Noodle soup is the purest form of cultural expression. Noodle soup is truth. Ok, am I exaggerating a little? Maybe. Noodle soup always tells a story. It is said that during the Tang Dynasty, Muslims brought beef noodle soup to western China. The Muslim populations influenced Chinese food heavily with beef dishes and unique spices. La mian (hand-pulled noodles) supposedly has Muslim origins as well. Over time, beef noodle soups gained popularity and became a staple in Lanzhou and other regions of China. Beef noodle was then brought to Taiwan during the early 1990’s after World War II. It is now considered the national dish of Taiwan.
Are you ready to make this delicious beef noodle soup? It’s a laborious process, but trust me– it’s well worth it. A pressure cooker will reduce the cook time by 1/3, but it’s totally doable without one.
Phase 1. Make the stock.
2 beef shanks bones (3 pounds)
1 pork hind trotter (1 pound)
Oxtail (1 pound), optional for richness
Ginger, 6 slices
Garlic, 1 small head
4 scallions, ends only
1 large onion, halved
1 medium carrot, chunks
3 star anise
1 Tbsp black peppercorns
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
Toast the spices individually for best flavor. The cumin will take the least time, then the fennel/anise, then peppercorn. You can toast them together, but be careful not to burn the cumin seeds.
Next, oil a pan and char the ginger, scallions, and onion. You want a deep golden color, with some char marks.
Throw all the ingredients in a pressure cooker and fill with 3 quarts of water, or until the MAX line is reached on the pressure cooker. If you don’t quite reach 3 quarts, don’t worry. We can add water later in process. Set the cooker pressure to HIGH and cook for 45 minutes.
Without a pressure cooker: Simmer over LOW heat, with the lid partially covered, for 2 hours. Small bubbles should be slowly forming as it simmers. We don’t want too many bubbles here.
Phase 2. Go the extra mile (keep simmering).
Once we have completed phase one, remove all the solid contents and separate the meat from the aromatics. You can discard the aromatics and spices, but return the meat and bones to the pot. Make sure we have roughly 3 quarts of liquid. Break up the softened meat with tongs or two forks. This ensures better extraction of flavor. Bones are expensive! We want to extract as much flavor as possible. This is liquid gold here, guys.
Keep the cooker pressure set to HIGH and cook for another hour. Once the timer goes off, you can see a thick, golden broth. It’s rich in gelatin and flavor. Extract all the fluids from the meat, and filter the broth through a fine mesh sieve. Set the broth aside.
Without a pressure cooker: Simmer over LOW heat, with the lid partially covered, for 3 hours.
Phase 3. Prepare the Meat
What a lot of people do not understand about braising, is that you must always braise cuts of meat in liquid with salinity higher than than what they would normally consume. Why is that? That’s because beef only has 60mg sodium per 100g. As we braise, liquid will escape the meat, eventually diluting the external solution. Salt penetrates the meat slowly as it braises, so we can’t guarantee the meat will reach the salinity of the external solution during the lifetime of the braise. To ensure a flavorful braised protein, we have to start off with a saltier-than-normal solution.
Here are the ingredients for the braise:
6 cups stock base
Boneless beef shank(s) (2 pounds)
Ginger, 8 slices
Garlic, 1 small head
1 large onion, halved
1 bunch scallions
1-inch piece of rock sugar
5 star anise
1 stick cinnamon
4 bay leaves
1 Tbsp black peppercorn
1 1/2 Tbsp fennel seeds
1 Tbsp cumin seeds
1 Tbsp Sichuan peppercorn
1/2 Tbsp coriander seed
1 teaspoon five spice powder
2 pieces sand ginger (optional)
1-cm piece licorice root (optional)
1 cup soy sauce (more or less depending on brand)
1/2 cup sake
1/3 cup douban jian (must be Sichuan style)
1/3 cup tomato paste
1 Tbsp shacha jian (Chinese BBQ sauce)
This step is optional: Toast the spices on medium heat, until their fragrance is released. Remove from heat immediately to avoid scorching.
Next, oil a pan and sear shanks on high heat until deep golden brown on all sides. Remove shanks from pan and set aside. Sauté ginger and scallion (still on high heat) until slightly charred. Turn heat down to medium, and add ingredients for the paste. Sauté for 2-3 minutes, or until fragrant and slightly darkened in color.
Transfer all ingredients except for the beef into the pressure cooker. Turn the cooker to sauté mode to cook the alcohol from the sake. Once most of the alcohol is evaporated, turn mode off. Now we want to make sure our solution is well seasoned. It should taste slightly saltier than the saltiest soup you would drink. If it’s not salty enough, add some salt.
Now add the browned shanks. Make sure they are submerged. If not, add water to submerge meat. With the pressure set to HIGH, cook the shank for 45-50 minutes, or until a fork can be inserted easily through the center. We need at least 45 minutes for the sinew of the shank to be rendered fully. Once the meat is braised, remove from pot and let it come to room temperature, covered. Make sure you remove all the bits of spices from it!
Strain the braising liquid and combine with the stock base. Give it a taste! If it’s too salty, dilute with some water. Conversely, if it is too bland, season with some salt. The soup should taste fully flavorful, as we should consider the noodles going into the soup with be rather bland.
Once the shanks are cooled to the touch, we can slice and arrange them on a platter to serve.
Phase 4. Some Assembly Required
Time for the fun part… Let’s assemble our noodle soup! You can prepare phases 1-3 up to 4 days ahead and store in the fridge until you are ready to use it. I don’t know how to make noodles, so I opted for the easy way out: I bought the noodles at my local Chinese supermarket. You can buy any type of Chinese wheat noodle, just be sure you do not buy ramen noodles. Ramen noodles contain high amounts of alkali and that’s not what we are looking for here.
Prepare the toppings, such as the blanched bok choy and sautéed pickled mustard greens. Scallions are optional. I actually only prefer them in the non-spicy version. If you want to have a home run experience, buy some Taiwanese beers to go with this soup. Downright delicious.
Ok back to the program: Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Cook noodles per package instructions. Meanwhile, bring soup to a simmer so that it will be ready one the noodles are done. Once the noodles are done, assemble the dry toppings first, finishing off with the hot soup.
Enjoy! Let me know in the comments if you make it!