Thoughts on Beef Noodle Soup from a Born-and-Bred Taiwanese Mama
by Laura Ohlson
Growing up in Taiwan, beef noodle soup was no big thing, it was something we ate when we didn’t have groceries, or when my mom just didn’t feel like cooking. A short trip down the hill to our roadside favorite Shu Jia Niu Rou Mien and - voila! - a delicious, hearty, spicy, and conveniently cheap meal for four would be ready within 15 minutes. When I hear that Taiwanese beef noodle soup is about to hit America like pho or ramen has in the past, I have to say, I’m a little surprised. Will I be seeing pre-packaged instant beef noodle soup packets in the ‘Ethnic foods’ aisle on my trips to Safeway in a few years? Probably not. But it is fascinating how a humble dish from Taiwan is becoming an international sensation. Not having lived in Taipei for over six years, I decided to Skype my mother, who was born, raised, and currently lives in Taipei, to ask for her personal thoughts, opinions, and experiences with Taiwanese beef noodle soup. After reading her responses, be sure to sign up for our Young Professionals Group February 8 Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup dinner, where we will serve up bowls of an award-winning recipe straight from Taiwan!
Describe what, in your mind, would characterize the most delicious and perfectly crafted bowl of beef noodle soup.
The best beef noodle soup is steaming, steaming, hot! Best in a bowl that is not too big nor too small. The broth should be a red bean paste color, and spicy chili oil should be floating on top of the broth in a shiny film. The fragrance should be of chili-spicy-bean-paste and, of course, stewed beef. And chopped garlic and green onions should be added to finish off my perfect bowl of beef noodle soup.
What about the noodles?
There are all kinds of noodles. Traditional noodles are thinner, and some people use dao xiao mien (”knife-shaven noodles”), made by shaving noodles off of a ball of dough. Dao xiao mien is chewier and has more substance compared to the thin type of noodle. And then there are the thicker, flatter noodles…they all taste different, but most important is that you cannot cook them too soggy. The perfect noodles are chewy and perfectly Q-Q!! (“Q-Q” is a frequently used phrase in Taiwanese to describe pleasantly chewy food items such as mochi)
Where in Taipei would you most likely find beef noodle soup?
Oh, anywhere and everywhere! Around offices, old neighborhoods, newly established residential areas, the main street of a town or village, definitely in a fresh open market, outside of schools. Beef noodle soup can be found almost everywhere in the city, doesn't matter if it’s on the main street or tucked away in an alley.
Is beef noodle soup something you cook at home, take-out, or eat while you are out and about?
Either! A lot of people cook their own beef noodle soup at home. But it's very convenient to just order for take-out, since it is literally everywhere and anywhere. The hassle in cooking your own is the broth...to properly cook the beef until it is tender requires time. If people are busy and they don't have time to cook at home, they may prefer to just order it, since it’s so affordable. It's is almost like fast food, especially in Taipei.
Did you eat beef noodle soup growing up? What are your fondest memories and feelings associated with the dish?
A feeling of happiness - it’s so tasty, so filling, and back then it wasn't expensive. I remember in high school, there was one particular small, old noodle shop I would go to with my best friends. It was always packed, and we were always crowded into a tight corner at a small table, anticipating and waiting patiently. And when the bowls were all brought out, the feeling was so nice and spicy, and I always knew the first couple bites would be really intense since the hot chili oil is always floating on top. But good friends, waiting, and chit-chatting as we ate spicy beef noodle soup were some of the best memories I have.
Has Taiwanese beef noodle soup always been such a national sensation in Taiwan? Or is this fairly recent?
No one used to think twice about niu rou mien. It was cheap, tasty, and convenient. Just like any fast food restaurant, you order, eat, and go. It’s just been over the past 10 years that the government has started to promote beef noodle soup as being something unique to Taiwan, as a method of gaining international attention, especially from Chinese tourists who love sampling Taiwanese beef noodle soup, which is why they started the International Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup competition. I think the popularity of the competition has definitely created a sense of pride and ownership over the unique 'Taiwanese-ness' of Taiwanese beef noodle soup.
After all this talk of beef noodle soup, if you could go out for a bowl of beef noodle soup right now, where would you go?
That's easy. I would drive down the hill to Shu Jia Niu Rou Mien. It's my favorite neighborhood spot right off the road!
Laura Ohlson is Development Associate at Asia Society Northern California. She was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and grew up throughout East and Southeast Asia.