The first time I cooked Vietnamese beef stew, I had to deconstruct it from a restaurant dish. I had to trust my taste buds to know what spices went in it and guess what the cooking procedure was.
This one is based on a recipe by Andrea Nguyen. As it turns out, my old deconstructed version of Vietnamese beef stew was almost authentic except for one ingredient — lemongrass.
Unlike Andrea Nguyen’s recipe however which uses beef chuck (more readily available in the States, according to her), our Vietnamese beef stew uses bone-in beef. Another modification is the use of broth instead of water.
So, what are the steps in making Vietnamese beef stew? The fact that it’s a stew means long and slow cooking. But even before you get to the stewing part, there are three things you have to do to make sure that the dish will come out tasty.
First, marinate the beef. Do not skip this part. You want the beef to be flavored all the way to the center of each piece. I marinate the beef overnight in the fridge.
Second, brown the beef (reserve the marinade). In Asia, the default preparation of meat for stewing is to parboil it to remove inpurities. But this is Vietnamese cooking, heavily influenced by French techniques, so browning the beef is, for me, the better option.
The third thing is the spice base. You will need patience with this step. Saute sliced shallots until softened then add the reserved marinade with all the spices in it. Cook down the mixture, slowly and stirring often, until quite dry to heighten the flavors.
Creating the spice base continues after the addition of tomatoes. Tomato puree, in my case, which is nothing fancy, really. If you can’t get tomato puree in a can or jar, just puree chopped tomatoes in the blender.
Tomatoes contain a lot of water. I allow the mixture to cook, watching it with hawk eyes to prevent scorching, until the mixture forms into a paste. Meaning, it’s thick enough that when you drag a spatula across the bottom of the pan, a trench (or a ditch, if trench is something you associate with warfare) is created and the mixture does not easily flow back to cover it. Can you imagine the concentrated flavors at this point?
When you have your beautiful spice base, it’s time to cook the beef in it. But because the spice base is much too thick for the long and slow cooking that the beef requires, you add more liquid. Water is more convenient (and cheaper) but if you want full-bodied flavor, use broth.
I add the carrot after the beef has been simmering for over an hour. Carrot does not take long to cook, twenty minutes and the pieces should be tender enough to mash with the back of a fork, but because I want the sweetness of the carrot to bleed into the sauce, I add them early enough so that the carrot pieces cook with the beef for at least an hour.
And, that’s it! No special equipment required. No fancy skills either. You may even modify the procedure according to how you normally cook beef stew. But to make it real Vietnamese beef stew, use the correct ingredients. The herbs, spices and the fish sauce are truly indispensable.
Vietnamese beef stew
- 500 grams stewing beef - cut into serving size pieces
For the marinade
To cook the stew
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil
- 2 shallots - peeled and chopped
- 2 cups tomato puree
- 1 star anise
- 2 to 4 cups beef broth
- fish sauce - to taste
To complete the dish
- 2 carrots - peeled and cut into wedges
- Thai basil - to garnish
- mint - to garnish
- In a bowl, mix the beef with all the marinating ingredients. Cover and keep overnight in the fridge.
- Heat the cooking oil in a thick-bottomed pan.
- Scrape the beef (reserve the marinade) and brown in the hot oil in batches. Move to a plate as each batch browns.
- In the remaining oil (plus the rendered fat from the beef) over medium-low heat, saute the shallots until softened and lightly caramelized.
- Add the reserved marinade and continue sauteeing until the mixture is almost dry.
- Pour in the tomato puree and cook until thick and lumpy.
- Add the browned beef, and star anise.
- Pour in two cups of beef broth.
- Simmer the beef for two hours (the actual cooking time depends on the quality of the meat) or until tender. Taste occasionally and add more fish sauce, if needed. If the stew dries out before the beef is done, add more broth, no more than a quarter cup each time to prevent the dish from turning soupy.
- Add the carrot. Continue cooking until the vegetables are done.
- Serve the Vietnamese beef stew, garnished with Thai basil, over rice or noodles, or with crusty bread.