MY FIRST TASTE of American beef stew was at Camp Pendleton, in California, where my family lived in tents and ate at the mess hall. It was 1975, and we had just been airlifted from Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) to safety. I was intrigued by the stew, which was rich looking, saucy and full of beef. Here at last was a food similar to something I'd known back home in Vietnam—bo kho, a beefy braise perfumed with star anise and zippy lemongrass.
Bo kho was practically everywhere in Saigon, from open-air markets and casual cafes to private homes. People ate it at all times of the day with crisp baguettes, rice or flat rice noodles. As a chubby 6-year-old, I had already developed a fondness for it. Eating the stew at the base reminded me of how much I missed bo kho.
Luckily, as soon as we resettled, west of Camp Pendleton in San Clemente, my mother began cooking up a storm, recreating family favorites as she was able to find Vietnamese staples such as fish sauce and sticky rice. One of the first things that she successfully replicated was bo kho.
Like spaghetti sauce, bo kho comes in practically as many versions as there are cooks. The stew may include Chinese five-spice, curry powder, chilies, carrots, potatoes, daikon, fresh coconut water and beer. My mother's version wasn't fussy. She had obtained the recipe in 1955, a year after she'd migrated from her hometown near Hanoi, in the north of the country, to Saigon. She was among the many northerners who descended upon the southern Vietnamese metropolis under the 1954 Geneva Accords, which split the country. Bo kho was among a variety of southern specialties she fell in love with.
"People didn't move around much in Vietnam in those days, which is why we didn't know about many regional foods until 1954," my mom said recently. "I was surprised to see so much beef in a dish. We used beef sparingly in the north."
Indeed, of the three regional cuisines of Vietnam, that of the south is the most colorful and varied, and the one served in biggest portions. Southern Vietnamese live large compared with the agriculturally poor central Vietnamese who eat delicate, small servings, and the hard-core traditionalists in the north who adore pure flavors and eschew the sweetness and extravagant embellishment characteristic of the south.
“We often sopped up the hearty stew with French bread, and were deliciously reminded of our Viet roots.”
No one is certain about the exact origins of bo kho. It's mostly likely that resourceful Viet cooks took the tough and bony remains of beef carcasses left after French colonialists carved off their tender steaks and prepared long-simmered stews like this.
While still in Hanoi, determined to figure out how to make legit southern Vietnamese bo kho, my mother set her sights on a southern Vietnamese colleague at the U.S. Agency for International Development, where she worked as a secretary. By the time we left Vietnam, my mother had made the colleague's bo kho countless times, more than enough to know it by heart.
It was effortless for her to prepare it for us in America once she'd obtained ginger, yellow onion, lemongrass, Chinese five-spice, star anise, bay leaf and canned tomatoes. Aside from the lemongrass, star anise and fish sauce, which she bought in Los Angeles's Chinatown, all that she needed was sold at the nearby Albertsons supermarket. Everything bubbled away with chunks of beef chuck, a stand-in for the shank and tendon traditionally used in Vietnam. Carrots were added at the end for color and texture, and to sweeten up the sauce a tad.
When we lived in Vietnam, we had bo kho for breakfast, but in the U.S. my mom served it for dinner, because that's when we all sat down together as a family. We often sopped up the hearty stew with French bread, and were deliciously reminded of our Viet roots.
Nowadays, I mostly make bo kho during the cooler months. It's suitable for weeknights as well as for entertaining, particularly when guests are unfamiliar with Vietnamese fare. Just as that military-base stew marked my entree into American cooking, bo kho is a perfect gateway dish for exploring Viet cuisine.
Sometimes I hand chop the aromatics and use shank for an old-school rendition. More often than not, though, I pull out the mini food processor to zip through prep and use inexpensive, flavorful chuck. Either way, the house smells wonderful as the stew simmers. Sometimes, if I am making it in advance, I let it cool on the stove overnight and wake up inhaling the lingering aromas of the Vietnamese kitchen—savory, sweet, spicy. And I know that I am home.
Vietnamese Beef Stew
If you'd like to substitute beef shank for chuck, buy 2¾ pounds bone-in pieces, about 1-inch thick. Cut the meat into chunks and add the bones during simmering. The stew will take longer to cook but will be slightly richer.
Hands-On Time: 45 minutes Total Time: 3 hours Serves: 4-6
2 to 2¼ pounds well-trimmed boneless beef chuck, cut into 1½-inch chunks
2 stalks lemongrass, loose leaves discarded, cut into 3-inch lengths and bruised with the broad side of a cleaver or chef's knife
3 tablespoons fish sauce
2 large cloves garlic, minced
2½ to 3 tablespoons peeled and minced fresh ginger
1½ teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder
1½ teaspoons packed light or dark brown sugar
1 bay leaf
3 tablespoons canola or other neutral oil
1 yellow onion or 8 ounces shallot, finely chopped
1 can (14 ounces) crushed tomato in purée (1½ cups)
½ teaspoon salt
2 whole star anise
About 3½ cups water
1 pound carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
¼ cup coarsely chopped fresh Vietnamese coriander or Thai basil
What To Do
1. In a bowl, combine beef, lemongrass, fish sauce, garlic, ginger, five-spice powder, brown sugar and bay leaf. Mix well to evenly coat. Set aside to marinate 30 minutes.
2. In a heavy-bottomed 5-quart Dutch oven, heat oil over high heat until hot but not smoking. Working in batches, sear beef on all sides, then transfer to a plate. Each batch should take about 3 minutes total. Reserve lemongrass, bay leaf and leftover marinade.
3. Lower heat to medium-low, add onions and cook gently, stirring, until fragrant and soft, 4-5 minutes. Add tomatoes and salt. Cover and cook until mixture is fragrant and has reduced to a rough paste, 12-14 minutes. Check occasionally to make sure tomato is not sticking to bottom of pan. If it is, stir well and splash in some water.
4. When a paste has formed, add beef, reserved marinade ingredients and star anise. Give a big stir, then cook, uncovered, to meld flavors, about 5 minutes. Add water, bring to a boil, then cover and lower heat. Simmer until beef is chewy-tender (close to being done), about 1¼ hours. Press on a piece; it should yield but still feel firm.
5. Add carrots and return to simmer, adjusting heat if needed. Cook, uncovered, until carrots and beef are tender, about 30 minutes. (Everything up to this point can be done up to 2 days in advance, then cooled, covered and refrigerated. Bring to a simmer before continuing.)
6. Before serving, taste. Add salt or a shot of fish sauce to intensify flavor, or splash in water to lighten. Remove and discard lemongrass, bay leaf and star anise. Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with herbs.
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A version of this article appeared January 12, 2013, on page D5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: BoKhoand backagain.