Vietnamese “shaking beef” with lime juice and garlic

Grab a wok and start shaking

Topics: Kitchen Challenge, Food,

Vietnamese "shaking beef" with lime juice and garlic

Houston, Texas’ most populated city, also has the third-largest population of Vietnamese Americans in the country, numbering 64,000 in the most recent census. My friend Truong tells me that of those 64,000, 80 are in his immediate family.

Like many Vietnamese, Truong and his family escaped Vietnam after 1975 and came to this country as refugees. Once settled in the Houston area, Truong’s family flourished (as I said, now numbering in the 80s). They adapted quickly to the local culture, embracing the best of their new home, including crawfish, Texas barbecue and, Truong’s latest favorite, a Snuggie in which to watch reality shows on his humongous plasma TV. After they moved to Houston, Truong’s family opened a successful Vietnamese restaurant. Truong grew up in that professional kitchen, and it shows. The Vietnamese food he has cooked for me is, hands down, the best I have had anywhere. He knows how to select the best fresh produce, meat and seafood, which he expertly combines in the complex symphony of flavors that make up Vietnamese cuisine.

Truong’s palate may have been honed by coming from a family of restaurateurs, but his technical skills come from his professional training as a surgeon. He has special knives that he sharpens himself, and that only he is allowed to touch. He slices with what can only be described as surgical precision. When I watched him cook one memorable meal, he arrayed his knives carefully on the cornflower blue kitchen towels he had stacks of in the kitchen. They looked familiar. I thought to myself, they couldn’t be, and commented, “You know, it’s funny, Truong, but those look just like surgical towels in the O.R.”

He barely looked up from his prep. “They are. But they haven’t been used.”

With his thankfully sterile surgical towels at the ready, Truong whipped up pork and shrimp dishes typical of the Vietnamese kitchen. With them, he served his homemade jar of nuoc cham, the ubiquitous Vietnamese dipping sauce made of lime juice, fish sauce, garlic, sugar and chilies. Nuoc cham is the salt, the ketchup, the soy sauce, whatever all-purpose condiment you can name, of the Vietnamese table, and by far the tastiest of these.

One Vietnamese dish that doesn’t need nuoc cham is bo loc lac, Vietnamese “shaking beef.” That’s because this dish is dressed with a similar sauce of zesty lime juice, this one enhanced with loads of garlic and an unexpected amount of ground black pepper.

Bo loc lac combines succulent morsels of beef dressed with this lime sauce along with lettuce leaves, sliced tomato and jasmine rice. This is a zesty, deeply seasoned dish. When you taste it, you may understand Anthony Bourdain’s love affair with the country and its cuisine:

“I think I’ve gone bamboo … I’ve gone goofy on Vietnam, fallen hopelessly, hopelessly in love with the place.”

– Anthony Bourdain, “A Cook’s Tour”

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Vietnamese Shaking Beef (Bo Loc Lac)

Serves 6

Note: To answer the question that might come to mind, this is called “shaking beef” to describe the action of jiggling a wok to sauté the beef. The lime-pepper-garlic dipping sauce is typically associated with this dish, but for non-beef eaters, it also makes an intensely flavorful dressing for salads, fish, shrimp, and deep-fried tofu cubes.

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds beef sirloin, cut into ¾-inch cubes

Marinade

  • 1 teaspoon nuoc mam (Vietnamese fish sauce)
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons canola oil

Lime-Pepper-Garlic Dipping Sauce:

  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ¼ cup freshly squeezed lime juice (about 3 limes)
  • ¼ cup water
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic

Stir-fry:

  • 3 tablespoons canola oil
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 4 tablespoons finely chopped garlic
  • 1 ½ teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/3 cup soy sauce
  • Garnishes:
  • 15 green or red leaf lettuce leaves
  • 1 sliced tomato
  • Steamed jasmine rice, for serving

Directions

  1. Combine all ingredients for marinade and add cubed beef. Allow to marinate for at least 30 minutes at room temperature, then pour off marinade. 
  2. Combine all ingredients for lime-pepper-garlic dipping sauce and let stand at room temperature.
  3. Heat oil in a large sauté pan or wok at high heat. Add garlic, sugar and black pepper and allow to caramelize for a minute.
  4. Add drained, marinated beef to the pan and stir-fry for 2 minutes. (If the beef can’t fit comfortably in one layer in the pan, separate it into batches and divide the ingredients in step 3 accordingly.)
  5. Add soy sauce and cook for 1-2 more minutes. Beef should be seared on the outside and medium-rare to medium on the inside.
  6. Garnish a platter with the lettuce leaves. Mound the cooked beef on top. Garnish with tomato slices.
  7. Serve lime-pepper-garlic dipping sauce on the side, or pour over the cooked beef just before eating. Enjoy with steamed jasmine rice.
  8. Lettuce leaves can be used as wrappers for the beef.

Recipe adapted from Boston’s Elephant Walk restaurant.

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