Some Vietnamese foods have been poorly translated into English, and thit bo luc lac is one of them. Thit bo means beef and luc lac refers to how you have to shake the skillet or wok to cook the small pieces of meat. For years, my husband expected the meat to quiver and I assured him that the dish wasn't all that dramatic. It's had its usefulness at crossover Vietnamese restaurant menus where it's presented as the meaty option for steak lovers. Let's just say it's become downright popular, despite it not being part of many Vietnamese home cook's repertoire. It's actually a celebratory dish.
In general, Vietnamese people, like many other Asian people, don't eat large piece of meat unless they're cut into small pieces. We just traditionally didn't (and people still don't) have enough meat for things like roast beef. And, if you slice anything up, it will feed people on biblical proportions! In the case of thit bo luc lac, named after the back and forth shaking of the skillet as you sear the cubes of beef, was likely a clever dish invented to deal with tough cuts of steak. Many Vietnamese restaurants in America prepare this dish with super tender, expensive fillet but it's rather hard to find such a splendid preparation in Vietnam. And the beef you get in Vietnam is likely to be tough and from an animal that's walked plenty of miles and eaten lots of grass, not grain. The meat will have some good chew and flavor. It's not for those with weak teeth.
Abroad we have lots of good tender, flavorful beef for tasty renditions of this dish without having to spend tons of money. When I prepare "shaking" beef, I use my favorite inexpensive cut of beef — trip tip (bottom sirloin, cullotte steak) and have the butcher select marbly pieces. At my local grocery store, Shopper's Corner, I typically pay about$6/pound for the steaks. Once home, I trim off most of the excess fat before cutting the beef into cubes.
With its peppery bite, the watercress is a great contrast to the beef. Coating the watercress in a light dressing and then putting the hot beef over the top, the cress wilts ever so slightly and the beef juices and dressing blend together into a tangy sauce that's great spooned over rice. This is a pretty easy dish to whip up from readily available ingredients.
Wok-seared "Shaking" Beef
Thit Bo Luc Lac
Use both the light and dark soy sauces if you want a little extra deep color. Feel free to dress up the final platter with some tomato wedges. If serving without the watercress, opt to present the beef with a side of salt, pepper, lime dipping sauce (muoi tieu chanh) for guests to dip the cubes in.
Serves 4 with 2 or 3 other dishes
1 1/4 pound tri-tip (bottom sirloin/culotte) steaks
1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon light (regular) soy sauce, or 2 teaspoons light (regular) and 1 teaspoon dark (thick) soy sauce
1 shallot, thinly sliced (1/4 cup total)
1 1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 or 2 pinches salt
3 to 5 cracks black pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons unseasoned rice vinegar
2 tablespoons water
4 cups watercress, use only the tender leafy parts
2 tablespoon canola or peanut oil
1. Trim excess fat from the steaks and then cut each into 3/4-inch cubes. In a bowl, combine the pepper, sugar, garlic, oyster sauce, fish sauce and soy sauce. Add the beef and toss well to coat. Set aside to marinate for 20 minutes or up to 2 hours.
2. For the dressing, put the shallot in a mesh strainer and rinse under water for about 10 seconds to reduce some of the harshness. In large mixing bowl, combine the sugar, salt, pepper, vinegar and water. Stir to dissolve the sugar. Add the shallot. Put the watercress on top but hold off on tossing.
3. Heat the oil in a wok or large skillet over high heat. Add the beef and spread it out in one layer. Cook in batches, if necessary. Let the beef sear for about 1 minute, before shaking the wok or skillet to sear another side. Cook for another 30 seconds or so and shake. Cook the beef this way for about 4 minutes total, until nicely browned and medium rare.
In between shakes, toss the watercress and transfer onto a platter or serving dish. When the beef is done, pile the beef on top of the watercress and serve immediately with lots of rice.