Brothy Beef Soup with Watercress and Cilantro

When the skies are grey and full of constant, gloomy wet, I find myself yearning for the steamy comfort of slurpable soups like this brothy beef soup. There’s something about its aromatic, savory broth that feels both comforting and rejuvenating.

Like a winter stew, this beef soup will warm you to your bones. But unlike a stew, it won’t weigh you down with thick, heavy gloop. Like I said, this brothy bowl is about rejuvenation, not hibernation.

The simple flavors and method of this quick and easy beef soup are heavily inspired by a mishmash of recipes in Vietnamese Any Day, by Andrea Nguyen.

Browsing through this book is where I first learned about canh, a Vietnamese soup style that is, as Andrea puts it, “…fragrant, wholesome, and fast…” She defines canh as generally water-based, leaning on a mess of greens and a bit of protein for the flavorful core, with aromatics like onion and fish sauce for depth.

Recipe Stars: Beef and Baby Watercress

The main body of this soup comes from good quality ground beef and baby watercress. The beef helps transform the water into broth while it simmers, infusing its fat and flavor into the whole pot.

The baby watercress is tender and lightly peppery. The thicker stems add some crunch without the toughness or stringiness of other greens. Play with the ratios here–you may like less protein and more greens, which would be lighter and better as a starter or for warmer weather.

Shallot, Lemongrass, and Fish Sauce

Rounding out the savoriness of the beef are some key aromatics: shallot (or onion), lemongrass, and fish sauce. These ingredients add depth and make the broth wonderfully rich and fragrant.

Fresh lemongrass is getting more and more common in my local big-box grocery stores. If you can’t find it, however, one or two large strips of lime or lemon zest might work in its place. Different, but still a nice touch.

Herbs are More than Garnish: Cilantro is Key

It’s probably familiar to add a sprinkling of fresh herbs as a garnish for your soup, but in this beef and watercress soup I want you to shift into thinking of cilantro as another core green. It’s not just for pretty!

The stems, which are sturdier, can be added with other aromatics to further boost the broth’s dimension. The more delicate leaves are treated like the watercress. Stir them in just before serving so they mingle with everything without losing their punchy, fresh flavor.

On the Method: Applying the Simple Elegance of Vietnamese Canh-Style Soups

Again, Andrea’s general blueprint for canh preparation is what makes this brothy beef soup so delightfully easy. Start with the aromatics, add water and seasonings, and simmer your main ingredients until you have what she aptly calls a “multidimensional broth.” Adding more delicate greens like watercress or herbs at the end softens their texture while keeping the flavors bright and lively.

Helpful Tips:

You can use pretty much any green you like, just keep in mind their differing textures and flavors. Tender greens like baby spinach or baby arugula should be added at the end, just like the watercress. Heartier greens like kale, collards, or mustard greens will need to cook longer.

“What if I hate cilantro?

Skip it. Either up the amount of watercress to compensate, or add a different green like arugula or spinach. If you love parsley, go for it, but that wouldn’t be my personal choice.

How do I make this vegan?

Vegan beef is an easy sub. While I’ve never tried it, I imagine you could also replace the beef with mushrooms. For similar texture, finely chop or slice a whole mess of them, ideally different types for the best depth of flavor. Mix them with seasonings and add to the pot just as you would the beef. You could also try small cubes of tofu. In place of the fish sauce, try soy sauce, maggi seasoning, vegan oyster sauce, etc.

Brothy Beef Soup with Watercress and Cilantro

A cozy, steamy bowl of aromatic broth, perfect for dreary grey weather, and so delightfully easy to whip up. While not exactly a version of Vietnamese canh, it was heavily inspired by Andrea Nguyen's general blueprint for canh preparation in her book Vietnamese Everyday. Like a winter stew, this beef soup will warm you to your bones. But unlike a stew, this brothy soup is about rejuvenation, not hibernation. Serve alone or poured over whatever carb strikes your fancy. Rice is always good, as are slurpy noodles.
YIELD4 Servings
TOTAL TIME 30 mins


  • 2 stalks lemongrass, trimmed to the bottom 6 inches
  • 2 cups cilantro, stems and leaves reserved separately
  • 1 pound 80% lean ground beef
  • 3 tablespoons fish sauce, divided
  • Kosher salt and black pepper
  • 3 tablespoons neutral oil
  • 4 medium shallots, halved and thinly sliced
  • 2 cups baby watercress, roughly chopped


  • Step 1
    Bruise the lemongrass by smacking it with the back or flat of a large knife. Cut into three pieces, roughly 2 inches each. Set aside.
    Chop the cilantro leaves and set aside for later. Mince the cilantro stems. In a medium bowl, mix the cilantro stems, beef, 2 tablespoons fish sauce, and 1 teaspoon black pepper. Make sure everything is evenly distributed.
  • Step 2
    In a large saucepan or medium pot, heat the oil over medium until shimmering. Add the lemongrass and shallots and stir until the shallots are very soft, about 3 minutes. Add the beef mixture and stir to break into small pieces. Stir in 6 cups water and 1 teaspoon salt, then increase heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to maintain a lively simmer, and cook for about 10 minutes, to let the flavors meld. Off heat, stir in the remaining fish sauce. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt, pepper, or fish sauce.
  • Step 3
    Just before serving, stir the watercress and cilantro leaves into the hot soup. Serve immediately.

Extra Notes:

Substitution notes:
Use any ground meat that you prefer. Keep in mind that leaner meats won’t lend the same texture. Better to use less of a higher fat grind than the called for amount of a leaner grind.
For other tender greens (spinach, baby arugula, lettuces, baby bok choy) treat as you would the watercress. For heartier greens (collards, kale, mustard, adult spinach or arugula, chard) either add to the pot sooner or give them time to simmer at the end. Check occasionally to see if you like the texture and serve when you’re satisfied.
Sub any tender herb (dill, parsley, chervil, etc) in place of the cilantro, just keep in mind that the flavor will be a major player in the final dish. Don’t use it if you don’t want a mouthful! If you’re not feeling herby, sub a second tender green, such as baby arugula or baby spinach, in place of the cilantro.
You shouldn’t miss the broth in this recipe–that’s part of the magic! However, feel free to use your favorite stock/broth in place of the water. A mushroom stock, for example, might be a good addition if you’re skipping the ground meat in favor of minced mushrooms or small cubes of tofu.

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