Taiwan Eats: Beef Noodle Soup
Deeply savory, suggestively spicy, Taiwanese beef noodle soup is true winter comfort food. It's often hailed the national dish of the island, although Taiwan is not technically a nation. But you get the point: it's a quintessential hallmark of the island's cuisine, an immense source of pride. Yet it's easy enough to make in any kitchen, even with limited ingredients.
Though this particular brand of beef noodle soup is a claim to fame in Taiwan, it does have a conspicuous Sichuan influence. The reason takes us back to the late 1940s, when China was in civil war. Roughly two million mainland Chinese moved to Taiwan during this time (including my grandparents), as the Republic of China retreated from Mao Zedong's People's Republic of China; the ROC's last military stronghold on the mainland had been in Sichuan province. Initially, members of the military and their dependents were housed communally in Taiwan, in hastily made structures. It is within these military "villages" that many cross-provincial dishes are believed to have been inspired, including this beef noodle soup.
As evidence, the soup incorporates chili bean sauce and Sichuan peppercorns, but is nowhere found in Sichuan province proper. Nope, it's a distinctly Taiwanese specialty, and nowadays, tourists from around China consider the dish a must-try when visiting the island.
Don't fret if you don't have Sichuan peppercorns when making this. It's more important that the soup has a cloudy, protein-rich thickness, achieved by using a substantial amount of beef and a smashed tomato for extra body. Some recipes even call for black tea steeped into the soup (a local Taiwanese-grown specialty); most include star anise for that signature red-braised flavor. A dollop of chili bean sauce and a stray fresh chili or two will give the soup an enticing spiciness that creeps up on you the longer you slurp; while a handful of whole black peppercorns can enhance the flavor instead of Sichuan peppercorns. Slight variations are endless, and to be expected when making a long-simmering stew of such humble origin. A common way to make your cooking more efficient? Throw in some hard-boiled (and peeled), eggs to the soup at the beginning of simmering. Use these tan-colored "stew eggs" as snacks or side dishes, with or without the soup itself.
About the Author: Cathy Erway is the author of The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove. She blogs at Not Eating Out In New York and hosts the weekly podcast, "Eat Your Words" on Heritage Radio Network.