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The first thing to know about Taiwan's danzai noodle soup ("wooden-stick noodle soup") is that it isn't named for having unpleasantly rigid noodles. Also known as "slack-season noodle soup," the dish was created by southern Taiwanese fishermen during the off-season (or "slack" season), who would carry a wooden stick (hence, danzai) across their shoulders with pots suspended, peddling noodles instead of fresh seafood to customers. It was a resourceful way of making it through the slow season, which is maybe why there's only one shrimp atop each bowl. Today, the dish is experiencing a resurgence in Taiwan, thanks to restaurants that have fondly recreated it on their menus.
Like many dishes in Taiwan, this one incorporates both meat and seafood. The broth is often infused with the flavor of the sea by simmering shrimp heads and shells in a basic pork stock. Then, the noodles are topped with a long-simmered pork meat sauce that's often served with rice or noodles—the recipe for the meat sauce can be found here—plus that lone cooked shrimp placed ceremoniously on top.
Slightly thick, chewy wheat-based noodles are the most common kind used in danzai noodle soup. Over the years, I've used various wheat-based noodles, but find that lo mein or chow mein work well (visit our Chinese noodle guide for more info on Chinese noodles). You can find them fresh in the refrigerated aisle of Asian markets, or dried in the International food section of most supermarkets. Before serving, the soup is given a kick of acidity from deep and unctuous black vinegar that's drizzled over each bowl.
This noodle soup is commonly eaten as a small snack, rather than as part of a multi-course meal for a group. The individual portions are easy to dole out, assuming you have long-simmered stock and meat sauce on hand. Many traditional vendors will grate a small amount of fresh garlic on top of each bowl, then place the shrimp on that. When stirred in, this addition balances the somewhat strong shrimp flavor of the dish, and is a signature flourish. Like most noodle soups in Taiwan, you can add optional stewed eggs, pickled radish, or other vegetables as garnishes, as well as fresh herbs like scallions or cilantro.
While theoretically an easy soup, you do have to account for the time it takes to make the meat sauce first. But that's why the recipe you'll find here is for six portions, which can be easily doubled: Like ramen, it's the type of dish that was meant to be made in large quantities, with a long preparation time but short execution times per portion. You can even make large batches of the broth and meat sauce and then freeze them in small portions, defrosting as needed. With a little planning, it's possible to bring this classic street food from Taiwan into your own home kitchen.