What To Do With Nuoc Cham: Lemongrass Beef Over Broken Rice

Simple does not equate with plain.

You know, the phrase, “it’s plain and simple?”

Well, in cookery, those two words do not have to go together.

Food that comes together with a minimum of ingredients does not have to taste plain. Or bland. Or boring.

This recipe is a classic example of what I am trying to convey.

The stir fry, which is common in Saigon, is very easy to put together. It consists of tender beef, like sirloin, cut into thin strips, marinated in oyster sauce, fish sauce and fresh minced lemongrass, then stir fried quickly in a wok with some red onion and garlic.

That is it.

And that is all there needs to be, really. I mean, I make mine slightly differently, but it only really affects the color of the dish. The flavor, which is amazing, is still the same. It really is that simple. About ten minutes of prep, twenty minutes of marination and about six minutes of cooking time–give or take a minute or two depending on how fast you work with a knife and how hot your stove gets.

It is simple, yes, but oh, so delicious.

I do change mine up a bit. I add a bit of dark soy sauce to color the beef a more savory reddish-brown, and I use shallots instead of red onions, because I like the more delicate flavor a bit better in this stir fry. I also tend to have shallots in the pantry and not red onions, because I use them more often.

As for the presentation of the dish–it is most often served over cool, lightly cooked rice noodles–or “bun” in Vietnamese.

I love it that way, but I love the beef even better draped over a pile of freshly steamed, warm broken rice.

What is broken rice?

Broken rice is just what it sounds like: the rice grains that have not survived the milling process intact. In this case, it is jasmine rice that has gotten cracked and broken up into small bits which look like pearly, pure white couscous. When cooked the texture is also similar to couscous, but the familiar jasmine rice scent and flavor are retained. It is a thoroughly delightful use of a food product that could have gone to waste among less frugal people. I admire that.

It is also simple to cook. In the rice cooker, you just throw in equal proportions of rice and water. In other words, if you want to cook two cups of rice, you use two cups of water. That is that. You put it in the rice cooker, shut the lid down on it, push the button and walk away.

If you are cooking on the stove top, the proportion of broken rice to water is exactly the same. Put the rinsed rice into a pot with two cups of water. Bring to a boil, give it a nice stir, clap a tight lid down on it, turn the heat down to the lowest setting possible setting and cook for twenty minutes. Let it sit for five minutes off heat, then fluff with a fork. Done. Easy peasy.

The rest of the dish is just a matter of washing, cutting and preparing fresh vegetables.

Lettuces, herbs, carrots, cucumbers and bean sprouts are the classic salad ingredients that are presented in the bowl of noodles or rice with beef. I change it up a bit, and when I cannot get good bean sprouts, I leave them out. I add slivers of fresh snow peas instead, and when radishes are in season, as they are now, I cut them up into slivers and add them as well for a little icy bite. Fresh baby spinach is great in this, as is mizuna and shredded daikon or Japanese turnip. Suffice to say that I think that you could use any raw or lightly blanched vegetables that suits your fancy in this dish and all you would do is make it taste even better.

My favorite herbs, though, are cilantro, mint and Thai basil. The first two are necessary, and the third is necessary when it is in season, which around here means the summertime. But when it is in season, I use tons of it. Right now, I make up for not having it by using more cilantro.

What ties all of these disparate ingredients together into a cohesive whole which comprises cold, raw vegetables, herbs and greens with warm steamed broken rice and hot, straight out of the wok stir fried beef?

Nuoc cham. It is the glue of this dish, and without it, you might as well not even try to make it. So, if you are scared of fish sauce for whatever reason, don’t try to make this–it will taste really lame, you won’t like it and you will say, “Wow, why does Barbara go on about this dish so much. It is just, like boring and stuff.” Avoid that, and just make the nuoc cham, then make this dish, and then sit down with a big bowl of it and eat it.

Your soul will thank you. (And then thank me, too. Souls are that way. They are very grateful things.) This is serious Vietnamese soul food.

Your stomach will thank you, too. And if you feed it to your friends and family, they will thank you. There will be lots of thanking around this dish, trust me. It is just that amazing. It is an explosion of fresh and delightful flavors, all bursting in the mouth together. The meat is tender, savory and just unctuous with juice and goodness. The rice is fragrant with a slightly sticky texture that keeps you coming back for more. The greens and herbs are verdant and sharp. The vegetables are crisp, sweet and cool all at once. And the nuoc cham just swirls around the whole dish, bringing all the flavors into a friendly state of harmony.

You know, like a hostess at a party, who flits among her guests, breaking the ice, introducing people and getting the conversation started. That is the role nuoc cham plays here. It gets the party started in the bowl and continues it on in your mouth.

So, make this dish. Eat it, and love it, and come back for more.

I know I will.

Lemongrass Beef Over Broken Rice

Ingredients:

3 cups broken rice
3 cups water
8 cups loosely packed salad greens, washed, and dried, cut into bite sized pieces (I like baby greens, leaf lettuces, and romaine for this, but mizuna and baby spinach are also fantastic, as is baby chard)
2 cups loosely packed cilantro leaves, washed, dried and roughly chopped
1/2 cup loosely packed mint leaves, washed, dried and roughly chopped
1 cup loosely packed Thai basil leaves, washed, dried and roughly chopped (if you can get it)
4 cups julienned fresh vegetable garnish (I love carrots, seeded cucumber, sweet radishes, turnips, daikon, shredded snow pea and bean sprouts here)
1 full recipe nuoc cham
2/3 pound tender beef such as sirloin, partially frozen, and sliced across the grain into very thin slices about 1″X2″ in size
2 stalks lemongrass, bottom third of stalk only, tough outer leaves removed to expose tender inner core, then minced
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon fish sauce
3 tablespoons canola or peanut oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 large shallot, peeled and thinly sliced
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce

Method:

Cook rice according to directions in post above.

While prepping the salad greens, herbs and vegetables, mix meat with the oyster sauce, fish sauce and lemongrass. Allow to marinate while prepping other ingredients, at least for twenty minutes.

Prepare salad greens, herbs and vegetables. Set out four large bowls. Divide salad greens among bowls, then divide the herbs. Sprinkle half of each portion of herbs on top of greens, hold off on the rest.

When the rice is cooked, divide it among the four bowls.

Divide the mixed julienned vegetables among the four bowls and sprinkle over and around the still steaming rice.

Divide the nuoc cham in half and drizzle that half over the vegetables and rice.

Heat wok until it smokes. Add oil, allow to heat for twenty to thirty seconds, then add garlic. Immediately add beef to wok, and spread into a single layer on the bottom. Leave undisturbed for a minute to brown. While beef is browning, layer shallot on top of it.

After you can smell the beef browning, vigorously stir fry the meat, garlic and shallots. When most of the pink is gone from the meat, drizzle in the dark soy sauce and mix thoroughly, in order to give the meat a delicious deep brown coloring.

Cook about thirty more seconds, then remove wok from heat. Immediately divide hot beef into four portions and put over the rice and vegetables, drizzling the beef juices and shallots as you go. Do not waste a drop of this lovely liquid!

Sprinkle with reserved herbs, and drizzle with the remaining half of nuoc cham.

Stir and eat!

Note: If you want, you can serve with some Thai sweet chili sauce for each diner to drizzle as they like over their own bowls. Or, you can make two batches of nuoc cham and allow them to add more as they like. Or, you can do like me and serve with both!

15 Comments

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  1. This looks AMAZING. I have recently become enamored with Vietnamese food (my favorite Thai restaurant–the only good one in town–closed), and this looks like a great starter recipe.

    I may wait until I’ve moved in August and am near the large Vietnamese-leaning Asian market, though (their produce/herb section is mind-boggling, although unfortunately for me most signs only have the Vietnamese names).

    Is there a particular brand of dark soy sauce you’d recommend? I am intimidated by the entire aisle of soy sauce/fish sauce/misc. condiments, mostly labeled in languages I don’t speak. Or should I just order online?

    Also, totally random question about shallots: while they taste milder than onions, do you find them more painful to the eyes while chopping? We go through mountains of onions in my household without a problem, but shallots inevitably lead to tears and misery (but they taste so good…).

    Comment by Mel — April 5, 2007 #

  2. Mel, I use either Pearl River Bridge or Kimlan dark soy sauce. These are both Chinese soy sauces.

    They are both quite good–it just depends on which one is present and accounted for at the local Asian market.

    I don’t have much problem with shallots–yellow onions tend to get me the worst of the onion family in the tears department.

    Comment by Barbara — April 5, 2007 #

  3. Here’s an interesting item about broken rice: when I went to the relatively high-end Slanted Door restaurant in San Francisco’s Ferry Building for lunch last month, the rice served with my meal was broken jasmine rice. Perhaps the chef prefers broken rice to whole-grain rice, or he is making a point about frugality.

    Comment by Marc — April 7, 2007 #

  4. Marc–it was probably the texture combined with the fragrance of the rice that attracted the chef to its use, though I would not rule out the “frugal” angle. It is just a very interesting taste and texture juxtaposition.

    Comment by Barbara — April 9, 2007 #

  5. I made a version of this last night, using Kimlan soy sauce and Squid fish sauce (couldn’t find Golden Boy, oddly enough). I liked it, but it came out much sweeter than I expected (the dark soy sauce smells much like molasses to me, and little like soy). Of course, oyster sauce has a lot sugar in it as well (unless you know of a brand that doesn’t–I just buy the one with the highest oyster content I can find, about 30% oyster extract and 20% sugar). Is it supposed to be a fairly sweet dish?

    But overall, definitely not bad for my first attempt at Vietnamese food (I left out the chilies and cilantro, knowing my audience–even without those, nuoc cham is very nice stuff).

    Comment by Mel — April 13, 2007 #

  6. Mel–without chilies, I suspect you notice the sweetness more.

    You could probably add a touch more fish sauce (salt) and lime juice (sour) to help offset the sweetness in the nuoc cham.

    With the beef–use only 1 tablespoon of oyster sauce when you make nuoc cham without the chilies. This will probably help with the overwhelming sweetness.

    With most Asian foods, I have found that if you change one part of a flavor equation–by leaving something out, you usually have to rebalance the rest of the components to that equation in order to make it all work together.

    I am glad you liked it, though.

    Comment by Barbara — April 13, 2007 #

  7. [...] This week I made an uninspired by decent improvised curry (the chicken was there and had to be used), salmon pasta salad (canned salmon, plain yogurt, mayo, mustard, Worchestershire sauce, and pasta, mixed to taste; vegetables optional), a simplified version of Barbara Fisher’s Lemongrass Beef (my first attempt at Vietnamese food), and rice pudding. [...]

    Pingback by Vietnamese Stirfry and Rice Pudding « The Love of Spice — April 13, 2007 #

  8. Barb,

    I made this for myself and my boyfriend today and it was a winner. Unfortunately, I realized that the Asian market’s Thai basil isn’t the Queen Siam that I am so spoiled by, so the basil for whatever reason was really tough. I can’t wait until my basil sprouts up and I can make this and the tomato basil salad again!

    Also the beef came out exceptionally salty, do you think it is because of the different fish sauce brands?

    Great recipe! THANK YOU!

    Deanna

    Comment by deanna — April 15, 2007 #

  9. Deanna–some fish sauce brands are very salty. Golden Boy is much less salty than other brands I have tried, like Three Crabs or Squid brand. Golden Boy, if you can find it, has a light flavor that is neither overpoweringly fishy or salty.

    I am glad you liked the recipe overall, though. And I agree with you–Siam Queen rocks, and I cannot wait for it to be in season here, too. And yes, I am going to be making that tomato salad again, too!

    It is great to hear from you again–keep up the good cooking!

    Comment by Barbara — April 15, 2007 #

  10. I grew up in a city with a huge Vietnamese population and got spoiled rotten with delicious Vietnamese food. Sadly, my university town has very few (good) Vietnamese restaurants, and my folks have moved to a place that has none at all! The dish I miss most happens to be lemongrass beef – so imagine my joy when you posted this recipe! I tried it tonight, and WOW. That nuoc cham smell, the fresh green herbs, the tangy-sweet-spicy-salty goodness of the meat… all those happy nights at my old favourite Vietnamese restaurant came flooding back. I made it with rice vermicelli, since that is how I always had it in the good old days, but I will definately try the broken rice version soon. My parents will be thrilled when I cook this for them! Thank you so much for posting this and all your other fantastic recipes!

    Comment by Kels — April 20, 2007 #

  11. Kels, you don’t know how happy your comment makes me to hear. It is always good to know that something I have posted has been a help to someone, or meant something to them.

    Comments like yours keep me writing, and cooking and creating. Thanks for the good energy, and I wish you and your parents all the best.

    If you haven’t tried the pork kho recipe with the nuoc mau–give it a shot when you can. The flavor is exquisite. My husband, who will do nearly anything if I make the lemongrass beef for him (I just made it for him tonight, in fact), also really digs into the pork. It is fantastic, and very simple, once you make the nuoc mau.

    Comment by Barbara — April 22, 2007 #

  12. Where can broken rice be bought? Anywhere online? thanks.

    Comment by KJ Sturr — September 7, 2008 #

  13. I love this, I have been looking for a good recipe for lemongrass beef!! We eat at a viatnamese resturant in St. Louis my husband allways orders beef with lemongrass and hot chilis. They serve it with broken rice, I have been trying to copy the recipe, since I love to cook, and finally this is the best so far. I also made it with tofu instead of beef for myself and it is great!! The nouc cham rocks too!! Very important!!

    Comment by jael — January 21, 2009 #

  14. Great post! It made me hungry, I will print this out to let my girl griend cook it for me :)
    By the way if someone dont know where to buy, try Google “Thai Jasmine Broken Rice”

    Comment by DM from OPER Thai Rice — May 28, 2011 #

  15. [...] it is based on the classic Vietnamese dish, Lemongrass Beef. Which, again, is a name that is somewhat misleading because the name doesn’t really tell you [...]

    Pingback by Tigers & Strawberries » From Garden to Table: Vietnamese Style Grilled Beef and Pork in a Bowl — June 16, 2011 #

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