Rau Muống Xào Thịt Bò (Vietnamese Sautéed Morning Glory With Beef)

Tender-crisp greens go from aromatic side to main course with the addition of beef.

Overhead view of sauteed morning glory with beef on a plate
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

No Vietnamese meal would be complete without a plate of greens, and often, it’s rau muống xào (sautéed morning glory) you’ll see on the table. There are many variations, but the most common is with garlic, which can stand alone as the most basic flavoring, or act as a foundational note to support other flavorings and add-ins. One of my favorite ways to add some heft to this simple dish is to toss in a little bit of beef to make rau muống xào thịt bò (sautéed morning glory with beef).

Affordable and versatile, morning glory (rau muống) is a prized vegetable both inside and outside of Vietnam. It goes by kangkong in Singapore and the Philippines, and kangkung in Malaysia. In North America, it’s commonly known as ong choy (its Cantonese name), as well as water or river spinach (despite bearing no relations to the spinach family—indeed, it is the stems of the morning glory flower that is grown as a popular ornamental plant). This vining aquatic plant with hollow stems and slender pointed leaves is cultivated widely and can grow at a rapid speed of four inches a day

Its mild vegetal note, tender leaves, and crisp stems make it a perfect candidate for stir-frying, as it readily takes on the flavors it’s cooked with, whether it's fermented shrimp paste, sambal, or oyster sauce. Besides stir-frying, it can be boiled (its cooking liquid repurposed into a soup), slipped into a salad, or pickled. The raw stems can be shredded into fine threads to garnish noodles and hot pots. In folkloric poems, a bowl of morning glory soup evokes nostalgia and homesickness.

Side view of finished sauteed morning glory with beef

My version of rau muống xào thịt bò starts with making the crispy garlic sprinkles that top the dish, an innovation I learned from the Oakland-based chef Tu David Phu. Then I use the garlic-infused oil to quickly sear the beef and set it aside before continuing with the greens.

There are a couple possible ways to go about this stir-fry. Some recipes call for blanching the greens (stems and leaves) and then shocking them in an ice bath before stir-frying. This approach has the advantages of pre-wilting the morning glory for quicker stir-frying later and locking in its vibrant green color. The other is to give the thicker stems a kick-start in the hot pan, given their slightly longer cooking time, then adding the more delicate leaves. 

Testing both methods side-by-side, my husband and I preferred the two-stage cooking process, which started with stir-frying the stems in half of the sauce (a mixture of soy sauce, oyster sauce, and water) until they softened slightly, followed by the leaves and the remaining sauce. Compared to the blanched batch, this yielded more flavorful greens and retained the contrasting texture of crunchy stems with tender leaves—not to mention that no additional pot or colander was needed, a definite bonus. As with other stir-fries, the key is to get all of your ingredients ready and within reach before cooking, and work quickly once cooking has started. 

Normally, a vegetable stir-fry is part of a meal with multiple dishes, and its more reserved flavor profile makes it a good counterpart to more boldly flavored dishes on the table, but with the added beef and served with some steamed rice, this is substantial enough on its own.

 For the Beef: In a medium bowl, whisk together oyster sauce, soy sauce, sugar, oil, and freshly ground black pepper. Add beef, tossing to coat, and let marinate for 30 minutes.

Overhead view of marinated beef
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

For the Stir-Fry: In a small bowl, combine oyster sauce, soy sauce, and water. Set stir-fry sauce aside.

Overhead view of stir fry sauce
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In a large stainless-steel skillet or wok, heat oil on medium heat until shimmering. Add garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden, 2  to 3 minutes. Scrape garlic and oil into a fine-mesh strainer set over a heatproof bowl. Set garlic aside, then return 1 tablespoon (15ml) garlic oil to skillet (reserve any remaining garlic oil for another use, or discard).

Straining fried garlic
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Return skillet to high heat and heat until oil is shimmering. Add beef and its marinade in a single, even layer. Let cook, undisturbed, for 30 seconds; then, using a metal spatula, stir while continuing to cook until beef turns mostly gray with a few pink spots, 30 seconds longer. Transfer beef to a medium bowl.

Two image collage of beef cooking in my skillet
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Add reserved garlic oil to same skillet. Set over high heat, then add morning glory stems and half of stir-fry sauce. Cook until stems soften slightly, about 1 minute. Add morning glory leaves and remaining sauce and cook, stirring and tossing, until leaves wilt and lose half of their original volume, 2 to 3 minutes. Add beef and any accumulated juices and cook, stirring and tossing, until last traces of pink disappear and sauce coats vegetable and beef, about 1 minute.

Four image collage of sauteeding morning glory in a skillet and adding beef
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Transfer sautéed morning glory and beef to a serving dish. Season with additional black pepper and soy sauce, if desired, then top with fried garlic and serve immediately with rice.

Finished Sauteed Morning Glory Dish
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Notes

Morning glory can be found in Asian grocery stores under different names: rau muống, ong choy, water spinach, kangkong. When shopping for these greens, choose bunches with perky leaves and uniformly thin stems that snap easily. Older ones have larger stems, which can be tough and fibrous.

I've made this recipe with Vietnamese and Chinese soy sauces, and both work—the quantity used is small enough not to make a huge difference on the finished dish regardless of origin.

You can omit the beef entirely and make this a meatless dish.

Tôm Rim (Vietnamese Braised Shrimp)

This plump shrimp braised in a bold caramel-and–coconut water sauce is so good, you’ll want extra rice to eat it all up.

Overhead view of braised shrimp with a side of rice and bok choy
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In Vietnamese, hao cơm (roughly translated as “rice splurging,” is a term that describes a dish so good you keep eating rice to have more of it. (Koreans have a similar concept for this kind of dish, which they delightfully call a “rice thief.”) Comforting Vietnamese dishes that feature a flavorful gravy or deeply savory sauces, like thịt kho (braised pork) or cá kho tộ (claypot braised fish), are often classified this way. When I was still a student living in Singapore, I subsisted on big batches of my mom’s frozen tôm rim (braised shrimp) lugged back all the way from Vietnam. For a quick meal, I reheated the shrimp, boiled some greens, and served them over rice, which never stopped at just one bowl.

Tôm rim (sometimes spelled tôm ram) belongs to a larger group of dishes called kho, in which an ingredient (meat, seafood, or sturdy vegetables like daikon or bitter melon) is simmered in a sweet and savory sauce, along with heady aromatics such as shallots, garlic, ginger, or galangal. Kho’s assertive flavor comes from fish sauce—or soy sauce for vegetarian dishes—and its mahogany color comes from nước màu, a simple caramel sauce made from sugar and water. In Bến Tre, a province in the Mekong Delta where my grandparents live, locals use concentrated coconut water for the same color effect (although cooking down the coconut water to a caramel does take quite a bit of time).

Overhead view of braised shrimp on a plate
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

As with other beloved comfort foods, there are as many ways to make tôm rim as there are cooks. My version is an amalgamation of recipes from different cookbooks and insights from several Vietnamese cooks and chefs I spoke to.

In terms of flavor, as long as you have sugar and fish sauce, you have a solid foundation. Some recipes (including my mom’s) don’t call for making a caramel sauce. However, I find its mildly bitter note adds more dimension to the dish, so spending a few extra minutes is always worth the effort (if you make pho often, it’s helpful to keep a jar of it on hand; Andrea Nguyen has an excellent recipe for it in her book, Into the Vietnamese Kitchen). As a nod to my Mekong Delta roots, I use coconut water for the braising liquid because of its nuanced sweetness, but water will also work. To build an additional layer of flavor, I follow Chef Nini Nguyen’s advice and marinate the shrimp in some sugar, salt, garlic, and shallots—the same aromatics used for the braising liquid.

Typically, tôm rim is made with shell-on, head-on shrimp, which you should try if you live in an area with access to live shrimp. If the shrimp aren't alive, I find it safer to go with headless, as the head releases an enzyme that makes the shrimp's body mushy and imparts an off odor when it’s not fresh. The texture you get depends on the size of the shrimp. As they cook, their shells get coated in the intense caramel sauce; according to Vy Tran of the food blog Beyond Sweet & Savory, smaller shrimp will be crunchy given their higher shell-to-meat ratio, while larger ones will retain their meaty bite. I chose to work with medium and large shrimp here, as they are more widely available. 

Side angle view with rice on the side
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

In some recipes, the shrimp go into the pan right at the beginning of the cooking process to simmer along with the sauce (a mixture of water, fish sauce, and caramel) until it thickens. I switch the order and only add them to the braising liquid after it has reduced to an almost syrupy consistency, which Tran and Chef Tu David Phu suggest will keep them tender but still flavorful. Since the dish keeps well and is often reheated as leftovers, it’s better to start it on a good (juicy, not overcooked) footing.

Personally, I find tôm rim pretty forgiving, so don’t worry if you happen to cook the shrimp longer than they need (mine take anywhere from six to eight minutes). There’s joy in biting into a fresh-off-the-stove shrimp as its juices meld with and season the rice. But with subsequent rounds of reheating, when their meat becomes firmer, you’ll still relish every morsel coated in the concentrated sweet-salty sauce.

Before serving, Phu recommends letting the dish rest for five minutes off-heat. “Shrimp is fairly porous and will soak up the marinade,” he says.

With its richness and intensity, tôm rim is often served as a component of a meal, which includes vegetables and soup with a bright and fresh flavor for balance, along with a bowl of rice (or two or three).

For the Caramel Sauce: In a 2-quart saucepan, combine sugar and water and set over medium-high heat. Cook, swirling the pan to ensure even caramelization, until the mixture bubbles vigorously and becomes slightly golden, about 5 minutes. Continue cooking until light smoke comes off the pan and color changes from light to dark amber very quickly, about 2 minutes longer. Remove pan from heat and stir in coconut water. If the mixture looks like it’s seizing, return pan to low heat and stir gently until sugar is fully dissolved. Transfer to a heatproof bowl and set aside.

Coconut water being added to caramel
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Meanwhile, for the Braise: In a large mixing bowl, combine shrimp, half of shallot, half of garlic, sugar, salt, chiles, and pepper, and marinate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Overhead view of shrimp marinating
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Wipe out pan and return to medium-high heat. Heat oil until shimmering, then add remaining shallot and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and fragrant, 30 to 45 seconds. Add caramel sauce and fish sauce and let simmer until sauce has reduced by half, 7 to 8 minutes.

Two image collage of overhead view of onions and garlic in pan before and after fish sauce and caramel has been added. .
Serious Eats /Vy Tran

Add shrimp and marinade ingredients and toss to coat. Continue cooking on medium-high heat until shrimp turn opaque and are cooked through, about 7 minutes. Remove from heat, season with more freshly ground black pepper, and let rest for 5 minutes before serving with rice and vegetables.

Overhead view of shrimp cooked in marinade
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Notes

If you don’t have coconut water, water works just fine. (Do not substitute with sweetened or flavored coconut water.)

On its own, this dish should taste intensely sweet and salty, so serve it with rice and another vegetable or soup to temper the flavor.

Make-Ahead and Storage

Tôm rim keeps well and can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 2 weeks. Reheat the dish on medium heat to allow the shrimp to warm through. If the sauce becomes too thick, add a splash of water to loosen.

Chè Chuối (Vietnamese Banana, Tapioca, and Coconut Milk Dessert)

This delightfully rich and creamy, coconut milk–based soup is full of plump, fragrant bananas, and tender tapioca pearls.

Overhead view of finished che on a platter with peanut toppings
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Every few months or so, my parents receive a care package from my aunts and uncles, who live in Bến Tre, a province about three hours southwest of Ho Chi Minh City. The big burlap sack they send is overflowing with seasonal fruits from their garden, like coconut, lime, banana, mango, and longan, as well as mushrooms and wild greens that they forage. “You never find such good stuff in the city,” my aunt says. What do we do with this bounty of bananas and coconut? We make chè chuối, a sweet soup of bananas and tapioca pearls simmered in coconut milk.

Chuối means banana, and chè is the generic Vietnamese term for sweet soups, which encompass a vast world of saucy and soupy treats made from fruits, legumes, tubers, and other local produce. The translation “soup” is incomplete though–some chè, like chè sen (lotus seed chè), are light and refreshing; some, like chè bắp (corn chè) have a pudding-like consistency; and some, like the chè chuối featured here, fall into the rich and creamy category. Most chè are one-pot fare with fewer than five ingredients, but you can also find more complicated ones that involve a little bit more finesse and time, like chè trôi nước, rice balls in gingery syrup, often a celebratory treat.

Side angle view of che
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Like many types of chè from southern Vietnam, the base for chè chuối is coconut milk, which I love to infuse with the bright grassy fragrance of pandan leaves, a popular flavoring in Southeast Asian cuisines. I tie the leaves into a compact knot, let it simmer in the soup, and then fish it out to discard at the end. If you can't find pandan, you can substitute with vanilla extract. It's important to use one or the other, as those aromatic ingredients not only add an essential fragrance but also help counter the tinny taste that sometimes comes with canned coconut milk.

In Vietnam, chè chuối is always made with chuối xiêm (or chuối sứ), a banana cultivar also known as pisang awak and identified by its short and stout shape. Compared to the common Cavendish bananas sold in most North American markets, pisang awak have a more delicate sweetness, punctuated by a mellow tang that adds another dimension to an otherwise sweet soup. Pisang awak bananas are also used in savory soups and curries. Most often, you’ll find them in the frozen section in Asian grocery stores (I’ve yet to see fresh ones where I live). They may feel soft upon defrosting, but rest assured, they can withstand the cooking, and even multiple rounds of reheating, without breaking down the way a Cavendish banana would.

Although not ideal, plantains can be substituted in this sweet soup with some modifications. Ripe plantains (with black spots on their skins) will give you the closest texture, but their flavor is much milder. To draw out their sweetness, I macerate them in sugar before adding them to the coconut milk. I also tested this recipe with Cavendish bananas, which I do not recommend here. While they are fragrant and sweet, they collapse and turn to mush quickly in the hot soup.

Visit a random chè vendor in Vietnam and chances are you’ll see chè chuối on the menu. Rich, creamy, and only mildly sweet, it’s appealing as both a delightful snack when you are craving something sweet and a heady dessert to cap off a meal. It’s best served hot or warm, garnished with crushed roasted peanuts for a textural contrast.

In a 2-quart saucepan, combine water, 6.75 fluid ounces (200ml) coconut milk, and pandan leaves and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Add tapioca pearls, then lower heat to maintain a simmer and cook, stirring frequently to prevent tapioca pearls from clumping and sticking to bottom of pan, until tapioca pearls turn translucent, about 10 minutes (exact cooking times can vary depending on the specific size of tapioca pearls you use, so consult package instructions and make sure to prioritize the doneness cues over the estimated time; add extra water, as needed, if cooking time runs longer and too much liquid evaporates).

Two image collage of pandan, milk and sugar mixture in a pot on the stove and then adding tapioca pearls to mixture
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Add bananas and let simmer until they soften and release their juices (their cores will turn bright yellow and the coconut milk will take on a distinct banana flavor), about 5 minutes (see note).

Adding bananas to the mixture
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Add remaining 6.75 fluid ounces (200ml) coconut milk along with the sugar and salt. Continue cooking until mixture comes to a gentle boil. Turn off heat, then discard pandan leaves. Add additional sugar to taste, if needed (this will depend on personal taste and how sweet bananas were).

Two image collage of adding milk and removing pandan leaves
Serious Eats / Vy Tran

Serve hot or warm in individual bowls, garnishing each with crushed peanuts. 

Overhead view of finished che with a spoon and a side bowl of peanuts
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Notes

Pandan leaves (also labeled as screwpine leaves) are available fresh or frozen at Asian grocery stores. If you use vanilla extract in place of pandan leaves, add it together with the coconut milk, sugar, and salt in Step 3.

You can substitute with sweet plantains (mostly black all over) by combining them with all of the sugar in a medium bowl and setting them aside while the tapioca pearls are cooking. Add them with all of the sugar to the coconut milk in Step 2; adjust the sweetness to taste in Step 3, if needed. 

Make-Ahead and Storage

Chè chuối can be stored in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 2 days. Reheat before serving.