Vietnamese Beef & Carrot Stew

6 February 2014

Post image for Vietnamese Beef & Carrot Stew

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.

vietnamese beef stew.collage

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.

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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).

{Vietnamese Beef & Carrot Stew made with bite-sized pieces of meat and chopped carrots}

{Vietnamese Beef & Carrot Stew made with bite-sized pieces of meat and chopped carrots}

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

vietnamese-beef-carrot-stew-recipe-2

{Click on the image to view the recipe in full-size}

Cook’s Notes

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.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Caroline @ The Patterned Plate 6 February 2014 at 1:52 pm

Oh lovely! It’s kinda like the Chinese one on the good food site, but sounds much better! Coca-Cola makes sense for the reasons you have mentioned. Looks totally delicious Thanh :)

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eat, little bird 6 February 2014 at 10:11 pm

The flavours are quite different to the Chinese Braised Beef, but both are very delicious. Actually, I make the Chinese Braised Beef quite often but haven’t yet done so for guests. I’m more likely to make this Vietnamese stew when we have friends over because it’s a bit different. But both are definitely winter favourites in our home :-)

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Anna 6 February 2014 at 2:13 pm

So well written and presented Thanh! It sure isn’t winter here but I’d love a serve please ;)

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eat, little bird 6 February 2014 at 10:14 pm

Oh I couldn’t imagine eating this dish in the heatwave you’re experiencing at the moment in Australia! Can you guess who it was that revealed her secret ingredient to me?? ;-) I’m already putting in my request for her to make this dish and many others when we are next in Brisbane (hopefully soon!).

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Anna 7 February 2014 at 5:49 am

I’ve only ever cooked this once – used my aunt’s recipe and it was seriously an intense labour of love. I think I’ll wait for your return for our friend to cook it ;) We went to visit her new eatery today and it was unsurprisingly super busy and delicious!! When are you coming home??

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eat, little bird 8 February 2014 at 10:55 am

Hopefully sometime this year … but I think we say that every year?? You’ll be among the first to know :-) And our first food stop will be T’s new eatery!

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Donna 6 February 2014 at 5:40 pm

This looks absolutely delicious! I love braised dishes at this time of year so I will be giving this one a try. Thank you for sharing.

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eat, little bird 6 February 2014 at 10:15 pm

Thanks, Donna! Hope you will enjoy this recipe. It’s a bit different to your usual beef stew but I think it’s worth trying :-)

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Gina 7 February 2014 at 4:06 pm

My mom loves making this alongside big, fluffy vietnamese baguettes :) She said that it makes a good breakfast!

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eat, little bird 8 February 2014 at 10:51 am

Absolutely! The Vietnamese love their hot breakfasts and I would be happy to sit down to a bowl of this in the morning with a hot baguette loaf, fresh from the oven. Mmmm :-)

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Paula 7 February 2014 at 4:30 pm

I’m not much of stew, but your photos are soooo beautiful, that even makes me want to eat it!! Well, OK, that’s nos so true!!!

However, I wouldn’t say no to this, I love that combination of five spices, lemongrass and all that…
And it’s funny the idea of using Coca-Cola. I’ve also seen some recipes for meat using it, and I have to try sometime!! But I’m somewhat reluctant, I don’t even like Coke as a drink!!

Cute cute photos, love it!!
Have a nice weekend, Thanh!!!!

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eat, little bird 8 February 2014 at 10:54 am

Hi Paula,
I’m not a big fan of Coca-Cola either. I used to drink it a lot when I was younger, but then I stopped and now it tastes a bit funny when I drink it. Although, I do like to have a glass of Coca-Cola when I eat pizza … ;-)

I’ve tried Nigella Lawson’s Ham in Coca-Cola which was really delicious. Although, that recipe uses A LOT of Coca-Cola, like a whole 2 lt bottle! This stew only needs about 3/4 cup so it’s not so bad.

Wishing you a great weekend also!

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Jana 8 February 2014 at 11:56 am

I used cold coca-cola only in case our (then small) daughter had a stomach problems. Few spoons of cold coca-cola and few sticks of salted pretzels were good to calm the stomach down as our doctor said. It always helped.

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eat, little bird 9 February 2014 at 11:45 am

My mum used to prescribe lemonade or Sprite whenever I had stomach problems as a child! I suppose there is something in the fizzy bubbles which helps. My son had a bout of bronchitis a few months ago and was generally feeling quite poorly. The paediatrician recommended that I give him salty food, such as pretzels, as the body apparently loses some salt when sick and this needs to be replenished. So Coca-Cola and pretzels are not so bad after all ;-)

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Rushi 11 February 2014 at 9:48 am

Beautiful pics Thanh. I’ve only used coca cola once in cooking, well rather baking thanks to Nigella. I made her coca cola cake a while back. My hubby would be the happiest if I made him this stew, I tend to avoid beef so to hubby this would be one of those rare treats :)

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eat, little bird 11 February 2014 at 11:44 am

Ooh I haven’t tried Nigella’s Coca-Cola cake yet … that would be an interesting one! I guess one shouldn’t be too surprised about cooking with Coca-Cola; wine, beer and other beverages are commonly used in cooking too.

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The Food Sage 11 February 2014 at 11:17 am

This looks like such a beautiful clean dish – can’t wait to try it. Excellent food styling, too. Great work.

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eat, little bird 11 February 2014 at 11:44 am

Thanks, Rachel!

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