Bo kho

Bo kho is a Vietnamese beef stew. A friend’s roommate was preparing it the other night and when I smelled it cooking I knew I just had to make it the next day. Bo kho will fill your house with appetizing aromas!

This is my first attempt at Vietnamese cooking. It happens to be a particularly straightforward dish – so long as you have accesss to the right ingredients (oxtails in particular), and several hours to let it braise, I suspect it’s very difficult to mess it up.

The recipe comes from Wandering Chopsticks, and I didn’t alter it in any way, except that I couldn’t find Vietnamese Madras curry powder, so I used an Indian one. I usually avoid prepared curry powders, but they are common in Southeast Asian cooking (including Thai cuisine). I suspect the dish would be even better, although perhaps less authentic, if made using curry powder (and 5-spice powder) made from scratch.

Oxtails are merely recommended in the recipe, but I suspect they are essential. They have more bone and gelatin than any other beef cut, and the level of unctuousness they give to the braise has to be tasted to be believed. I gather that oxtails are used frequently in Vietnamese cooking, for example in beef pho.

The rest of the beef was simply supermarket “stew beef” – chuck in this case. It could have been fattier to my taste. Braised long enough, however, it still falls apart meltingly.

You start by heating anatto seeds (achiote) in olive oil – mainly for the color, although there is a definite and perceptible smell to them, a bit nutmeggy. Once the oil is colored red, you remove the seeds.

Meanwhile, you have floured the beef. I really wonder whether a half cup of flour is necessary – and I was using more than the recommended 2 lbs of meat. I had to add more oil because the flour was soaking it up as I browned in batches.

Not shown: once the beef is browned, you add any remaining flour as well as a bay leaf, 2 stalks of bruised lemongrass, chunks of ginger, a cinnamon stick, three star anise, 2 teaspoons of five-spice powder, 2 teaspoons of Madras curry powder (I put a little less – very suspicious of this stuff), a 6-oz. can of tomato paste, 2 teaspoons of salt, and 2 tablespoons of fish sauce (after reading this article I used Squid brand, also recommended by friends of Vietnamese extraction, rather than the saltier Thai Golden Boy brand I usually use).

Now add cold water to the pot to the 3/4 level, bring to a boil, and simmer for an hour. Then add the vegetables – three peeled potatoes (I used Yukon Gold) cut into chunks, one large onion cut into chunks, and two peeled carrots, likewise chunked, and simmer for another hour:

Taste the meat for doneness – it will most likely need more cooking time (or at least benefit from it). I ended up simmering the stew for 3 hours and the meat was starting to fall off the bone.

Serve with Vietnamese baguettes, noodles, rice, or all of the above. It’s supposed to taste better the next day – I’m looking forward to finding out.

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