Vietnam's bò lúc lắc, or shaking beef, features stir-fried cubes of marinated beef and sliced onions served over a bed of watercress and accompanied by a dipping sauce of lime juice and pepper. The dish gets its name from the vigorous shaking and stirring required to achieve an even and thorough sear. The beef—well browned but still pink on the inside—is coated in a deeply savory glaze that also flavors and lightly wilts the watercress below it.
It’s a study in contrasts: the warmth of the beef against the cool crunch of the watercress, its savory meatiness against the peppery bite of the cress and the tartness of the dipping sauce, not to mention the garlicky, tomato-rich rice (com do) that is a common accompaniment.
The cut of beef varies from recipe to recipe. San Francisco’s acclaimed Vietnamese eatery The Slanted Door started the trend of using filet mignon. But in Vietnamese households, the cut is likely to be chewier and less expensive. I decided to try the pricey filet as well as cheaper cuts such as flank steak, sirloin strip, and sirloin steak tips. My tasters preferred all these cuts to the filet, which they found bland. In the end, sirloin steak tips (also known as flap meat) won out for having the best beefy flavor, along with a pleasantly resilient texture.
The glaze for the beef packs a big umami punch. Besides garlic, sugar, and soy sauce, it often includes dark soy sauce (a more intensely flavored version of soy sauce), along with fish and oyster sauces and a flavor enhancer popular in many Vietnamese dishes called Maggi Seasoning. The legacy of French colonial influence means a knob of butter may also be added. I was happy to find that equal amounts of soy and fish sauces contributed plenty of umami richness. I also found that Maggi Seasoning could be swapped for the soy sauce. Dark soy sauce added molasses-like smoky sweetness to the mix. To approximate its flavors, I simply replaced the sugar in the marinade with molasses.
Some recipes call for marinating the meat in one mixture and creating the glaze with another. For simplicity, I drained the marinade from the meat, added water and cornstarch, and then reduced it to a glaze once the meat was seared.
To cook the meat, I reached for my 12-inch nonstick skillet, which I knew would be essential for helping prevent the steak and the little bit of marinade left on its surface from sticking. To ensure good browning, cooking the meat in two batches and leaving the pieces well separated from one another was also a must. For my first go, I stirred the meat and shook the pan continually as many recipes directed. But I wanted the meat to get nice and dark on at least on one side, and this approach proved too inconsistent. So next I tried leaving the pieces alone for the first few minutes before commencing with shaking and stirring. While this did create a good sear on the first side, now the fond was prone to burning.
That’s when I realized something important: In addition to helping the meat cook evenly, shaking and stirring helps deglaze the pan—as the beef moves across the pan, it swipes up fond, coating the meat so that there is virtually no marinade left on the surface of the pan that could burn. With this in mind, I adjusted my technique. I placed the meat in the pan and swirled the pan occasionally as the first side cooked so that the meat moved around but didn’t turn over. Only after the first side had browned sufficiently did I begin stirring and shaking the pan more vigorously to get the cubes to cook on all sides.
I found that about 3 to 4 minutes on the first side and 2 to 4 minutes on the remaining sides gave the meat a deep brown color on its exterior while still keeping it juicy and pink on the inside—a hallmark of shaking beef.
Another discovery: With all that open space in the pan, the oil had a tendency to splatter, especially once the meat began to shed moisture.
I sorted out a tidier work-around: Instead of adding the oil to the pan, I tossed the meat itself with the oil before placing it in the skillet, which prevented splattering almost entirely (to learn why, see “Oil the Meat, Not the Skillet”).
I opted to keep butter in the formula, since it added a little richness. To incorporate it, I used it to briefly soften the onion before adding the reserved marinade to the pan to reduce.
Now for the salad. While some recipes call for a variety of greens and herbs and sometimes tomatoes, I decided to keep things simple. The watercress itself was so punchy and vibrant, and its stems added such great crunch, that it seemed unnecessary to add anything else. While the glaze can serve double duty as a dressing for the salad, I also liked how the brightness of the lime-pepper dipping sauce helped balance out the flavors, so I used a small amount of it to drizzle over the salad, too.
The next time you want to make a steak dinner, consider shaking beef—a warm meaty stir-fry and refreshing salad all in one.