Friday, August 05, 2011
Vietnamese Beef Stew (Bo Kho): A Breakfast For Champions
One thing that surprised me during the two months or so I spent in Vietnam was how dismissive many tourists were of the food. When I was in Thailand and Cambodia, people kept saying to me that Vietnam was THE place for grub in SE Asia. Most of them had travelled throughout Indochina and knew their stuff, some were chefs who’d been working out there for a while.
Perhaps it was the high expectations, but my first experiences of Vietnamese food hardly blew me away, and I kept bumping into people who said the same – that it didn’t quite live up to the hype.
I even met a rapper called DJ Shadow in Saigon, who had a bizarre theory that it was down to the fact that Vietnam had been at war for most of the 20th century, and its people had been too busy learning to fight than cook. He’d even written a rap about it.
I can’t say I agreed with him, but it made for an interesting conversation from what I scarcely recall. After all, when the French colonised Cambodia, they tended to use Vietnamese chefs rather than Khmer ones, believing they were far more skilled cooks (which is praise indeed from the French).
But I did find some very good dishes during my travels through Nam. And the best of the lot, for my money, are the breakfasts. I never thought I’d find a meal to rival the great British fry-up, but it certainly holds true for banh mi op la (fried eggs cooked on a skillet with a freshly-made tomato sauce and a garlicky, mayonnaise-like emulsion, served with a crusty baguette) and bo kho (invariably described on tourist menus as Vietnamese goulash).
And the latter is not an unfair comparison, because like a properly-made goulash, bo kho has that beautiful, meaty thickness to the broth that only comes from cooking cheaper cuts for a long time, with root vegetables in towards the end.
There’s nothing quite like mopping up a hearty stew with bread, and that’s how it comes in Vietnam – banh mi – with a lovely fresh baguette to wipe up every smear of juice. But there’s other stuff too: the ubiquitous plate of thorny coriander and basil leaves for vitamins, and usually a small saucer of Kampot pepper, sea salt, chopped chilli and a lime quarter to squeeze in and stir into a paste – which takes the dish from superb to sublime.
The meal is a sister of the famous beef noodle soup, pho bo – Vietnam’s unofficial national dish. And it shares the same secrets in the stock – onions, cloves, star anise, cinnamon, ginger, and occasionally other spices, cooked to black. This gives it a deep, slightly bitter, spicy flavour that differentiates it from the hundreds of permutations of beef daubes, stews, and goulashes you’ll find around the world from Paris to Prague to Phu Quoc.
The result after a few hours of simmering is an aromatic, velvety stew with lumps of falling-apart beef, potatoes and carrots – the sliced onions long having been dissolved into the thick broth. The best place I had it was at Cafe 333, off De Tham, in Saigon, where it is only served on the breakfast menu, topped with a garnish of sliced fresh onion and spring onion greens. It really is wonderful.
I’ve been tinkering with my version of it (I’ve even added wine, eek – so kiss my ass aficionados), and I’ve watched it being made in a few places, and I reckon it is definitely worth trying. There’s enough here for six very hungry people (at least)...
1kg different cuts of stewing beef – brisket, chuck, shank etc.
4 medium onions, or two big ones, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 star anise
3 red chillies
2 sticks of lemon grass, bruised and roughly chopped
1 stick of cinnamon
Thumb-sized piece of ginger
Two onions, cut in half
1kg beef bones
3 potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks
2 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
2 tbsps tomato puree
½ bottle red wine
1 tbsp fish sauce
3 bay leaves
2 tsps brown sugar
Handful of flour
First make the stock by roasting the bones in a tray in the oven, scattered with the cloves, cinnamon, ginger, star anise, whole chillies, lemon grass, and a little oil and salt.
Blacken the unpeeled onion halves on the cut side directly over a hob, and add to the tray. Cook for about one hour at 170C until the bones and spices are nicely singed.
Remove from the pan and put in a saucepan. Pour in enough water to cover the bones and bring to the boil. When the water is boiling, deglaze the pan the bones were roasted in with a couple of ladles of the hot stock by putting the pan over a hob and scraping the bottom with a wooden spatula so all the juices and caramelised bits of flavour dissolve into the fiercely bubbling water.
Add to the stock, and simmer for two hours, adding more water if necessary. Then sieve the stock and reduce over a high flame – until you have about one litre of liquid.
Cut the beef into one to two-inch cubes. Put a handful of flour into a plastic bag, and throw the meat in, and shake until it is well-coated. Remove the meat from the bag, shaking off the excess flour.
Heat a little oil in a saucepan over a very hot flame and fry the diced pieces of beef, a few at a time, so as not to lose the heat from the pan, otherwise they will “stew” rather than brown. Add the chopped onions, and fry for another ten minutes, stirring all the time. Then add the tomato puree, garlic, sugar, and bay leaves, stir well, and cook for 30 seconds.
Pour in the wine and fish sauce, and bubble away. When the liquid has almost evaporated, pour in the stock, bring to the boil and simmer slowly for several hours until the meat is soft and feathery, and at the point of falling apart.
Add the potatoes and carrots about 40 minutes before the end so the veg is cooked through but still firm, adding more water if necessary. Season the stew, and serve with a fresh baguette, a plate of fresh green tops and herbs, and a side dish of Kampot pepper if you’re lucky enough to get it.