A hearty, one-pot stew of succulent beef and sweet, tender carrots cooked in a broth infused with warmly-spiced and tangy Vietnamese flavors. Bò Kho is a Southern Vietnamese home-style and street food beef stew that combines French culinary influence with the flavors of Vietnam. Bò Kho takes time to slow-cook to melting perfection, but very little of this is hands-on cooking time. Your house will be filled with tantalizing smells for hours - the perfect chilly-weekend comfort food.
What is Bò Kho?
Bò Kho is a Southern Vietnamese beef stew that is popular in Vietnam as both a homestyle comfort food and a street food breakfast. In Vietnam, soups and stews like Bò Kho and the more well-known pho are commonly eaten in the morning and are often purchased from street vendors.
French Influence on Vietnamese Cuisine
Bò Kho is an example of French culinary influence on the modern cuisine of Vietnam. Beginning in the late 1800s, and for almost a century, the French colonized and controlled Vietnam and Cambodia. During this time they introduced ingredients like beef and carrots, as well as the baguette, which is often served alongside Bò Kho and used to soak up extra broth. The Vietnamese people creatively incorporated these new ingredients into their traditional foodways along with culinary influences from neighboring culinary cultures, like Chinese, to create many now popular modern Vietnamese dishes.
Looking for more Southeast Asian dinner inspiration? Try:
Bò Kho may be inspired by French stews but it is distinctly Vietnamese in both flavor and texture. It uses spices and aromatics indigenous to Vietnam and its surrounding regions like lemongrass, star anise, ginger and Chinese five spice. It’s got a complex flavor of spices and a bright tangy finish. Also, the thickness of Bò Kho’s broth is similar to other Vietnamese stews, which tend to be thinner than Western stews, closer to a soup broth than a gravy.
Lemongrass is an essential ingredient in many Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian dishes. It adds a citrusy tang that complements rich meats and warm spices.
Lemongrass can be bought fresh, dried or in a paste form, but it isn’t always easy to access if you don’t live near a Vietnamese or Southeast Asian grocer or a well stocked Western grocery store. It’s not available near me so I’ve substituted lemon peel. It won’t taste exactly the same, but the result is still delicious.
If you do have access to lemongrass, I’d recommend using it instead of the lemon peel.
A number of different cuts of beef will work well for this recipe. Look for something that is well marbled with fat. Boneless beef shank is a common cut used in Vietnam for traditional preparations of this stew, though chuck is more commonly used outside Vietnam. You could also use one or a mix of: brisket, short ribs, shortribs, or oxtail.
Going with a boneless cut will be faster and easier, but bone-in cuts are cheaper, and you can always cut the meat away from the bone before cooking - you’ll be chopping it anyway to cook the stew.
Can you use Stewing Beef?
For making a stew, you can use pre-cut stewing beef, it will save you some time. But I’d recommend you opt for a single large cut of beef instead:
- Whole cuts are cheaper, it’s a bit more work and a bit more time consuming to cut the beef yourself and/or remove it from the bone, but you’re paying more for the convenience of having someone else cut it for you.
- Searing a large piece of meat gives you the added flavor of that browned exterior, without losing too much of moisture inside the meat - which can easily happen when you sear very small pieces of beef, like stewing beef.
- For the best flavor and texture and a lower cost, choose a large cut of beef, like chuck or brisket, sear it whole, remove it from the pot and cut it into 1-2” pieces.
Annatto seeds are small and red with a mild flavor. They are primarily used in this dish because, when fried in oil, they release a vibrant red coloring that enhances the appetizing look of the stew. For this recipe, I substitute tomato paste, mostly to save an extra step, while still imparting a red color to the stew broth.
But, if you’d like to make your own annatto oil for your Bò Kho, the seeds can be found at Southeast Asian or South American grocers or ordered online. Heat a few tablespoons of neutral cooking oil in a small pan over medium heat. Add the annatto seeds and fry for 2-5 minutes, until the oil takes on an orange-red color. Strain the oil through a fine meshed sieve. Set the oil aside and discard the annatto seeds. Add to the recipe below instead of the tomato paste.
Thai (or Holy) Basil
Thai, or Holy, Basil is commonly recommended to be either added to Bò Kho just before serving, or served alongside the stew as a garnish. Vietnamese dishes are often served with large bunches of fresh herbs, treating the herbs more like a vegetable than a garnish.
You won’t see the Thai basil I added to this stew in my photographs because I used frozen Thai basil I saved from last year’s garden. It’s no longer a beautiful green garnish, but it’s just as flavorful as fresh.
Not feeling soup? Eat your beef in sandwich form instead:
If you don’t have access to grocers that carry fresh Thai basil, the process of growing your own is no different from growing Italian basil types - like Genovese. It’s worth adding to your vegetable garden, even if you just have a small balcony or a few containers, if you’re interested in making Vietnamese or other Southeast Asian food at home.
Tips for Searing Beef for Stew
- For flavorful and tender stew beef, don’t sear individual stew pieces. Instead, sear an entire large cut of beef, such as chuck or brisket, whole, then cut the beef into 1-2” cubes before adding it back into the pot.
- Salt the beef either immediately before or at least 45 minutes before you sear it. The moisture that is drawn out in the first 40 minutes or so hinders the searing process. In the recipe below I opt to season the beef right before searing in the interest of saving time, but you can season your beef at least 45 minutes and up to overnight before cooking if you’d prefer to do it in advance.
- Though it may help when cooking steaks, an overnight rest uncovered in the refrigerator is not necessary for beef that is intended for stews.
How to Thicken Stew Broth
When prepared traditionally, Bò Kho broth is thinner than what people familiar with Western beef stews might be used to. The broth should be closer to a soup consistency than a thick gravy-like broth. This is perfect for adding noodles to the stew or for soaking up the extra broth with crusty bread.
However, if you find your Bò Kho broth is too thin for your liking, you can always thicken it:
- make a slurry by whisking a bit of flour or cornstarch with an equal amount of water. Add to the stew, stir, simmer for a few more minutes until it thickens slightly.
- If you know in advance that you want a thicker broth, you can add the slurry along with the tomato paste in step 2 of the recipe below, instead.
Skimming Stew Fat
Bò Kho can be a relatively fatty stew. Depending on the fattiness of the cut of beef you choose and your personal preference for how lean you want your broth to taste, you may or may not want to skim the fat off the stew as it cooks or after it is finished. To skim the fat from your stew:
- Skim the fat off the top of the broth periodically as it simmers with a ladle and discard.
- After the stew is cooked, cool it down and transfer it to the refrigerator. The fat will harden as it cools and then you can easily remove and discard it. The additional flavor that develops as the stew sits is an added bonus with this method of making the stew a bit in advance of when you serve it (though, this is something you can do whether you intend to skim the fat or not.)
How to Serve Bò Kho
Bò Kho can be eaten on its own or served:
- With a side of steamed rice.
- Over flat rice noodles, vermicelli or another noodle of your choice.
- Spooned over mashed potatoes or polenta.
- With a side of crusty French bread for dipping.
- With a plate of fresh herbs like cilantro or Vietnamese coriander, Thai basil, or Mint.
Soup season won’t last forever. Check out more soup recipes:
Storing Leftovers & Freezing
- Bò Kho, like any other stew, is perfect for making a day or two ahead of serving, since the flavors intensify as the soup sits. If making it ahead, keep it in an airtight container in the refrigerator and add a bit of water or beef stock to thin out the broth when ready to serve, as soups and stews tend to thicken after cooling.
- Bò Kho will keep in the fridge for up to 3 days and the freezer for up to 3 months. To freeze, wait for the stew to cool down first, then transfer to freezer-safe ziploc bags or single-portion freezer containers.
- To serve from frozen, defrost in the refrigerator the night before serving, then warm back up on the stove.
- Another way to stretch out or reinvent leftover stew such as bò kho is to use it for the filling of a savory pie, hand pies or dumplings.
Bo Kho (Vietnamese Beef Stew) Recipe
For the beef:
- 3 tablespoons canola oil
- 2 ½ lbs beef (blade roast, chuck or brisket)
- 1 ¼ teaspoons table salt
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
For the stew:
- 2 yellow onions, diced
- 4 cloves garlic, smashed
- 1.5 oz piece of ginger, peeled and cut into a few large pieces
- 1/2 teaspoon Chinese five spice
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 6 cups beef stock (or water)
- Peel of 1 lemons, cut into strips, or 2 stalks lemongrass, thinly sliced crosswise
- 3 whole star anise
- ½ a cinnamon stick
- 4 dried chilies (or 2 fresh Thai chilis)
- 4 carrots, peeled and sliced diagonally into ¼” thick pieces
Optional toppings for serving:
- Thai basil
- Cilantro (Vietnamese if you can find it)
- Red onion slices
- Bean sprouts
- Lime wedges
- Sear the beef: Heat 3 tablespoons of canola oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Season the beef with 1 ¼ teaspoons table salt and freshly ground pepper. When the oil is hot enough (adding a drop of water will cause it to sputter), add the beef to the pan and sear each side for 2-3 minutes until a dark brown crust develops. You should hear a sizzle when the meat touches the bottom of the pot. Once all sides of the roast are browned, remove the beef from the Dutch oven, cut into 1” - 2” thick pieces and set aside.
- Make the stew base: Turn the heat down to medium and add the onions. As they cook, use a spatula or wooden spoon to scrape the brown bits from the beef from the bottom of the pot and mix them in with the onions. Cook the onions until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the smashed garlic and ginger pieces and cook for another minute or two until fragrant. Add the Chinese five spice and tomato paste and stir to coat the onions, cook for another minute.
- Simmer the stew: Return the beef to the pot. Add the remaining beef stock, lemongrass (or lemon peel strips), star anise, cinnamon stick and dried chilies. Bring the stock to a boil, then lower the heat and reduce to a simmer. Cook, with the lid ajar, for 1 1/2 hours.
- Cook the carrots: Add carrots and continue simmering, uncovered, for another hour and 30 minutes, or until the carrots are fork tender and the beef easily falls apart.
- Taste & Serve: Taste and adjust seasoning, if necessary. Fish out the garlic, ginger and large spices and serve with your chosen garnishes as well as either: rice or egg noodles, steamed white rice, crusty French bread or mashed potatoes.