Vietnamese Beef Stew, or Bò Kho, was one of the very first dishes my mother-in-law taught me to cook after seeing the disastrous results when left on my own. My first attempt at Bò Kho resulted in an impenetrable thick stew with chewy, borderline inedible, meat. I had the flavor right but everything else was, as my mother-in-law put it, nhìn thê thảm.
Unlike American beef stew, Bò Kho is very aromatic. It's spiced with earthy Southeast Asian flavors: lemon grass, ginger, garlic, shallots, and red curry powder (a blend of red chilies, coriander, cardamon, star anise and cumin). The meats in Bò Kho is beef chucks, but more traditional versions include beef tendons, shanks, flanks and ox tails. Ox tails are usually more expensive, but they give a richer flavor to the stew. To thicken up the broth, tomato paste is added. Tomato paste also provides the vibrant red color in Bò Kho, and so does the red curry powder. Other recipes may skip the red curry powder and fry annatto seeds in oil for the red color.
The best way to cook Bò Kho or any stew is in a slowcooker or crockpot. That way you can set it and forget it, and not answer to any questions as to why you almost set the house on fire again. The long and slow cooking process in a crockpot breaks down the tough cuts of meat, making it fall-of-the-bone tender with little effort on your part. If you don't have a crockpot, no worries. You can also makes delicious Bò Kho on the stove. Just be mindful of the water level and lower the heat if necessary. Trust me, an ash-encrusted pot is no fun to clean.
There are three ways to eat Bò Kho. My favorite is a small bowl of Bò Kho, garnished with a few leaves of Thai Basil, a wedge of lemon and a side of warm toasted French baguette. Squeeze the lemon into the stew, tear off a piece of baguette and dip it into the broth. You can also have Bò Kho with steamed white rice (a simple but filling option) or with rice noodles (a popular restaurant menu item called Hủ tiếu bò kho).
Vietnamese Beef Stew Recipe (Bò Kho)
Ingredients (Serves 4-5)
2.5 lbs meat (boneless beef chuck, ox tails, flank steak and/or shanks, cut into bite-size pieces)
1 teaspoon red curry powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon granulated white sugar
1 tablespoon chicken bouillon powder
1 teaspoon MSG
2 tablespoons minced garlic (divided)
2 tablespoons minced shallots (divided)
2 tablespoons minced lemon grass (divided)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
Half can of tomato paste
1 can of coconut soda
4 cups water
3 large slices fresh ginger
3 large carrots (peel and chop into small pieces)
Basil, cilantro or green onions for garnish
1 lemon (cut into wedges)
Marinate the meat with red curry powder, salt, sugar, chicken bouillon powder, MSG and a tablespoon each of garlic, shallots and lemongrass for one hour or overnight in fridge for best results.
In a large pot, generously coat the bottom of the pan with vegetable oil and heat on medium high.
Add remaining garlic (1 tablespoon), shallots (1 tablespoon) and lemon grass (1 tablespoon) and fry until fragrant.
Stir in tomato paste.
Add meat and cover pot with lid and braise for 1 hour on low heat. Meat juices will fill up pot.
Add coconut soda, water and ginger slices. Braise with lid on for another hour on low heat or until meat is tender.
Add carrots and cook until tender.
When ready to serve, top with basil leaves and a squeeze of lemon (optional). Serve with toasted baguette, steamed white rice or rice noodles.