It always amazes me how many doppelgangers exist in the world of cuisine. Almost every culture I can think of has its own version of beef stew. Comfort food at its best, sipping bowls of this warm elixir can seemingly chase away any ills of the body and mind. The Chinese enjoy a thin broth-based star-anisse infused beef stew with carrots and daikon radish as companions, whereas the French have a more sumptuous version which is thickened with a buttery roux and imbued with mixed floral notes from red wine and mushrooms. The beef stew that I grew up with is a hybrid of these polar opposites. The blending of cuisines and cultures that tantalize our modern palates has always fascinated me. Vietnamese food embodies the meeting of Eastern and Western flavors with its buttery baguettes borrowed from French cuisine, filled with Eastern flavors of barbecued meats marinated in lemongrass and garlic, pickled vegetables, topped off with spreads borrowed from France-rich and smooth liver pate and garlic aioli. Whereas the Chinese enjoy their beef stew with linguine-like egg noodles, the French and Vietnamese prefer to sop theirs up with warm, crispy baguettes. Similar to the melding of cuisines is the melding of cultural influences within people. My family background pulls from both Chinese and Vietnamese cultures; on top of that, I was born and raised in the United States. Everything has a context, and the context of my cooking is one of multicultural blends and fusions. So here’s my take on this delicious comfort food that feeds both the body and soul.
I am a strong proponent of tasting food as you cook it because everyone has a unique palate with different sensitivities to salt, sugar, bitter, sweet, and sour flavor profiles. Although I have given ballpark amounts for seasonings, I really encourage you to be daring enough to make this recipe your own by adding or tweaking things to suit your tastes.
If you dislike the pungent bitterness of daikon radish, then by all means substitute with potato, making the stew heartier. I have slowly grown fond of eating daikon radish. An often misunderstood ingredient, daikon radish leads with bitterness; but beneath this gruff exterior, there is a subtle sweetness within that is often missed. One mistake that I made when I first starting experimenting with making bo kho was adding the daikon and carrot at the same time that I added the beef to cook. All the bitter notes of the daikon permeated the broth of my stew, which made for an unpleasant experience for my tastebuds. The vegetables also had a mushy texture at the end. This is why I recommend boiling the daikon in a separate pot of water to allow some of that bitterness to be extracted first before adding the daikon to the beef stew.
Another choice you may have to make is whether or not you can tolerate the flavor of fish sauce. Pungent with seafoody-goodness and umami, fish sauce is like the Lady Gaga of the culinary world-adored by those who know how to appreciate it, polarizing at its core, with a presence that cannot be ignored or denied. Recognizing that not everyone has a taste for this strong serum that derives from fermented fish and salt, substituting for soy sauce is also a delicious option.
I chose to make my beef stew in a slowcooker for the sake of convenience because I am not required to stay at home and watch my stew. However, I believe that you will build a thicker, richer stew if you choose to simmer your stew directly on a stove. This would also cut down on cooking time.
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cooking Time: 6 hours
5 lbs beef shank/stew meat
5 large carrots
2 large daikon radishes
½ package of Chinese beef stew seasoning
1 can tomato paste
¼ c brown sugar
¼- ½ c fish sauce, to taste
1 tsp salt
3-4 quarts water
Cut beef into 2-inch cubes and season with salt, beef stew seasoning, and tomato paste. Allow the meat to sit for 10 minutes.
In a heated oiled skillet on high heat, brown the beef.
Place beef into slow cooker along with 4 quarts of water and fish sauce/soy sauce. Allow to slow cook for approximately 4 hours
Cut carrots and daikon radish into 1-2 inch pieces. Slice onions. Set aside.
When beef is tender, taste broth and beef for seasoning. Add brown sugar and additional fish sauce/salt to taste. Then add carrot and onion and allow to simmer in the slow cooker for an additional hour.
Meanwhile, in a separate pot, boil 1 quart of water. Place daikon radish into boiling water and allow to cook for 10-15 minutes, until radish is tender. Remove radish from water and drain, then place radish into the slow cooker for the remainder of the cooking time.
Top with sliced scallion and cilantro and enjoy with a buttery warm baguette!