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?