Because of France’s occupation of Vietnam from 1883 to 1954, many people assume that Viet cooking is heavily influenced by French foodways. While there are a handful of old French cookbooks written in Vietnamese, pure French cooking was mostly for those who could afford the ingredients.
As cultural survivalists, Vietnamese cooks wove French elements into their traditions, just like they did with other cultures that they came in contact with over the ages. That’s why Vietnamese food can confound as much as it delights. Beefy classics such as pho noodle soup and beef stew with tomato, lemongrass, and star anise are prime examples of fusion Vietnamese fare. There are so many Eastern and Western elements in those dishes that it's hard to simply call them Viet-Franco food.
On the other hand, Viet cooks can be inventive in replicating foreign culinary concepts, such as a beouf Bourguinon. That’s what I pondered as I set about making a red wine and beef stew, an cool weather dish that seemed fitting with the season. I typically rely on Julia Child’s master Zinfandel of Beef recipe from The Way to Cook when making a beef stew. This time around, I combined JC’s techniques with some borrowed from Jennifer McLagan’s new book, Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal. While there are a number of Asian-inspired recipes, most of McLagan’s recipes are western in nature. The point of the book is to encourage cooks to look beyond the usual “middle cuts,” such as beef and pork tenderloin, to discover the delicious appeal of ears, tongues, feet, and tails.
Asian cooks don’t have much issue with this concept as evidenced by the tripe and chicken feet at dim sum! Nevertheless it's good to be reminded of their exceptional flavor and textures. Asian markets have a wealth of odd bits but how often do we buy them nowadays? Not as much as our parents and grandparents used to as they practiced a head-to-tail approach to eating.
McLagan’s classic beef stew recipe was unfussy, called for igniting the red wine (pyrotechnic cooking always intrigues me), and baking the stew. She used rounds of beef shank. I had this frozen chuck roast from my annual share of a grass-fed cow:
As I was reviewing the recipes by Child and McLagan, I thought: How would I make this dish if I lived in Vietnam during the French colonial period? What if I had to cook for or with a French person during that era?
The French person would likely contribute certain things like the wine, parsley (ngo tay/rau mui tay, western cilantro), bay leaf (la thom, fragrant leaf) and perhaps thyme brought over from France. The tenderloin would have been used for bifteks, and tougher cuts like my chuck roast would be stewed; Viet cows are pasture fed so my 100% grass-fed beef was a very good substitute. With those ingredients and what I had on hand, we’d probably create the red wine and beef stew with some touches from my Viet kitchen for a Franco-Viet iteration.
Keeping those assumptions in mind, I made these tweaks to my usual red wine and beef stew:
Claypot: Home ovens were (and still are) rarities in Vietnam. Simmering the stew in a claypot would be my work around for baking the stew in an oven. The claypot I used has a capacity of about 4 1/2 quarts. It browned the meat okay but I couldn’t get to heat up hot enough as my usual stew pot: an enamel coated cast iron Dutch oven similar to this one.
Fish sauce: Red wine, aromatics, salt, and pepper season the stew but to ensure umami depth, a few shots of nuoc mam were needed.
Extra black pepper: Vietnam grows wonderful black pepper, especially from Phu Quoc island. To add a touch of heat, I doubled the amount of black peppercorns from 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon and liberally sprinkled freshly ground pepper on the meat before browning.
Beef pho broth: In lieu of beef stock, I reached for beef pho broth, which I had frozen. The spices would build a nice layer of flavor. (If you want to fudge this, simmer canned beef or chicken broth with a little water (2:1 ratio) with the spices you’re normally use in those pho broths. See the beef and chicken pho recipes for guidance. Simmer the quickie broth for 8 to 10 minutes then strain .)
Parsley, cilantro and rau ram: Why not blend western and eastern parsleys together? Flat-leaf parsley is called for in western beef stews but a little cilantro addition wouldn’t hurt. For garnish, rau ram and/or flat-leaf parsley could lend a fresh finish to the stew.
Fresh tomato instead of tomato paste: McLagan’s recipe asked for a tablespoon of tomato paste. I had some little dry-farmed tomatoes around and figure that a Viet cook would use fresh tomato. Tomato paste is not common in Vietnam.
Lard: McLagan champions beef drippings or lard for her stew. In Vietnam, lard was a traditional cooking fat. I had some from a Mexican market in the fridge.
Banana leaf vs. parchment paper: A parchment paper round is placed atop the stew during simmering to seal in moisture. I could have used soft banana leaf if I didn’t have parchment but in actually, I had parchment but no banana leaf in my kitchen! The banana leaf would have added a slight tea-like flavor, which I think would have been fine.
The result? Really really tasty. Actually, my husband deemed the red wine and beef stew to be “absolutely delicious.” He wasn’t just saying that to be kind.
What I learned from this Franco-Viet experiment is that finessing and adapting classic preparations well is a matter of cooking within parameters. What if I didn’t have an oven? I’d find a cooking vessel that closely approximated that kind of heat. No beef stock? Why not use readily available pho broth? Such substitutes are not meant to replicate a classic boeuf Bourguinon. However, you get a darn lovely beef stew for dinner. We mopped up the sauce with Acme baguette and served Brussels sprouts on the side.
Red Wine and Beef Stew in Claypot
Feel free to substitute 3 pounds of boneless beef shin (sold at Asian markets). Do the initial simmer for 1 1/2 to 1 3/4 hours since shin takes a little longer than beef chuck to cook, which is cut from the shoulder.
2 cups red wine
3 3/4 pounds beef chuck roast, deboned and cut into 2-inch chunks (3 pounds total)
2 large onions (1 1/3 pounds total)
2 ribs celery, sliced
3 large cloves garlic, crushed
3 sprigs Italian (flat-leaf) parsley
2 bushy sprigs thyme
8 to 10 sprigs cilantro (optional)
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns
Salt and pepper
4 to 5 tablespoons lard or canola oil
1 tablespoon tomato paste, or 1 ripe tomato
2 cups beef stock or pho broth
4 carrots, cut into 3/4 to 1-inch-thick pieces
12 ounces crimini (brown) mushroom, stems removed
1/4 cup chopped Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, cilantro and/or rau ram leaves, for garnish
1. Bring the wine to a boil in a large saucepan. Lower the heat so the wine gently bubbles. Tilt the pan slightly away from you and light the wine on the surface. (Use a long lighter or match.)
2. In a large bowl, combine the beef with 1 of the sliced onion, celery, garlic, parsley, thyme, cilantro, bay leaf, and peppercorns. Add the wine. Use your hands to mix well. Let marinate for 3 hours on the counter, giving it a stir midway. Or cover and refrigerate overnight, returning it to room temperature before proceeding; stir it in the morning.
3. Remove the meat from the marinade. Strain the marinade, reserving the solids. Pat the meat dry with paper towels. Season it with salt, pepper, and a few shots of fish sauce.
4. Heat about 1 tablespoon of lard in the claypot over medium-low heat, then increasing it gradually to medium-high. (If you’re using a enamel cast iron pot, just heat it over medium-high heat.) In batches, brown the beef, setting it aside when done. Add more lard as needed.
6. Add the tomato and cook till it softens is no longer solid. Add the wine, stock, and beef. Bring to a boil. Place a parchment paper round on the surface, pressing down on it so it gets damp enough to soften and adhere to the stew. Cover, then lower the heat to gently simmer for 1 1/4 hours, until barely tender.
7. Uncover, remove and discard the parchment. Add the carrots and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes, until the carrots and beef are both tender. Meanwhile, sear the mushroom in a skillet over high heat until they’ve softened slightly. Sprinkle on a little salt while searing. Set aside.
8. Turn off the heat. Let the stew cool for a bit, then remove the beef and carrots. Strain the cooking liquid through a mesh strainer, pressing on the solids.
Wash the claypot, then return the sauce, beef, and carrots. Add the mushroom. Reheat the stew, gently simmer it for 15 minutes or so to develop the flavor. Season with salt and pepper, maybe a little fish sauce, then sprinkle with the herb garnish of your choice.
How would you tweak the beef stew if you were in Vietnam during that period? I’m sure you’d be more creative than I was.
- Pot au Feu (Sup Thit Bo)
- Braised Beef Tongue with White Wine (Luoi Bo Nau Ruou Vang)
- Braised Lamb Shanks with Star Anise and Lemongrass
- Red Wine and Fish Sauce Beef Jerky