Bo kho may not be as well known as pho, but it should be. This Vietnamese beef stew has a wonderful depth of flavor from aromatic spices, lemongrass, ginger and coconut water. It's warming, delicious and easy to make too.
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I came across bo kho a little by accident. First, I was looking up for ideas to use the beef shank I'd received in my meat box. Then separately I was thinking we needed to have some more Vietnamese food soon and started looking for ideas.
Then that moment of perfect harmony happened: the two combined. And the result was making this bo kho which I think might be the most delicious beef stew I have had.
Vietnam has been on my list of places I want to visit for so long and was high up on the list when we were looking at honeymoon destinations. But on researching, I realized it needed a trip itself to really do it justice.
That trip is yet to happen, so instead my travels there mainly happen in my kitchen. It certainly helps whet my appetite for some day, as I do so love the flavors in Vietnamese cooking. Vietnamese chicken salad, bahn mi pork and Vietnamese lemongrass pork are already firm favorites.
"Kho" means to simmer or stew in Vietnamese and "bo" is cow. But the name gives away nothing about the wonderful range of flavors that makes this stew special.
What's in a Vietnamese beef stew?
Just as in the case with other beef stews around the world, the main idea is to tenderize a lesser cut of beef by slow cooking it in a flavorful broth. It's the 'flavor' though in this that makes it distinctly Vietnamese.
The main spices are:
- Chinese five spice (Sichuan pepper, star anise, clove, cinnamon and fennel)
Most versions also add garlic and usually some black pepper and extra star anise.
As with many traditional dishes, there are a few variations. So I have opted to go for a set of ingredients that keeps with the traditional flavors, without being overly complicated (I've drawn on this recipe, amongst others).
I found some recipes that used soda which, while I can see it helping to tenderize the meat, isn't my go-to style of cooking. Instead, I went with the other typical combination of beef broth and coconut water base.
Many recipes use some tomato paste which helps give a slight red color. Some also use some crushed or whole annetto seeds to make it more red, but given they are not that easy to find and not essential for flavor, I skipped them.
You can make the dish spicy with chili oil or chili powder, but I kept it more aromatic and put some paprika in as well.
Steps to make bo kho
- Dice the beef into bite-sized pieces.
- Mix the beef with ginger, garlic, Chinese five spice and fish sauce and set aside around 30 mins.
- Meanwhile, cut the carrots in chunks and slice the onions.
- Warm the oil in a Dutch oven and cook the lemongrass a minute to bring out the flavor.
- Brown the meat in batches, removing as they are done.
- Soften the onion, then return beef and lemongrass to pot.
- Add pepper, paprika and tomato paste, cook a minute then add coconut water and broth (or water and bones).
- Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and let it cook, adding in carrots part way through.
See how it comes together in this short video!
I'd recommend using as good a beef broth as you can, or even better as I had here, beef bones in with the stew as it cooks. If you have time, you can make the beef broth ahead of time (and freeze it, depending on how far ahead and if you make extra).
If you'd like the stew spicier, feel free to add some chili or chili oil either during cooking or to serve.
How should you serve bo kho?
Bo kho is served differently in different regions of Vietnam, and depending when it's eaten. It is traditionally eaten for breakfast, when it's mainly served as a stew. Sometimes this means potatoes are added in as well.
For a heartier meal, you can serve it over noodles, as is common in central Vietnam, or over rice. You'll also often see it with crusty bread, particularly in the South. This makes it a great fit for lunch or dinner.
I'm not sure why bo kho isn't better known, but it's a secret you need to get in on. To me it has a much more complex and delicious flavor that's also lighter than your typical beef stew. It's one I know we'll have again soon.
Looking for more comforting meat dishes? Try these!
- Braised lamb shanks
- Slow cooker short ribs
- Roman lamb stew
- Beef bourguignon
- Plus see the winter recipes archives for more seasonal recipes.
I use my Le Creuset Enameled Cast-Iron Oval French Oven to make this dish which works perfectly (affiliate link).
See some of my favorite cooking tools and ingredients in the Caroline's Cooking Amazon store.
Bo kho (Vietnamese beef stew)
- 1.3 lb beef shank 600g, approx 1lb 5oz off bone (I had 2lb on bone)
- 2 tbsp ginger
- 1 clove garlic (large)
- 1 ½ tsp Chinese five spice
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 1 stick lemongrass (or 2 if small)
- 1 ½ tbsp vegetable oil or a little more, as needed
- ½ onion (med-large)
- ½ tsp black pepper
- ½ tsp paprika
- 1 ½ tsp tomato paste
- 1 star anise
- 1 ½ cups coconut water 360ml
- 1 ½ cups beef stock 360ml, or water if adding beef bones
- 2 carrots chopped
- Dice the beef into bite-sized pieces, trimming any excess fat or larger sinew.
- Mix the beef in a bowl with finely chopped/grated ginger and garlic, Chinese five spice and fish sauce. Set aside for around 30 mins.
- Meanwhile, peel and cut the carrots into large chunks and slice the onions. Cut the lemongrass in to two or three lengths and split them down the middle.
- Warm around half the oil in a Dutch oven and cook the lemongrass a minute to bring out the flavor. Remove and set aside.
- Brown the meat on all sides in batches, removing as they are done.
- Soften the onion, then return the beef and lemongrass to the pot.
- Add the pepper, paprika and tomato paste, cook a minute then add the coconut water and broth (or water and bones).
- Bring to a boil, cover and reduce the heat to a simmer and let it cook for 2 hours in total, adding the carrots after around 1 ½ hours. Remove the whole star anise and lemongrass before serving.
- You can serve the stew as it is, over rice, noodles (rice or egg), or with crusty bread.