This 'brown stew' is the ultimate Norwegian comfort food

The traditional Norwegian brown stew or 'brun lapskaus'— Pictures by CK Lim
The traditional Norwegian brown stew or 'brun lapskaus'— Pictures by CK Lim

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 15 – There’s something very nostalgic about a brown stew that reminds me of the ayam pongteh that my mother and grandmother would cook for our family dinners when I was growing up in Melaka. All we needed were the comfort food trinity of meat, potatoes and gravy.

So I would never see a brown stew as something stodgy or unappetising. Far from it; the very thought of tender nuggets of braised meat jostling for space with chunks of potato that haven’t dissolved into the gravy yet make my mouth water in anticipation.

The last great stew I had was in Norway, at the home of a local friend. While his wife took care of their infant daughter, he got busy in the kitchen whipping up brun lapskaus or “brown stew” in Norwegian.

Brun lapskaus is made with meat that is browned before the beef stock and root vegetables are added.

There are other types of lapskaus including lys lapskaus or “light stew” made with salted pork knuckle and the more watery suppelapskaus.

The brun lapskaus is immediately recognisable thanks to its rich, brown colour that comes from browning the beef first, though there isn’t really a correct version: some Norwegians prefer a thinner, soupier stew; others prefer something thick enough that you could stand a spoon upright in it!

Besides the requisite meat, all manner of vegetables feature prominently in brun lapskaus, as they do in many stews around the world such as chicken and corn cazuela in Chile or mafé, the Senegalese peanut stew.

My Norwegian friend only used potatoes for his brun lapskaus but he told me that carrots, rutabagas and celery roots are often added to the pot too.

Some of the ingredients for the 'brun lapskaus' (left), including parboiled potatoes (right)
Some of the ingredients for the 'brun lapskaus' (left), including parboiled potatoes (right)

A meat-and-potato stew like this just begs to be eaten with rice but here in Norway the carbohydrate of choice is flatbrød.

Just slather your piece of flatbread with plenty of butter and dip it into your own bowl of brun lapskaus. It’s food for family, to be shared and eaten together.

There is nearly always more lapskaus than can be finished in one sitting. All the better for keeping as leftovers in the fridge to be reheated the next day.

You can bet it will taste even better then.

NORWEGIAN BROWN STEW (BRUN LAPSKAUS)

For stews such as brun lapskaus, it’s best to use inexpensive cuts of beef such as chuck steak and fatty brisket.

Don’t worry that these cuts would be too tough; the magic of slow cooking and sufficient time will transform them into tender chunks of melt-in-your mouth goodness.

Most Norwegians prefer to trim away the excess fat, but I like to leave it as is unless there really is too much of it, since most of the flavour is in the fat.

Do remove any bones as you want the cubes of beef to be bite-sized and easily eaten when served.

Spices can add a delicate fragrance to the stew
Spices can add a delicate fragrance to the stew

Using both butter and oil prevents the butter from burning too easily if you brown it alone.

For stock, beef or chicken would do but the latter will result in a lighter-tasting stew, suitable for those who prefer something less heavy and belly-sticking.

No lapskaus would be complete without a medley of root vegetables. Traditional choices include potatoes, carrots, parsnips and even parsley root.

But anything goes, really, depending on what you have in the pantry. Here, I have chosen pumpkin to replace the carrots, for an earthier sort of sweetness.

Base aromatics include garlic, onion and ginger
Base aromatics include garlic, onion and ginger

Parboiling the potatoes will allow you to use bigger chunks of potato without them ending up still somewhat hard when the rest of the stew is ready.

If you chop the potatoes up too small, they’ll disintegrate into an overly starchy gravy.

Instead of leek, which has too delicate a flavour for my liking, I’ve increased the amount of onions used and added some ginger for some subtle heat.

These two, plus the ever-indispensable garlic, make up the base aromatics.

Once the beef is tender, add some yoghurt (left) and a smidgen of canned tomatoes (right)
Once the beef is tender, add some yoghurt (left) and a smidgen of canned tomatoes (right)

Typically the Norwegians don’t use much spices, but a light hand with ingredients such as cloves and cardamom can add a barely there but much appreciated fragrance to the stew.

Spices can also balance out the inherent beefiness of the meat, which some diners aren’t crazy about.

To finish, some sort of thick dairy such as yoghurt or heavy cream is perfect. (Not milk though, as this will make the stew too liquid.)

My secret ingredient, to add some tanginess, is a smidgen of canned tomatoes. Not enough that it’s noticeable but for that crucial hit of umami.

Ingredients

1 tablespoon of butter

2 tablespoons of oil

800g of beef (e.g. chuck or brisket), cut into cubes

750ml beef or chicken stock

2 pieces of star anise

½ stick of cinnamon

3 pieces of cloves

3 pods of cardamom

1 large white onion, diced

4 cloves garlic, peeled and left whole

1 medium sized ginger, peeled and cut into small chunks

500g potatoes, peeled, parboiled and cubed

300g pumpkin, peeled and cubed

100ml yoghurt or heavy cream

1 tablespoon of canned tomatoes

Fresh parsley, chopped (optional for garnishing)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Method

Heat the mixture of butter and oil in a large pot. When the butter-oil mixture has melted down, add the cubes of beef and brown them on all sides.

Once the meat has browned nicely, add the beef or chicken stock.

Place all the dry spices (star anise, cinnamon stick, cloves and cardamom) into a small muslin sachet, tie it up and add to the pot too.

Bring to a boil. Skim any scum off the surface of the boiling liquid. Once all the scum is removed, add the base aromatics (onion, garlic, ginger) and the vegetables (potatoes and pumpkin) to the pot.

Bring it back to a boil before simmering over medium-high heat for at least an hour.

After one hour, check to see if the meat is tender enough. It should fall apart easily when cut through with a fork.

If it’s not tender enough, allow to continue simmering and check at 10-minute intervals.

Once the meat is tender, remove the spice sachet. Add the yoghurt/heavy cream and a tablespoon of canned tomatoes.

There is no need to break any chunks of tomato up; these will dissolve in the stew. Stir and allow everything to incorporate, about another 5 minutes.

Season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. If the stew has congealed too much, dilute it to the right consistency with more stock.

Garnish with freshly chopped parsley, if desired, and serve immediately with steamed white rice or some flatbread (naan works great here). Serves four.

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