The Misfit Breakfast of Vietnam
Beef stew in Ho Chi Minh City
My t-shirt is every bit as moist as the fatty chunks of beef and carrot floating in the deep red broth. I’m not in the least bit worried about the perspiration, or the splashes of broth on my shoes, or the way I’ve got the bowl tipped up to my face as I emit pleasured grunts.
Some of the meat melts in the mouth and some stiffens the jaw with its rubberiness—that’ll be the tendon, I guess.
Like a lot of Vietnamese soups, the magic is in the broth. Star anise, curry paste, pepper, cumin, chopped onion, chive, and the national condiment, fish sauce, are just a part of what makes up a criminally under-celebrated dish.
Lighten the brawn with chili, hoisin, lemongrass, hefty squeezes of lime, and a bunch of cilantro, basil, and ngo om (rice paddy herb) and you’ve got yourself a most complex flavor. Order a baguette on the side to dunk and mop up, and you’re onto a winner.
Vietnamese beef stew, or bò kho, doesn’t seem to fit in around here. The words heavy, hearty and earthy aren’t really words we’d associate with Vietnamese eating. This is a land famed not only for phở, but for the light sweetness of bún chả and crispy, fresh gỏi cuốn among others.
Its inner workings are about as complex as its disputed history. Some say it’s a colonially influenced take on beef bourguignon, while others suggest it’s nothing more than the pell-mell product of ingredients traded on the spice route.
In a country famed for zesty, sharp dishes, this is the heavyweight cousin. Right at the bottom of the bowl is where the most magic happens. The contradiction of flavor at the top, where one side might give you aniseed, onion on the other, coexists in perfect harmony at the bottom, a euphoric cross section of tastes begging to be smeared onto the crispy baguette.
It’s no easy task getting there, though. The piping hot bowl and the fragrance has your nose streaming and your tongue burning; I’ve eaten it under the baking sun and I’m certain that I weighed less after eating than before, so fair warning—get it early in the morning or late at night.
Bò kho might not be the most popular breakfast here, but I’ve never met a soul who claimed to dislike it. When I eventually return home to Ireland, I’m going to open up a food cart selling Vietnamese beef stew to morning commuters on cold winter mornings, and you know what? I reckon I’ll make a killing. So here’s to misfit breakfasts.