Beef tendon, the connective collagen that connects muscle to bone, is most commonly used in Vietnamese and Cantonese cuisine. The tendon starts off tough and chewy but cooks to a soft, gelatinous texture in a process that's the same whether you want to make a rich broth, stew or appetizer.
To make steamed tendons -- often eaten cold as a stand-alone dish with a dressing of sauces and spices -- start by rinsing beef tendons and placing them in a bowl or basket for a steamer. Add soy sauce to the pot portion of the steamer, using approximately 1/4 cup of soy sauce per pound of tendons, and just enough water to cover a bit of the tendons. After the water comes to a boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer for about four hours. Refrigerate the tendons until they're cold; then cut them into thin slices and toss them with additional soy sauce, rice vinegar, hot chili oil, sesame oil, sugar and salt to taste. About two hours at room temperature will allow the flavors to meld with the tendon -- after that, taste a bite and add more spices, if you like. This dish is often topped with fresh chopped herbs such as cilantro and green onion.
Start by adding a bit of cooking oil to a heavy-duty pot or pan. A Dutch oven or cast-iron skillet works well for braising because you can transfer the tendons from the stovetop to the oven without changing pans. Fry the beef tendons in the oil over medium-high heat for a few minutes on each side or just until the outside is browned, to add flavor. Add your choice of spices and vegetables, such as garam masala, curry powder, onions, ginger, garlic, celery and tomatoes -- common ingredients in Malaysian beef tendon stew. Cover the tendons and vegetables with a liquid such as water, broth, soy sauce or a combination of liquids. Bring the liquid to a boil, turn off the heat and transfer the Dutch oven to an oven preheated to about 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Cook the tendons for about five hours or until soft. Check the skillet periodically and add more water as needed to keep them covered.
Beef tendons are well known as an ingredient in the Vietnamese soup pho, which is simmered for several hours in a large stock pot on the stovetop. In addition to pho, you can simmer tendons to make a variety of other soups, or simply simmer them in aromatic water and pull the tendons out for use in another dish. Start by cutting the tendons into bite-sized pieces, or leave them whole if desired. Add your choice of spices and vegetables to taste -- pho includes star anise, cinnamon, cloves and fennel. Fill the pot with water. Turn the heat to high just long enough to bring it to a boil. Once the water is boiling, reduce the heat to low. Simmer the tendons for four to eight hours or until the tendons are soft.
In the first hour or two of cooking, beef tendon appears as a solid, hard mass that is so tough and chewy that it's nearly impossible to eat. After four hours of cooking, the collagen breaks down into a silky, soft texture. As the tendons cool, they coagulate to a more gelatinous state that is slightly chewy but still tender. If you have slow-cooked the tendons over low heat and they don't appear done, simply continue simmering until the proper texture is achieved. Unfortunately, if you cook them too fast over high heat, no amount of continued simmering can break down the tough meat.