In Vietnam, the very popular bò kho is a beef stew with carrots, perfumed with star anise and lemongrass. A marvel of great aromatic complexity.
It is similar to the French pot-au-feu but with more exoticism. It is reminiscent of the famous phở, the beef noodle soup that has become the national dish of Vietnam. The Laotians actually call the bò kho, “red phở”. These are dishes that you breathe before tasting to feel on the other side of the planet, at least during one meal.
What is bò kho?
In Vietnamese, bò means “beef” and kho means “to braise”.
Kho is actually a Vietnamese cooking technique consisting of simmering meat, fish, seafood or tofu in water or coconut water with fish sauce (nuoc-mâm).
Nuoc-mâm, made from fish that is fermented in brine, is the essential ingredient of Vietnamese cuisine. It is a condiment that is much used in Southeast Asian cuisine. In ancient times, the Romans made garum or liquamen, a similar sauce that replaced salt and flavored dishes.
This technique (kho) has the advantage of tenderizing the meat and making the vegetables very soft.
The broth of the bò kho brings very rich flavors: lemongrass, star anise, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, garlic, ginger, cumin, coriander, Sichuan pepper, paprika and chili pepper.
The acidity of lemongrass harmonises and refreshes the taste of the broth and the meat, just like the lime and fresh herbs that are almost always offered as an accompaniment.
Vietnamese cuisine often seeks this balance between richness and depth of taste and freshness and lightness. The restaurant tables are always full of condiments and various fresh herbs for everyone to season according to their palate.
Bò kho is believed to be native to the north but is now found throughout Vietnam. It is eaten in different ways depending on the region of the country. It can be served with white rice, fresh baguette (bánh mì) or noodles.
To the north, it is served for breakfast. In the center, it is the main course, served as a soup with noodles. To the south, it is available all day and the Vietnamese dip pieces of crispy baguette to steep them with the stew.
What are the different versions of bò kho?
The stew is simply called bò kho không, for a hearty breakfast.
When served with baguette, people call it bánh mì bò kho.
When it comes with noodles, it’s a bit more complex:
– with thin and flat rice noodles (hủ tiếu), it is called hủ tiếu bò kho,
– mì bò kho with egg or turmeric wheat noodles (mì) that can be served fresh (mì tươi) or instant (mì gói)
– and finally phở bò kho is served with flat rice noodles wider than hủ tiếu.
In any case, it is invariably eaten with chopsticks and a spoon.
Vietnamese cuisine and the origin of bò kho
The cuisine of a country is always linked to its history and Vietnam is no exception to the rule.
It is a country of complex ethnic mixing. There are more than 50 distinct ethnic groups. It would be more accurate to talk about Vietnamese cuisines.
A thousand years of Chinese rule and the presence of the French from 1862 to 1954 have greatly influenced the gastronomy.
Before the French occupation, the Vietnamese ate buffalo meat. The settlers introduced beef farming. The French already cooked many variants of beef stew such as boeuf aux carottes and may have inspired the Vietnamese, just as the pot-au-feu would have inspired the phở.
The dishes cooked with hot peppers find their inspiration in the culture of the Chams, a people who founded the kingdom of Champa in the second century. They are mostly Muslims and live in the center of Vietnam.
In short, the bò kho would be the legacy of all these cultures. And like all stews, it’s even better the next day!
Chúc ngon miệng. Enjoy your meal !
- 3 lb scoter (or boneless beef breast), cut into 2-inch cubes
- 3 cloves garlic , minced
- 4 tablespoons fresh ginger , grated
- 5 tablespoons nuoc mam (fish sauce)
- 2½ teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder (Sichuan pepper, caraway, coriander, fruit peel, licorice, cinnamon, star anise, cloves)
- 1½ teaspoon brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 1 stem lemongrass , peeled and cut into 3-inch sections
- 2 stalks lemongrass , peeled and finely chopped
- 8 cloves garlic , minced
- 1 onion , chopped
- 4 tablespoons tomato paste
- 8 cups water
- 2½ cups pure coconut water
- 2 pods star anise
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon chili powder
- 1 teaspoon ground annatto
- 1 tablespoon paprika
- 8 large carrots , peeled and sliced in 1-inch sections
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons chili oil
- 16 oz. large rice noodles
- 1 bunch cilantro , roughly chopped
- 6 leaves Thai basil
- 2 onions , thinly sliced
- A few wedges lime
In a large bowl, combine the beef, garlic, ginger, fish sauce, five-spice powder and brown sugar until each piece is well-coated.
Marinate for 1 hour.
Heat the vegetable oil in a large pot over high heat. Add the lemongrass stalks and fry for 1 minute.
Add the minced lemongrass and garlic. Sauté for 2 minutes.
Add the onions and cook, mixing until they become translucent.
Stir all the beef and brown evenly on all sides.
Add the tomato paste.
Stir and cook uncovered for 5 minutes.
Add the water, coconut water, star anise, ground black pepper, chili powder, annatto and paprika.
Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer covered for 1 hour.
After an hour, add the carrots, salt, soy sauce and chili oil.
Cover and simmer again for 45 minutes.
To serve, remove the large stalks of lemongrass and the pods of star anise.
Cook the rice noodles according to the package instructions.
Add a serving of noodles in each bowl and pour the soup over them.
Garnish with cilantro, Thai basil and raw onions, and serve with some lime wedges on the side.