubble, drop the heat to low, and stir in the slices of browned steak together with all their juices from their plate. Make sure you also stir in all the juices which drained off the steak after you’d coated it with the sugar and spice mix.
- Keeping the heat low, you now want the steak to just barely simmer in the sauce for 30 minutes. That’s when it’s a good idea to check for saltiness. The soy sauce and the fish sauce are both pretty salty, but you might want to add a little ground sea salt to suit your taste. And that’s it — your dendeng sapi manis is done. Cover the skillet — I used a sheet of foil — and let it sit while you cook your nasi jagung.
Cooking the nasi jagung
- This is really easy, and it’s ready to serve in the time it takes to cook the basmati rice.
- Set the rice to cook according to the pack’s instructions. Just bear in mind that you’ll be adding all the other ingredients to the rice about three minutes before the rice is fully cooked.
- Now, before I start cooking the basmati, I like to let it soak covered with cold water for at least 30 minutes. I then drain it, and set it to cook in fresh water — with a level teaspoon of salt — according to the directions listed on the pack. That usually means bringing it to a boil, dropping the heat really low, covering the pan, and then letting the rice absorb all the water as it slowly cooks.
- As soon as you set the rice to cook, you can deal with its onion, garlic, and spices. So, add the coconut oil to a small saucepan set on a medium heat. Stir in the diced onion, garlic, ginger, cardamom, star anise, clove, and cinnamon. Drop the heat to low-medium, and give the mix a bit of slow stir-frying for about 5 minutes. You’re aiming to just soften the onion — rather than giving it any color — and to pull out the flavors and aromas of the spices. Once the onion’s softened, turn off the heat.
- Two minutes before the rice is fully cooked, stir in the sweetcorn and all of spicy mix you have just slowly stir-fried. Give the whole lot a good combining stir and let the rice finish its last two minutes of cooking. Done and ready to serve in a nicely warmed bowl.
Serving your dendeng sapi manis and nasi jagung
- Just before you are ready to serve, set your big skillet on a medium heat, and let the dendeng sap manis just start to bubble a little. You’re aiming here to get it nicely heated ready for serving. Give it a good stir so that the slices of steak all get a coating of the sauce. Serve at once with the nasi jagung alongside.
- I like to offer a few, finely sliced Thai bird eye’s chilies as an optional garnish for those who like the hit of some fresh, added heat. For me? Yes please, and kindly pass them over.