Monday, February 28, 2011

Making Semur Daging (Indonesian Beef Stew) in Jerusalem

What makes a Jewish dish, or a dish Jewish?  There are certain obvious constraints -- kashrut, cooking prohibitions on the Sabbath, demands of certain festivals -- that help to determine the contours within which Jewish dishes are developed.  Then there is the influence of the local country, culture and economy.  Jewish families would often employ local non-Jews as cooks or maids, and this is one way that local dishes became Judaized.  Jews (and right-thinking people everywhere) make stuffed cabbage, but what a Hungarian will serve you is very different from what you will get in a Litvak home.  Gil Marks (I think) has said that Jewish food is food that is part of a Jewish life, and is used to mark special Jewish occasions.  In our family, that means that Semur Daging (Indonesian beef stew cooked with sweet soy sauce) is a Jewish dish.  How did this happen?

We wanted to make something special for Shabbat dinner the Friday after President Obama was elected in 2008, and in view of the time he spent in Indonesia (where his mother worked on microfinance and women's economic development for the Ford Foundation, where I also used to work) we tried Copeland Marks' recipe for this stew from his now out-of-print book The Indonesian Kitchen.    It soon became one of Harry's favorites dishes, and he requests when pressed on birthdays and other special occasions, like Rosh HaShanah or his last Friday night dinner at home before leaving for Israel last August.  It has become domesticated as one of our Jewish dishes, so to speak. Harry likes it so much that he wanted a recipe that he can use once he is living in an apartment in Jerusalem, beginning March 1.  So, this recipe is for him and his friends Zach Zimmerman, Seth Englebourg and Rachel Aronson in the hope that they will cook it for themselves.  (I hope that this qualifies as a sufficient shout-out.)

I have made a number of changes in the recipe. I eliminated the water that Marks calls for and and added some bones to make the sauce richer, substituted shallots for onions when they are handy, added a fresh hot red pepper and or a bruised stalk of lemon grass when one is around since it provides a nice contrast to the sweetness of the stew, and cooked it much longer and slower to make the beef really tender.  Those of you have one might want to try it in a slow cooker.  It is extremely easy since the meat doesn't need to be browned. 

If you want to make this in Jerusalem, or somewhere else other than New York (I don't mean to channel the famous Steinberg cartoon here, but it is sort of unavoidable) you may find it hard to find some of the ingredients:  laos, known in English to the extent that it is known at all, as galingal; kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce), and salaam leaf, which even I usually leave out.  Some of the spices, like cloves and nutmeg, are available under the Israeli label Pereg, so they must be available in Jerusalem as well.  There is a population of Thai guest workers in Israel, so they may be able to find galingal (known as kha in Thai) in one of their markets.  Its Arabic name is kholanjian so you may also be able to find it in an Arab spice market.  A Thai market will certainly have lemongrass.  You are on your own for salaam leaves, which I generally leave out.  The key ingredient that you may not be able to find is kecap manis, Indonesian sweet soy sauce. Friends of ours are going to Jerusalem for a wedding the week after Purim and offered to take things over for Harry.  I thought about having them carry over some kecap manis  (and galingal) but was worried about what would happen at airport security and customs.  Instead, Amy and I tried out numerous possible substitutes and found a mixture of dark soy sauce and sugar to be an adequate substitute.  It was very challenging, but that is the kind of thing that parents do for their children, even those who rarely call or skype. 

So, here is a recipe for semur daging, with the original ingredients if you are cooking it in New York, where you can find almost everything, as well as some substitutions if you are someplace else like Jerusalem, which has other virtues. 
Semur Daging in New York and elsewhere:

  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1/2 cup sliced onion (one small) or shallot (one very large or two medium)
  • 2 pounds boneless beef  (chuck or kalechel is ideal; flanken or shank are great, but then use 3 pounds and leave out the bones)
  • 1 pound beef soup bones with some meat on them (neck rib, etc)
  • 1 slice fresh ginger  
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg 
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, ideally fresh ground
  • 1 stalk lemon grass, smashed and cut in a few large pieces  (optional)
  • 1 fresh red chili pepper, sliced (optional)
  • 2 quarter inch slices fresh galingal (laos/kha);(if you can't find it, use dried slices or 1 teaspoon powder, or substitute 2 more slices ginger)
  • 4 tablespoons sweet soy sauce (Use kecap manis if you can find it, if not you can substitute 3 tablespoons dark soy sauce and 2 additional tablespoons brown or white sugar.)
  • 2 teaspoons vinegar (I like apple cider vinegar)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar

  1. Heat the oil in a pot, and add the onion or shallot and saute on medium until soft.
  2. Add the meet and bones and saute on high until it loses its red color.  It is not necessary to brown.
  3. Add all the spices (ginger through galangal) and saute a minute or so.
  4. Add the remaining ingredients, turn heat down to very low, so the stew just barely simmers, and cook for two  to two and a half hours until the meat is very tender.  Stir every 45 minutes or so so that all of the meat spends at least some time submerged.  You can also bring the pot to the simmer on the stove and then transfer it to a 300 degree oven to bake for 2 and a half to three hours, stirring about halfway through.  I think that the meat comes out best in the oven. 
  5. Fish out the ginger, galingal and lemon grass if you can.
  6. That's it.  Serve with rice  (click here for an easy recipe) to 4 or more people.

What to serve with this?  In addition to white rice, you can try my imitation fast gado gado, and Indonesian salad with peanut sauce, adapted to what is available in Israel.  Mix smooth peanut butter (try 1/2 cup) with 2 tablespoons soy sauce, the juice of one lime, and a teaspoon of harissa.  Mix well until smooth. Dribble in a little water until it is pouring consistency.  Taste it and add more soy if it needs to be saltier, lime juice if you want it more sour, and more harissa if you want it spicier.  Put some shredded cabbage on a plate.  Top with cold boiled green beans and, if you want, sliced boiled potatoes.  Shred some raw carrots on top (just use a vegetable peeler to make shreds right onto the salad) and top with sliced scallions.  You can use other vegetables if you want.  Garnish with quartered hard boiled eggs and pass the peanut sauce separately for everyone to dress their own.  The stew is also very good with any tender green, like spinach or bok choy, sauteed with shallots and/or garlic.

How to adapt this for Pesach?  Don't even think about it.  Soy sauce is a misnomer.  It is made mostly from  wheat cakes with some soy fermented further in water which is then drained off to make the sauce.  Soy sauce is sort of the Platonic form of hametz. .There is no way you can make this pesah-dik even for people who eat kitniyot.

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