Tomorrow my husband and I will be celebrating our 14th wedding anniversary. (I was a child bride. Ha! — NOT.) We were discussing what we should do, where we could go out, what we had eaten on past anniversaries. We didn’t make any concrete plans but I started thinking about the meals we shared when we first started dating in 1989. Yes, we’re an old couple.
One of our favorite places was the Mandarin Deli in Chinatown, Los Angeles. It was a hole in the wall that my sisters introduced me to when they were attending USC down the way. I loved the Mandarin Deli’s giant pot stickers that burned my mouth with their hot juices (they’re mentioned in Asian Dumplings).
An order of dumplings was always paired with hot bowls of beef noodle soup (牛肉麵, niu rou mian). Its inky spicy broth, plump wheat noodles, and chunks of red-cooked beef were perfect with the dumplings. It was good in the cooler months as well as the hotter months. I ate it year round.
Since then, I’ve made various versions of the soup from recipes found in Irene Kuo’s classic, The Key to Chinese Cooking, and Fuschia Dunlop’s enlightening work on Sichuan cuisine, Land of Plenty. I’ve also ordered plenty of beef noodle soup from Taiwanese joints, such as A&J Restaurant, which has outposts in Southern and Northern California.
Overall, I like the Taiwanese version of niu rou mian (literally beef meat noodles) better than other versions of the Chinese soup. The Taiwanese take usually has more complexity in the broth but I didn't know why until this past weekend.
Leafing through some new books I'd received, I found a Taiwanese beef noodle soup recipe in a surprising place: The Newlywed Kitchen cookbook. Seattle-based author Lorna Yee included lots of fun, romance inspiring western recipes in her first publication. Indulgences such as supergooey Philly cheesesteak sandwiches and Nutella doughnuts are bound to lure people into messing around in the kitchen.
But I was attracted to Lorna’s Taiwanese beef noodle soup recipe, a reflection of her Chinese Canadian roots. I met Lorna earlier this year when I was in Seattle and she’s a smart,
Her recipe introduction mentions how the Taiwanese adore beef noodle soup like Americans yearn for burgers. This is the kind of food that you obsess over. What makes it good? How do you do it?
What I liked about Lorna’s recipe is that she sears the beef first and then adds fresh chile along with black bean chile sauce for heat and depth. Star anise, Sichuan peppercorn, and five-spice powder flavor the broth nicely with piquancy.
Most Chinese beef noodle soup recipes I’ve tried omit the searing, five-spice powder and employ dried chiles. Lorna’s technique reminded me of a bit of how I make Vietnamese bun bo Hue spicy beef noodle soup (see Into the Vietnamese Kitchen for a recipe).
I dug out a frozen chuck roast from my 2010 grass-fed beef CSA, thawed it, and went to work. Well, it wasn’t much work as the pot simply simmered on the stove for a couple of hours. The result was fantastic, actually better than what Rory and I remember from the Mandarin Deli. The deli closed years ago but now we’ve got Lorna’s recipe to take us forward. Hurray.
Spicy Beef Noodle Soup
Niu Rou Mian
The spicy beef noodle soup recipe here is my adaptation of Lorna’s, which employs beef shank or short ribs and black bean sauce. I had chuck and favor chile bean sauce over black bean and chile sauce as the former offers greater heat. Made with broad (fava) beans, Chinese chile bean sauce is called dou ban jiang and is what’s used for Sichuanese ma po tofu; look for it in jars at a Chinese market. Ming Teh brand from Taiwan is reliably good.
3 pounds bone-in beef chuck roast, cut into 4 pieces
3 tablespoons canola oil
10 garlic cloves, bruised
Chubby 1 1/2-inch fresh ginger, cut into 6 slices, each one bruised
5 fat scallions, halved crosswise
1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder
4 star anise (32 points total)
Generous 2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns
3 Thai or Serrano chiles, split lengthwise
1/4 cup chile bean sauce
1/3 cup Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
1 1/2 ounces yellow Chinese rock sugar
6 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons dark soy sauce
10 cups water
1 pound broccolini, broccoli, or baby bok choy, cut into bite size pieces
1 pound fresh or dried thick Chinese egg noodles (sometimes labeled Shanghai noodles)
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro
1. Pat the beef dry and then season all over with salt. In a 5- or 6-quart pot, heat the oil over high heat. Sear the beef on both sides until there is some browning, 2 to 3 minutes per side.
2. Add 1 teaspoon salt, and all the remaining soup ingredients: garlic, ginger, five-spice, star anise, peppercorns, chiles, bean sauce, rice wine, rock sugar, both kinds of soy sauces, and water.
3. Bring to a boil, skim off the scum that floats to the top. Lower the heat to medium-low to gently simmer. Cover and cook for about 2 hours, until the beef is tender. The broth will simmer under cover.
4. Turn off the heat, move the lid askance so that there’s about a 1/2-inch opening. Let the soup cool. The beef will finish cooking to fork tenderness as the broth cools and concentrates in flavor. (If you make the soup in the evening, let it sit overnight and it will be ready for lunch the next day!)
5. Remove the meat and set aside. Strain the broth into another pot. Discard the solids. Reheat the broth over high heat.
6. Meanwhile, cook the vegetable and noodles in a large pot of water. Divide among soup bowls.
Cut the meat into 1/2-inch-thick pieces; if it the beef is cold, use a mesh strainer or skimmer to warm it in the hot broth. Divide it among the bowls.
7. Bring the broth to a boil, taste and adjust the flavors. Ladle the broth into the bowls. Top with cilantro and serve.
Where have you found good Chinese or Taiwanese spicy beef noodle soup? If you make your own, what is your approach (secret)?
Related recipes: (on Asian Dumpling Tips)