With all of the French recipes I have been posting lately on this blog, I thought it was time to change the tune a little and post one of my favourite Vietnamese recipes. But as I set about preparing this post, I realised that this particular dish is actually a Vietnamese version of a French classic. Or is it?
There are many who claim that the Vietnamese Beef & Carrot Stew, known as Bò Kho in Vietnamese, is derived from the French Boeuf aux Carottes. But upon closer inspection of both recipes, beef and carrots is pretty much all they have in common. Where the French version is simple and comforting as a mere braise of beef and carrots with perhaps some tomatoes and thyme for additional flavour, the Vietnamese counterpart is fragrant with lemongrass, cloves, star anise and Chinese five-spice powder, and has a spicy kick when served with Thai basil and red chillies.
My mother used to only make this stew on special occasions, such as when we had guests over for dinner. But now that I find myself typically cooking stews and braises for dinner parties because of the convenience of being able to make them ahead of time, I suppose this was my also mother’s tactic when she was entertaining. She first taught me to make this dish using a packet of pre-mixed spices from the Vietnamese grocery store which was employed in the marinade for the meat. There’s nothing wrong at all in using these pre-mixed spices; I probably would have continued to do so but for the fact that I moved to Switzerland and the variety of Asian food products here is rather limited (although continually improving).
I had experimented with several recipes for this dish over the years with vague success until, one day, a good friend of mine revealed that her secret ingredient was … Coca-Cola. I gasped in shock, although I shouldn’t have been so surprised because I had seen recipes for this dish using Coca-Cola or Sarsparilla, but had dismissed them on the grounds of lacking authenticity. But as this dear friend happens to be a fine Vietnamese chef who very rarely shares recipes, or secret ingredients for that matter, I regarded this momentary drop in guard as something not to be ignored.
Coca-Cola sounds to be an unusual ingredient but the bubbles have a marvellous way of tenderising the meat, and the sugar content of this fizzy drink means that you can dispense with any sugar in the dish. If you’re a bit apprehensive about using Coca-Cola, don’t be; you need barely a glassful for this recipe.
This particular stew typically has bite-sized pieces of beef and carrots which are eaten with chopsticks, and the liquid broth is intended to be sipped with a spoon. French inspiration can certainly be found in how the dish is served; the Vietnamese usually eat this stew with some crusty baguette (preferably from a Vietnamese bakery) to soak up the aromatic broth, but it can also be served with some flat rice noodles for a more Asian affair.
Being married to a Frenchman who I frequently confuse with the simultaneous use of chopsticks with knives and forks, I tend to make this stew so that it can be eaten more elegantly with just a knife and fork, although any attempt at refinement is often lost because you really do need to use your hands to dip the bread into the broth. But I’ve noticed that our French friends find a way to neatly soak the bread with their cutlery before cutting it into bize-sized pieces, thereby avoiding any caveman-like use of their hands. Or perhaps they just weren’t sure how to eat the bread because, in contrast to what the Vietnamese (in Vietnam) think, the French tend to only reach for the bread at the start of the meal or when the cheese course is served. For this Vietnamese classic, the bread is actually a significant component (think half a baguette per person).
So to make this dish knife and fork friendly and a bit more elegant, I prefer to use large pieces of braising meat (about 1 to 2 per person) rather than small, diced up pieces. The large pieces take a little longer to cook, but I find the texture to be much nicer and more tender. But feel free to use smaller pieces as this is more traditional. I also love carrots in my stew and tend to go rather overboard with them, so use as little or as much as you like, noting that the carrots will add a subtle sweetness to your stew. And in an effort to make this stew less meat-heavy, I also like to add baby onions, another tip from my friend in her rare moment of recipe bonding. I think the baby onions add a touch of refinement to the dish, but be careful because not everyone likes onions, even if they’re small and cute.
If you’re looking for an alternative beef stew this winter, try this aromatic version.
Vietnamese Beef & Carrot Stew
Serves 4 to 6
Due to the sugar content in the Coca-Cola, the meat will brown very quickly, so keep an eye on the pan to make sure that nothing is burning.
To turn this humble stew into something more fancy, use whole baby carrots in place of normal carrots. Take care not to overcook them as they can break and disintegrate – the same applies to the baby onions.
To serve this stew with flat rice noodles, cook the noodles according to the packet instructions until they have softened. While the noodles are still warm, ladle just enough broth to cover the noodles and top with the meat, vegetables and garnish.