What Is Tongseng?

Dan Harkins

The Southeast Asian country of Indonesia is replete with exotic recipes to tempt foreign and local tastes. Along busy thoroughfares, makeshift food stands pepper the breeze with hunger-inducing smells from dishes like satay, or lamb kebobs, and a distinctively sweet-and-spicy stew called tongseng. Made with lamb or beef, the stew's most defining characteristic is the sweet soy sauce that attempts to coat the undeniably distracting spiciness.

Tongseng is often flavored with coriander.
Tongseng is often flavored with coriander.

As with any meat soup, the key component of tongseng is the mutton or beef as well as the stock that is rendered from its juices. Most chefs will dice the meat into small pieces, followed by lightly pounding it out with a butcher's hammer and some salt. Then, before the meat hits the pan, hot oil is imbued with various flavors from minced garlic, curry powder, ginger, coriander, red pepper, onion, bay leaf, shallots, lemongrass, salt and pepper.

Tongseng often includes shallots.
Tongseng often includes shallots.

After the oil has cooked the seasonings down to a slight caramelization, the meat can be dropped into it. The meat should be cooked to a slightly charred texture. When it is nearly cooked through, the soup can be made by combining the meat with water in a pot, along with sweet soy sauce. A similar Indonesian stew, gulai, forgoes the soy and uses cow or lamb entrails instead of prime cuts of meat.

Some wait until this point in the preparation to add curry; others add some at the beginning and more later. Adding some citrus is also fitting, like orange or tamarind juice, both of which contain elements of sweet and sour. Another common addition is coconut milk, though the tongseng must be constantly stirred after it is added, because of its propensity to curdle. Chefs often experiment with all of these components to make a distinctive stock.

After the soup is brought to a boil, creating the beginnings of a flavorful beef stock, the heat is reduced to a simmer. Other vegetables like chopped cabbage, thinly sliced or wedged tomato, and diced chile are then added. Unless cooks use chili powder at the beginning of the dish, several diced chiles will be necessary to give the dish its characteristic bite. Once the tongseng has simmered for at least 10 or 15 minutes, it is ready to be served. The stew is traditionally served over white rice. Chefs can save time by adding the rice during the final saute to let it cook with the stew and take on some of its flavors.

The flavorings in tongseng often include chili powder, garlic, and red pepper.
The flavorings in tongseng often include chili powder, garlic, and red pepper.

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