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Potluck Staples 2: Taiwanese beef noodle soup

There are several famous traditions of beef noodle soup in East Asia but whether it’s patriotism or familiarity or something else, I’ll always prefer the Taiwanese version. Sitting at a wobbly little wooden table, dented metal stool under me, on a street corner somewhere in Taichung, scooters whizzing past… and in front of me a steaming, aromatic bowl of beefy, spicy soup with tangy mustard greens and elastic noodles. For me, this is the ultimate comfort food, far beating a big cheesy burger or creamy pasta which is heavy on fat and light on flavour.

A small, potluck sized serving of Taiwanese stewed beef noodles

A small, potluck sized serving of Taiwanese stewed beef noodles

Welcome to part 2 of my Potluck Staples series. This is the second dish I made for my colleagues for a shared lunch I unwisely arranged in the middle of a busy period at work. Because it consists of hot soup and freshly cooked noodles, it’s not something that’s suitable for every kind of potluck unless you have access to a kitchen – however, I have the luxury of living about 10 minutes from my office! I also made crispy roast pork belly – check out that recipe and post here.

Much richer and more of a guilty pleasure than Vietnamese pho, the Taiwanese take on beef noodles is a dish of national pride. Though my take on their take might differ from the old recipe of many a Taiwanese ama, to me it at least tastes like the most faithful adaptation of the street food I love that I can remember ever eating outside of Taiwan. Once upon a time, I scoured the internet for decent recipes and over the years I have pieced them together, with touches of my own, to create this. I’ve never written it down before, so every time I make it, it’s a tiny bit different. Now I’d love for others to give it a go!

I make my beef broth in a slow cooker, as it allows me to leave it going for much longer and allow the flavours to really develop – the recipe will be based on this technique but can easily be adapted to cooking on the stove on very low heat.

Taiwanese stewed beef brisket noodles (Niu Rou Mian)

Things to note

Serves: 6 (or 10 snack serves)

Prep time: About 30 minutes, unconsecutive. Cooking time: 8+ hours, but mostly unattended

What you’ll need

From the Asian grocers
At least 3 tbsp chilli bean sauce (adjust according to how spicy you prefer it to be – I personally use almost a third of a jar as I love chilli)
1 cup premium soy sauce, or ¾ cup dark soy sauce
½ cup rice wine (cooking wine)
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 -1.2 kg wheat noodles, preferably medium or thin. If using dried noodles, buy the kind that are white and straight, in long packs, rather than “curly” in squares like instant noodles.
Optional: Taiwanese mustard greens to serve on the side (you can also pre-prepare this yourself if you aren’t short on time – here is a good recipe). Unfortunately, this time I had time to neither buy nor prepare any :(

From the market
800 – 900g boneless beef brisket, cut into approx 4cm cube pieces, trimmed of any large bits of fat
Beef bones, rougly 1 kg (your local butcher will be happy to give you some from the back if not on display) in fist-sized pieces
2 cups beef stock or chicken stock – homemade or store bought fresh from the butcher, not tinned, cubed or powdered (this is optional, but will boost flavour depth)
1-2 cups chopped chillies (to taste) – any red chilli, chopped finely. NB: most of this will not go into the soup, but will be served on the side for the diner to add to their taste
8 garlic cloves – minced
1 medium brown/yellow/white onion – sliced into half-ring slithers
1 large or 2 small tomatoes, any kind
Ginger – amount to taste, but no more than 2 cm – very thinly sliced or chopped finely
1½ cups chopped spring onions, the green parts only
1 bunch coriander – chopped finely

Rice wine for cooking, chopped chillies, spring onions, coriander, tomato, ginger, garlic and various dried spices including tangerine peel (the funny looking stuff)

Chopped chillies, spring onions, coriander, tomato, ginger, garlic and various dried spices including tangerine peel (the funny looking stuff)

Spices
4-5 star anise pods
2 tsps sichuan peppercorns (normal black peppercorns can be used if you can’t find these)
2 cinnamon sticks
6-7 cloves
3-4 bay leaves (fresh preferred but dried is ok)
4 black cardamom pods
1 tsp Chinese five spice powder
Dried tangerine peel, 3-4 pieces (from your Asian grocer)

⅓ cup brown sugar, or to taste
Salt (to taste)
Cooking oil for sauteing

Making the base broth

  1. Bring a large pot of water to the boil and quickly boil the beef bones for about 4 minutes to remove any surface impurities – this is an optional step but makes for a clearer, “prettier”, stock. Pour out the water.
  2. Boil 2 – 2.5 litres of water in a kettle. Set the slow cooker to “high”. Place the bones inside the cooker and pour the boiled water over it, making sure the bones are fully submerged. (If using the stove, bring a large pot of water to the boil, then turn the heat down to medium-low and place the bones inside)
  3. Add salt to taste
  4. After leaving on high for 20 minutes, turn slow cooker setting down to “low”, or “auto” if it has this setting. Leave for at least 5 hours, or overnight. (If using a stove, simmer on the lowest possible heat for 2-3 hours).
  5. Remove the bones and discard them. Skim some of the fat off the top, but not all – leaving some in will help lock in flavour later on in the cooking process. Strain the stock through a very fine sieve, or loosely woven muslin cloth.
  6. Clean/wash the slow cooker or pot you have used.
Beef bones and chopped chillies

Beef bones for making stock

Now the soup, with everything!

  1. Take the strained stock from the previous step and transfer it back into the slow cooker (or a large stockpot on the stove) while it’s still hot. If you’ve allowed the stock to cool down or you’re doing this step on a separate day, you will need to bring it back to the boil in a pot before adding it back to the slow cooker. If the liquid is hot but not boiling when starting out, begin the slow cooker on high setting and turn down to low after 20 minutes (and proceed with other steps while waiting).
  2. Add all the dry spices to the broth except for the bay leaves – the star anise, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamom, tangerine peel and five spice powder
  3. Add the soy sauce, the rice wine and the (other pre-prepared) stock
  4. Bring a small pot of water to the boil and parboil the tomato(es) until soft – 5 minutes should do it. Remove from the water and in a bow, crush it roughly with a spoon.
  5. In a pan with a small amount of cooking oil, add the sliced onions and minced garlic and saute for 1 minute…
  6. Add 1 tbsp of the chilli bean sauce (leave the rest), ½ cup (or more) of the chopped chillies, ½ of the chopped spring onions and a few slices of ginger to the pan. Saute for a further 2-3 minutes or until everything smells amazing!
  7. Transfer all the sauteed contents of the pan to the broth simmering in the slow cooker. Add the remaining chilli bean sauce, or however much you prefer.
  8. Heat up a different pan (or clean the original) on high heat with a very small amount of cooking oil. Once the oil is hot, bring the heat down to medium, and transfer the beef brisket pieces to brown the cubes on all sides. If the pan isn’t large enough, you may need to do this in batches as the beef pieces should only fill one layer of the pan! Only sear the meat, do not cook – 4-5 minutes total per batch should be ok for these small pieces. This browning process brings out extra flavour that will be reflected in the resulting soup.
  9. Add the browned beef to the soup in the slow cooker, along with any juices from the pan. Make sure the meat is fully submerged in the broth.
  10. Add the brown sugar.
  11. Add salt to taste.
  12. Add ⅓ cup of the chopped coriander, and then finally, add the bay leaves, leaving them to float on top of the soup.
  13. Slow cook the beef soup for 2 hours on “low”, then check the meat’s “doneness”. Cook for a further 20-30 minutes if necessary. (If using the stove instead, simmer on the lowest heat setting for 1 hour before checking.)

  14. Once the soup is done, remove and discard all the “solid” bits other than the beef – this means the star anise, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, cloves, cardamom pods, tangerine peel, bay leaves, tomatoes, onion slices and ginger pieces. Then remove the beef brisket and set aside for a moment.
  15. Strain the broth through a fine sieve or muslin. Add the brisket back in!

Taiwanese stewed beef noodles

The last stretch: noodles, serve and eat!

  • Cook the noodles according to the packet instructions and drain – fairly firm and al dente is best, as they will continue to soften in the broth after being served
  • Prepare 6 (or however many) bowls. Place a portion of noodles into each bowl, and then spoon a portion of the soup and beef onto the noodles, minimising “splashage” in this order.
  • Garnish with a little pinch each of the remaining chopped coriander, spring onions, chillies and optional mustard greens. Serve extra of each on the side so the person eating can adjust to their own taste.
  • Omnom…

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