One could be easily lulled into thinking my entire food universe is rooted in sidewalk stands and street food joints. Believe it or not, I cook a fair bit, too. Wandering through the street market and picking out ingredients I have never before seen has become not only a great hobby but a tasty way to expand my cooking knowledge, too.
A strange fruit laying on a sidewalk tarp amongst the usual crowd of rambutan, mangosteen and lychee screamed take me home and launched my latest creation. You have seen how grapes arrive in the grocery store on a stem. Take this basic premise and now attach lemony colored orbs just smaller than a golf ball. They are soft to the touch and exude a faint citrus scent. Just under the thin shells are smooth almost opaque juicy sections easily peeled apart.
Inquiries with my apartment’s front desk staff to identify this exotic fruit hit the usual wall of frustration. They were quick to proclaim, “Good for health,” “Very expensive,” and “I eat happy” yet slow to figure out what this stuff was. A lot of talking, giggling, and mouth covering was going on without bringing me any closer to a Vietnamese name. Finally, after lengthy debate they tentatively announced these could be bòn bon.
Bòn bon, or lanzones in English, are how I would imagine a ruby red grapefruit infused with sweet lemonade. I got to wondering if I could build a meal out of this fruit and started brainstorming with my friend Toby via Google chat. A cooking class in Laos had introduced me to a sweet, sour, spicy and salty dressing made of fish sauce. Yes, I know this already sounds inherently nasty to a western tongue, but before you turn away hear this one out. You’ve likely eaten this liquid made of fermented fish many times before in Thai and Vietnamese takeaway without realizing it. Give it a chance. Nước mắm as its known over here is a foundation of Vietnamese cuisine.
Beef stir fry seemed the perfect pairing for this fruit and liquid tasting so much better than it sounds. Since hunks of meat hanging from hooks in 90 degree air in the street market most likely will never come home with me, a special trip was in order to Veggie’s in District 1 for imported Australian steak at a splurge pricetag of about $7. And please learn from my mistakes. If you are going to free the bòn bon fruit from its shell, wear gloves. A sticky glue like sheen dried on my fingers and took two trips to the sink to completely eradicate. Also, a few of the sections will contain a bitter seed but these show up like an easily seen dark blotch under the skin.
This dish combines so many different flavors and textures ranging from soft to crunchy, and the underlying heat of the birdseye chili peppers packs a nice punch. It’s got a lot going on and I hope you enjoy it.
Here is my invention:
Bòn Bon Bò (Bòn Bon Beef)
One pound of your favorite cut of beef thinly sliced
One large white onion thinly sliced
10-12 bòn bons, shells removed and fruit separated into individual pieces
3 cloves garlic
3 red shallots minced
2-3 birdseye chili peppers minced (wear gloves)
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons fish sauce (Use a high quality one. Beware a lot of what is sold in the west is squid sauce)
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
2 tablespoons roughly ground peanuts (I use a mortar and pestle)
First let’s make the marinade.
Smash the garlic and chili peppers in a mortar and pestle until a smooth paste.
Add the shallots, sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice. Mix well until sugar is dissolved.
(The lime juice and sugar will cancel out the stink of the fish sauce so don’t worry)
Add the beef slices, mix well, and let sit for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Now we can prepare the main course.
Heat a tablespoon of oil in a wok or frying pan.
Stir fry the onion until it begins to soften.
Add the beef with marinade and stir fry until the beef is your desired level of doneness.
Remove from heat and stir in crushed peanuts, mint and bòn bons. Add some whole peanuts for garnish.