Bò Kho is a Vietnamese beef stew that my mother made for us all the time growing up. Not as thick as American beef stew, it’s more like a hearty soup with carrots and spices. Pierre says it tastes like Asian-y boeuf bourguignon. It’s quite possible to me that this dish has its origins in colonial France, particularly since it’s often served with a toasty baguette. Nevertheless, its character is Vietnamese through and through. Fragrant with fresh lemongrass, star anise and Vietnamese cassia, it’s the perfect breakfast (next to Phở, of course). These days, however, we usually eat it for lunch or dinner.
My mother usually prepared this using beef tendon and the taste was rib-sticking good. The beef tendon, having been cooked slowly and gently for several hours, was moist and tender and its muscle fiber seemed to melt into an unctuous sauce. Whenever I can get tendon from our butcher, Sparrow Meats, I use it for this dish (or also for Bún bò Huế). When they don’t have beef tendon, I’ll get their boneless beef chuck, which is a fantastic substitution. My mother sometimes used curry powder and other times, she used five-spice powder; both were equally good. I liked watching her fry the annatto seeds in oil because I thought it was so neat how these red seeds would yield a yellow-orange pigment (see photos below).
We always ate this with warm, Vietnamese baguettes that we purchased in Little Saigon. It’s a must-dunk-break-into kind of thing. I’ve also seen it served with rice noodles, though that’s likely something only those crazy Northerners would do. Just kidding, Anh. Either way, it’s delicious. In my recipe, I use whole, peeled shallots, which I think add a lovely fragrance and flavor. They look really cute when served as they keep their shape nicely throughout the cooking process. If cute isn’t for you, cut, regular onion also works well.
BÒ KHO – VIETNAMESE BEEF STEW
INGREDIENTS: (4-6 servings)
- 2.5 lbs. beef chuck, cut into 1.5 inch cubes
- 2 tsp. annatto seeds
- 1/4 cup of vegetable or peanut oil
- 3 large cloves garlic, minced
- 2 Tbl. tomato paste
- 1 Tbl. Viet curry powder or 2 tsp. five spice powder
- 2 hefty stalks of lemongrass (green upper part removed) – lightly bruised with the back of a knife or rolling pin
- 3 star anise
- 1 stick of Vietnamese cassia or regular cinnamon
- 3 Tbl. fish sauce
- 1-inch chunk of rock sugar or 2 tsp. raw sugar
- 1 bay leaf
- 10-12 small-medium shallots, peeled
- 2 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1.5 inch segments
- fresh cracked black pepper
- fresh cilantro (for garnish)
- In a non-reactive pot or dutch oven, heat the oil on medium-high heat. Add the annatto seeds and cook them for about 4-5 minutes. Once the seeds have bled most of their oil/color, remove the pan from heat and discard the seeds, reserving the oil.
- Put the pot back on high heat and sear the meat on all sides. Do this in batches to avoid steaming the meat.
- Once all the meat has been seared, add the garlic and tomato paste to the pot. Use a wooden spoon or chopsticks to stir and cook for about 1 minute.
- Then, add the seared meat back into the pan along with the curry powder or five spice powder, lemongrass, star anise, and cinnamon stick. Give it a good stir and add enough water to barely cover the meat (approx. 3-4 cups of water)
- Next, add the fish sauce, sugar and bay leaf.
- Lower the heat to medium and bring the pot to a gentle boil. At this point, take the heat down to low, loosely cover with a lid and cook for about 1 hour.
- Now, the meat should be somewhat tender but still have a “bite” to it. Add the carrots and shallots and cook (covered) for another hour or so on low (until the carrots and shallots are cooked through).
- Before serving, taste and adjust with fish sauce or sugar, if needed.
- Garnish with black pepper and cilantro.
- Serve with plenty of warm bread.