Rawon" simply put is a black beef soup that is so complex in flavor. It's key ingredient is "Kluwek" (Pegeum Edule), a large black nut that comes from the "Kepayang" tree. One must seriously hammer the shell with much vigor in order to get to the black semi hard nut inside which is an essential ingredient to this soup and what makes it black. Once you manage to get a bunch shelled and cleaned, you steam them until they soften. They are then grinded in a mortar with fresh ginger, candle nut, shallots, garlic, a bit of coriander seeds, tumeric root, red chillie, shrimp paste and salt until it becomes a smooth thick paste. Afterwards you saute it in a little vegetable oil and pour it into the pre cooked beef broth that has been brewing with bay leaves, lemon grass shoots, kafir lime leaves and galanggal root. Traditionally you will eat this with with rice, lemon grass leaves, short stemmed bean sprouts, salted duck eggs, shrimp crackers and "sambel terasi" - a shrimp paste chllie. It's hard to describe the taste; it has a hint of nutty flavor with slight warming effects from the ginger and galanggal root but also has an invigorating freshness that comes from the lemon grass leaves.
Rawon originates from East Java, how long ago or who pioneered this dish I have absolutely no clue - for who would have thought that such an unappetizing looking nut could become such a delectable dish that is so popular across Java and many parts of Indonesia.
What I can tell you is a story I read about "Rawon". In the mid 1930's infront of "Nederlands Indishce Radio Oemrop Maaschappij" (NIMRON) or The Netherlands Indian Radio Broadcasting Company in Surabaya which eventually became Radio Republic Indonesia (RRI) after our independence, once stood a small "warung" known as Rawon Nimron. They moved their location when the building was demolished and became a five star hotel - and with that changed their name to Rawon Setan which means Ghost Rawon. The reason for this name is that they opened from 11:00 p.m. - 2:00 a.m., a time when ghosts supposedly come out to play...just as those who roam the city for a late night meal. That's the legend behind it. Now you will find many warungs adopting the name "Rawon Setan" accross Indonesia - whether they are franchaises of the original one is another story.
As a child my mother would make this dish from time to time and like most Javanese, they would cook the broth from not only bits of beef but also chunks of beef fat that would float on top of the broth. Those were the bits that people loved, and it is something I never did get accustomed to. I'm a bit health conscious and my love for Indonesian food is beyond words - so when I cook Indonesian food, I start by breaking it down to the core and reassemble it by simplifying the process and using better quality ingredients, in this case lean beef. So that with every bite, I feel less guilty. The result is just as good, but healthier - for the key is not only in the process, but getting the proportion of spices right and most of all patience - the broth needs to cook slowly so that the beef is not only tender and melts in your mouth but has aborbed all the wonderful flavors of the spices as well.