The table as the gravitational center of our lives.

Canh Thịt Bò Nấu Rau Răm (Vietnamese Beef & Coriander Soup)

“Soup won’t be computerized.”  -Carlie Westerman expressing optimism for the future as Sylvie in Miranda July‘s quirky and brilliant 2005 film Me And You And Everyone We Know

I have a confession to make.  I have absolutely no idea how to pronounce the title of this recipe.

I know that I spelled it correctly, because it took me a long-ass time to learn the ins and outs of the Vietnamese keyboard functions on my laptop in order to get it right.  Sure, it would have been far easier to ignore all of the spelling nuance, but I love it too much that a seemingly simple gastronomical endeavor into the world of soup involves the learning of foreign language.  Also, if you know me at all by now, you probably already know what I am going to say next.  You probably know I can’t let it be that simple.

It is amazing to me that I can be one of the whitest girls alive (no really… hair and freckles and SPF 4-million-and-5 – the works!) and make an authentic Vietnamese soup in a random American kitchen in Brooklyn that, culturally speaking, has very little to do with Vietnam.  I’ve never even set foot in Vietnam.  It’s not that this dish involves anything particularly “foreign” in and of itself (some ground beef, some onions, some chicken stock), but it’s that a particular combination of these things can come together in such a way to be distinctly Vietnamese.  It’s that the world has become a place where imported Asian fish sauce is available to me at my local grocery store.  It’s that I was able to grow a Vietnamese coriander plant over the summer that was purchased as a seedling from a farmer at my local greenmarket.

There are so many rhizomatic relationships between us and the rest of the planet at this point that one can think themselves in circles about all of the possible paths that can be followed, and how certain paths find our doorsteps.  And well, I just can’t help but fall a little bit in love with the idea that at some lovely, quiet moment in time, a bunch of little pieces from a culture half-way around the globe met a bunch of little pieces of me inside of a bowl of soup.

This dish is surprisingly flavorful for what it involves, both in ingredients and technique.  I didn’t expect it to intrigue me as much as it did.  The beef and onions even help to provide something of a consommé effect, helping to clarify the broth while imparting flavor.  Do spend a bit of extra effort to skim away the foamy scum and fat that comes up to the surface.  Your efforts will be rewarded with a beautiful presentation.  Serve it with a side of steamed rice for a unique light supper any day of the week.


Neutrally-flavored oil, such as vegetable or canola

1 medium onion, washed, peeled, halved, and sliced into thin half-moons

2/3 pound good quality, grass-fed, lean ground chuck (NOTE:  If you have a good butcher, it’s even better if you can get them to do a coarser-than-normal grind for you.)

1 1/2 tbsp. fish sauce (preferably, of course, of Vietnamese origin)

7 cups beef stock, chicken stock, or water (NOTE:  These are listed in descending order of richness of flavor.  I used chicken stock and it was excellent.)

1/3 cup fresh Vietnamese coriander leaves, washed & dried well  (NOTE:  If you can’t find fresh Vietnamese coriander try substituting with a mixture of equal parts fresh mint and fresh cilantro leaves.  However, Vietnamese coriander is really special and unique, and you should absolutely use it if possible.)

Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper

Asian hot sauce (such as Sriracha or Sambal Oelek), to taste (optional)


1.  Place a medium-large saucepan over medium heat on the stove.  When the pan gets nice and hot, add just enough of the neutral oil to coat the cooking surface.  Add the onion, stirring quickly to coat with the oil.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are just translucent and very fragrant, about 3 minutes.  Add the ground beef, breaking it apart with a spatula as it begins to cook and change color.  Once the beef is almost cooked through and you can just see a little bit of pink, add the fish sauce, stirring to incorporate.  Raise heat to high and cook the beef, stirring occasionally, until it begins to take on some color and you start to see brown bits form on the bottom of the pan.

2.  Add all of the stock, scraping up the brown bits that have formed, and bring the pot to a boil, skimming away any scum or fat that comes up to the surface.  After it reaches a full, lively boil, turn the heat back down so that you achieve just a gentle, bubbly simmer.  Keep the pot at a simmer for 15-20 minutes, checking occasionally for more scum or fat to be skimmed away.

3.  Turn off the heat, and season the soup to taste with salt and enough freshly ground pepper to produce a pleasant, but slightly hot, spice.  Stir in the Vietnamese coriander leaves, which will turn a bright, vibrant green and then wilt slightly.  Ladle soup into bowls and serve immediately with hot sauce on the side.

Yield: This recipe would set 6 people adrift on Vietnamese bliss as a starter course, or 4 people as a light entrée

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