niu2 rou4 tang1 mian4
Several years ago, my parents spent many long months back in Taiwan taking care of my grandparents. At that time, my mother reacquainted herself with many of the foods of her youth. One of them was beef noodle soup in the regional variant popular in Taipei. One of my uncles used to run a small chain of tea houses in Taipei and would also vend food at festivals and such. From him, my mother learned all sorts of modifications which make this dish rather more "authentic." This was before he ran off to somewhere on the continent to hide from his creditors.
This soup is served with wheat noodles and, similar to pho, is an entire meal in a bowl. The meat is a robust cut, shin, which is tough and gristly at first, but cooks tender and melting if given the chance. It is filling but not heavy, and is wonderfully savory no matter what the weather.
Like all recipes gleaned from my mother there are no real measurements. Instead, there’s eyeballing and trusting one’s own tastebuds.
Ingredients: This is scaled for a large pot of soup, suitable for a family. A big family, none of this tiny nuclear family business.
3-4 pounds of beef shin, gristle intact (*smack!* leave that gristle alone!)
about half a cup of soy sauce
about half a cup of Chinese 'sherry' (xiaoxing jiao, the cooking variety is fine), actual sherry is an acceptable substitute.
4 thick slices of ginger
3-4 scallions (also called green onions), cut into 2-3 pieces
1 star anise
optional: a few dried chili peppers, 3-4 (more or less)
Almost anything will do, but baby bok choi, fresh mustard, spinach, watercress and Romaine lettuce are all particularly lovely. Wash whatever you choose well. Split baby bok choi in half lengthwise, or if using larger leaves, cut them in half or leave whole. Cut fresh mustard into large pieces, about 3-4 inches in length, ditto with Romaine lettuce. Spinach leaves can be left whole, or if very large, cut in half. Watercress can also be left whole.
Wheat noodles, the kind without eggs. If you can get fresh or frozen noodles, even better.
- Garnish: These are a must
chopped sour mustard (pickled mustard; 酸 菜)
optional: chili paste (if desired, doctor your favorite chili paste with a bit of lemon juice and some chopped fresh coriander)
First off, boil a pot of water. Once it’s boiling, put the entire piece of beef shin in it so it is completely submerged, bring it back to a boil, and then turn off the heat. The goal it to scald the meat so the eventual broth will be clear. Let it sit in the hot water until it's cool enough to handle. Dump the water (or save it for something else) and remove the meat from the pot, it should still be bloody in spots and it will be rare on the inside. Cut it into large pieces, in the range of 2.5"x1.5".
Put the meat into your large soup pot. Throw in the ginger, scallions, star anise, soy sauce, and cooking sherry (add the chili pepper whole or just cracked open if desired). Bring to a strong simmer on medium heat and cook tightly covered for about 20 minutes. Keep an eye on it to make sure it doesn’t dry out.
At the end of 20 minutes, the meat should be cooked through and tender enough to eat. It will still be chewy, and the gristle will be crunchy rather than soft. Add water to the pot to taste, the soup should be salty but pleasant. Too salty and the broth will be undrinkable; too bland and the noodles will be tasteless. Bring to a boil and then simmer until the gristle is tender. 30-40min. should do it.
Meanwhile, while your soup is simmering, cook the noodles in a big pot of water. Set out a large, deep bowl for each person. Drain the noodles and put a serving in each bowl.
Once the beef is tender, bring the soup back to a boil and blanch your vegetable in the broth. Place a serving of vegetables in each bowl on top of the noodles, to one side. Either blanch just enough for each person, or blanch all of the vegetables, and set them aside so they don’t overcook. Spinach will cook almost instantaneously, as will Romaine lettuce and watercress. Baby bok choi is better a bit underdone, but mustard, especially Chinese mustard with very thick stems will take a little longer.
Place a few pieces of meat on top of the noodles (how ever many each person wants), scatter the top with chopped scallions and add a scoop of pickled mustard. Then, ladle broth over the top to cover the noodles but leave the meat and vegetables exposed. Pass around the chili paste if desired.