What a clunker of a title.
If you have never tried anything with buah keluak before, it is a tad difficult to describe. Some would say it’s an acquired taste, but judging by the many Singaporeans who are familiar with it, it’s an easily acquired taste, a little sweet, a little pungent, a little sour. And black. Black is a flavour.
So kuah rawon, using buah keluak as its main ingredient is all of the above, plus beefy, and maybe a little spicy if you like it that way (you ought to). Kuah means ‘gravy’ and kuah rawon is a stew in that it is cooked long and slow in a pot with liquid for about an hour or two to make sure that the flavours have married and the beef has softened, but it is not a stew in that the gravy isn’t thick like a typical Guinness stew for example but more like a thick-ish broth, which I suppose would qualify it as ‘soupy’.
Traditionally, the cut of beef used in making rawon is offal, and the scrappy left over bits, and from this we can tell perhaps its origins; like nasi lemak, it is a poor man’s dish, not made with the best cuts of beef, but the sinew, the inner lining of the stomach, the fats, and whatever available meat that sticks to them. This is how my mother would make it, but for the children (or me because I always cringed at the “white-white stuff” as I called them), she would add cubes of beef that were just meat and hence more palatable. I like to think I am kind of grown up now, and yet the “white white stuff” still doesn’t appeal to me, so these days I use a stewing meat which is lots of meat with a little fat and sinew for deeper flavour.
Rawon is always eaten with rice, and in my family, we drown the rice in the gravy, and serve it with fish crackers or bean crackers (keropok ikan or emping belinjao), bergedel which we would always fight over, fried tempe, and sambal belacan. My husband, before we were married had a little Sunday ritual going for him whenever his mother went to Geylang market for her weekly shop; he would request a bungkus of nasi rawon from a well-known hawker stall, complete with bergedel, sotong kering (rehydrated dried squid in chilli), and paru (beef lung!), until he met me and found out I regularly make this dish (minus paru). My grandmother who is Javanese, would even serve the last bits of left over rawon with rice and an egg that was poached directly in the gravy and long beans snapped into one inch lengths, also cooked in the gravy. These are different permutations of how it is served, and all perfectly legitimate. However, my favourite is the first one, and as a child, my own ritual was to have a bit of each component, beef, rice, gravy, bergedel, keropok, and tempe, crammed onto my spoon for the first opening ceremony mouthful of deliciousness (yes, when I was 7 I would call this the opening ceremony, trumpets blaring and fireworks in my head).
To make Kuah Rawon, first you must, and I stress this, must have buah keluak.
If you cannot get your hands on buah keluak, don’t even think of making this, as the whole basis of Rawon is the keluak. No substitutions. You’ll need someone going to Bali, or Singapore or Malaysia to mule it in for you if you live anywhere but these three places (I’m sure there are places where you can find it, other than these three, but let me tell you, I’ve not seen them yet). If you happen to stumble upon them in your local market, buy more than you need for the recipe, in case you find when you open them some aren’t quite up to scratch. I don’t know how to describe the selection process of buah keluak apart from using your eyes, choose the ones that look fresh, and plump and clean and dry but not dehydrated. Feel the weight in your hand, it shouldn’t feel empty, and if you shake it, it shouldn’t sound like something hard is knocking about inside, the pulp should really be soft but firm, a bit like firmly chilled butter, or .. a heated squash ball… or…what I imagine a lipstick might feel if I held it in my hand, or … fudge! Like room temperature fudge. (I literally sat here for a few minutes trying to think of something. That was tough.) The pulp might be loose inside the shell, but if you shake it and hear nothing, that just means the pulp is attached to the shell which is fine too. What matters most is when you crack it open at home, whether it is whole or in pieces, it looks plump, shiny, soft and firm, and … well, fresh! So that’s how you choose your buah keluak, and thinking about it now, I should put this information on the Ingredients page too!
Once you have your buah keluak, the rest is a breeze. All it requires is a boil and simmer. While it’s simmering go ahead and make your bergedel. The tempe simply needs to be sliced thin and have a dip in a water solution of assam and a little salt, before laying aside for a minute or two, then deep fried on medium heat, flipped once, and taken out of the oil when caramel brown, about 5 minutes.
Crack open about six buah keluak and set aside in a small sauce pot of water. Get some dried chillies, rinse them, and place in the water too. Heat til warm, and leave to soak so it gets a little soft.
Your next pot should be large enough that 1.5L of water fills only half of it. Put it on the heat.
Blend or process together the buah keluak, the rehydrated chillies, onion, garlic, ginger and galangal, to a puree. Add it to the pot of water, along with assam water (prep help here), a lemongrass stalk, curry powder, and sweet Indonesian soy, or kicap manis, not Chinese sweet soy, and not a mix of sugar and Kikkoman which just results in Teriyaki sauce. You must have a brand that comes from Indonesia or Malaysia; typical brands would be ABC or my preference, Habhal’s Cap Kipas Udang Kicap Manis which looks like this. Oh and of course the beef chunks. Bring to the boil and then lower the heat so it simmers for about an hour. Don’t forget to taste and season with salt.
Serve steaming hot, with Jasmine rice and sambal belacan.