No-Recipe Beef Stew Recipe

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Dear reader,

For a long time, I thought bò kho (beef stew) – the type my family makes in Vietnam, was impossible without the pre-mixed little pouches of spices found in every mom-and-pop groceries store. You want bò kho? Grab a bò kho kit. Phở? Here are your phở cubes. We took shortcuts because shortcuts were always available, and it would be a crime to spend more time than necessary on something so basic, so ordinary like cooking.

Until one day, those shortcuts are no longer available – or they become some rare commodities that you probably can afford but prefer not to. So out of necessity (your insatiable craving) and frugality, you improvise and you learn, because what is the worst thing that could happen?

One search of bò kho on Google churns out about 21.1 million results, one of which will probably get you to the right recipe – the power of the Internet, but the rebel in me refuses to do so. Let’s just go with taste buds and intuition, I tell myself. I turn to the oh-so-versatile five-spice powder, add more intensity with ground coriander and cinnamon. Crushed lemongrass stalks, a few spoons of tomato paste, some pinches of salt, pepper and sugar. My beef is then marinated in this fragrant mixture for an hour or so.

Spices have always been fascinating and intimidating. I’ve never made a good butter chicken or cinnamon buns despite following the recipes closely. Something was always off – a little bit too much cumin last time or not enough cinnamon kick the time before. Nevertheless, here I am, throwing spices in the mixing bowl, one teaspoon after another. My nose sniffs intently, telling my hands when to stop. I hope things will work out, that the stew god will somehow reward me for the bravery, for this blind trust in hitting targets in the dark.

The moment the beef hits the pot sizzling, I know I am on the right track. The aroma and the punch wafting towards me are unmistakably the bò kho that I know and long for. Why not toss in some toasted star anises too? The combination – sweet, citrusy and woody – blends so well with the deep and rich beefy smell, filling up the whole apartment with this revived sense of achievement and discovery. Maybe I am lucky to have got the balance right, or maybe bò kho is simply a forgiving dish to make. Either way, it is exhilarating – the kind of excitement akin to your first marathon or paycheck, when you’re ready to conquer the world. I gloat a little – just a little.

When the meat gets its brown edges, add about a cup of mirin and a few cups of water, make sure to submerge everything. Mirin – an atypical ingredient in Vietnamese cooking, but hear me out dear reader. I’ve been adding mirin to all of my soup, broth and gravy for the past few months now and loving the subtle sweetness that comes with it. Together with the carrots that go into the pot two hours later, this results in a deepening flavor on the verge of being addictive. I am ready to toast some bread to mop up this salty, sweet and fragrant stew.

But now I wait, patiently, for heat and time to do their magic.

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Cook’s notes:

  • As usual, tough cuts are the best for stew, I like briskets, but other cuts recommended here are fine too.
  • I like to pair this stew with carrots and potatoes (which also helps thicken the gravy), and sometimes green peas if they are on hand.
  • Some like to use this as a broth over noodle. In that case, make sure to add enough water so the liquid does not reduce too much. Check the pot every 45 minutes or so.


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