Vietnamese beef stew blends flavors of multiple spices and cultures

by Terry B on August 11, 2010

Flavors from all over Asia (ginger, lemongrass, five-spice powder, garam masala, fish sauce…) spice up this delicious, aromatic, meaty stew that draws its inspiration from when Vietnam was called French Indochina. Recipe below.

vietnamese-beef-stew2

The other day I realized I hadn’t posted a single meat-based recipe here since June. Carnivore that I am, I was appalled. So when Marion offered to make her amazing (and amazingly meaty) Vietnamese Beef Stew, I gladly turned the kitchen over to her.

Okay, so, yes, it’s hot.  But sometimes I get these cravings. The other day the taste I wanted was a particular combination of beef and lemongrass and spice. And I wanted sauce, and plenty of it. I know it is insane, in the middle of the hottest summer in recorded history, to want stew. Nevertheless.

This is a recipe we’ve been tinkering with for years. The basic elements are aromatic and reassuring in a very Vietnamese style. Unlike true Vietnamese stews, this has a little soy sauce. Like Vietnamese dishes from the colonial period, you serve it with a good, crusty baguette, not rice, and you eat it with forks and spoons, not chopsticks.

It’s a very wet stew, and the ultimate sauce is an intermediate between the meat-clinging opacity of American stews and the liquid clarity of pot au feu. A big hot dish of big warm flavors: Maybe not quite the thing for these oppressive summer nights, but it hit the spot. (Editor’s Note: This stew is way too good to worry about mere seasonality—besides, you don’t use the oven, so cooking it doesn’t overheat the kitchen.)

Vietnamese Beef Stew
Serves 4 to 6

2 pounds chuck roast, trimmed of fat and cut into one-inch cubes
1 stalk lemongrass, end trimmed off, dry outer leaves peeled away and the soft inner core minced
2 shallots, finely minced
a 1-inch piece of ginger, peeled, crushed and finely minced
3 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
2 teaspoons garam masala
1 teaspoon five-spice powder
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
3 tablespoons fish sauce (see Kitchen Notes)
1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
canola oil
1-1/2 cups low-sodium beef stock (see Kitchen Notes)
1 to 1-1/2 cups water
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 whole star anise
1 bay leaf
2 medium onions, peeled and sliced thin
2 jalapeño peppers, topped, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 pound carrots peeled, trimmed and cut in half-inch slices on the diagonal

a good baguette

Place the lemongrass, garlic, fennel seed, ginger, shallot, ground pepper, star anise, garam masala, cayenne, fish sauce and sugar in a big ceramic or glass bowl. Stir, then add in the chuck roast. Stir it all with your hands until every piece is coated. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

After 30 minutes, take the beef out of the fridge. Heat 1 tablespoon canola oil in a nonstick pan.  Over medium-light heat, add the thin sliced onion and the diced jalapenos and saute for about four minutes. Then move the onion and pepper mixture to a deep heavy pot or dutch oven.

Add another tablespoon of oil to the pan. Working in batches, brown the beef. I usually do this in three batches. Each piece should be nicely browned on all sides. As the pieces brown, add them to the pot. Scrape all the little spice bits into the pot too. If any crust forms in the pan, deglaze it with a little stock or water and add that to the cooking pot too.

Then pour in the beef stock, water, tomato paste, and 2 tablespoons of soy sauce. Add the bay leaf and the star anise. Bring the liquid to a boil, reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, cover, and cook for about 90 minutes. Check occasionally.

After 90 minutes, add the sliced carrots, stir gently (see Kitchen Notes), cover again and cook about 30 minutes more.

Check the beef and the carrots. At this point, each should be very tender, and ready to serve.

Serve in a soup plate or shallow bowl, with baguette and butter,  a leafy salad with a simple dressing and a crisp white wine.  We had a muscadet that was just the thing—clean, crisp and refreshing. This also would be terrific with a dry cider over ice.

Kitchen Notes

Watch out for the sodium. When using beef stock, if you are not using your own homemade, be sure to use low or no sodium, and even then be cautious. Soy sauce and fish sauce are each sodium bombs in and of themselves.

Star anise. Use whole star anise for this dish, not fragments. When you stir the pot, be gentle—you don’t want to break up the star anise. If you do, you’ll have to fish out all the little seeds and pieces before serving—those things, chewed on their own, are just too much.

Fish sauce. When choosing fish sauce, you will see there are many, many brands out there. As a rule of thumb, don’t buy a brand that comes in a plastic bottle. Buy the ones packaged in glass.

Some more traditional versions of this use turnips  and even mooli (which is more familiar to us in the United States under the name daikon).  We just like this with carrots, lots and lots of carrots. Indeed, one of our family members, who shall here go unnamed, hates carrots in every form except this one.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Toni August 11, 2010 at 7:45 am

Hmmmm…..I just finished baking some terrific bread….And our weather has been unseasonably cool here….. This is looking mighty fine to me!

City Share August 11, 2010 at 4:39 pm

That combination of spices sounds fabulous. Thanks for the recipe.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) August 12, 2010 at 12:31 am

Who wouldn’t get cravings for this stew? The spices are completely seductive. And the best hot-weather food comes from hot climates.

Marion August 12, 2010 at 2:37 pm

Thanks, Toni! And maybe you could send some of that cool weather our way.

City Share—Thanks! And you’re welcome! One of the lovely things about the spice mix (and other flavorings) is how amazing your kitchen smells while the stew is cooking.

You know, Lydia, one thing we talked about in discussing the non-seasonality of this dish is that winter in Vietnam is probably every bit as hot as our summer is being. So you’re right, there’s no reason to save this dish for winter.

Laura [What I Like] August 12, 2010 at 4:04 pm

How funny…I’ve been craving stew as well, despite the heat! I’m too conformist to actually make it of course, but you’ve given me courage. I shall make this on Sunday night for some friends, and I’m sure they will thank me a hundred times over.

Eeka August 14, 2010 at 5:33 pm

This is delicious, even though I am not a fan of 5-spice nor star anise, and I generally regard carrots as being ‘the root of all evil’ (blech!) . It’s definitely a case of the whole being much better than the individual components.

Sindy August 14, 2010 at 7:25 pm

This sounds wonderful! I am going to try making this in the crockpot! One question is the issue with sodium the health issue or a too salty taste.?

Marion August 14, 2010 at 10:35 pm

Hi, Laura! Let us know how it turns out—and what your guests think.

Eeka, it really is funny how certain ingredients we don’t care for on their own can contribute to a dish we totally love.

SIndy, the sodium issue in this case is taste. But if you find low sodium beef broth—and reduced sodium soy sauce, for that matter—you can control it. Of course, for those watching the sodium in their diets, this does have a fair amount. But it’s not one of those meals that leaves you parched later, always a sign of too much sodium for us.

Alta August 15, 2010 at 7:01 pm

Oh my, I love the flavors going on here!

Dani H August 19, 2010 at 4:40 am

I’m trying to learn more about spices. I’ve known mostly just the ones used for baking sweets. I’m slowly learning what I like, mostly in Asian dishes. This certainly looks delicious in the photograph. It’s funny that intimidated though I was, I’ve learned to make baguettes this summer. It was fun and they were good, but probably not cheaper than buying them. I hope you’re having a wonderful summer, Marion. {And Terry, of course.}

Marion August 19, 2010 at 2:36 pm

Thanks, Alta!

Dani, you’re exactly right on the cost of baking your own baguettes—for us, finding a reliable source for them at a bakery or grocery store is the best option. And we are having a good summer. Hope you are too!

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