Monday, March 23, 2015

The Food of Taiwan: Beef Noodle Soup

My fascination with Asian culture and cooking extends across an entire continent. I love expanding my palate to discover new dishes and flavors, from India to China and beyond. I recently had the opportunity to review a brand new cookbook, due for release tomorrow.

Cathy Erway's The Food of Taiwan examines the history, people, climate, agriculture, and cuisine of what Portuguese explorers termed "the Beautiful Island." In addition to a well-researched introduction, the variety of recipes in the book range from street food to homely favorites.

Some standout dishes include Peppery Pork Buns, Braised Eggplant with Garlic and Basil, Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup, Pan-Fried Rice Noodles with Pork and Vegetables, Pork Meat Sauce over Rice, and of course my college favorite Tapioca Pearl Tea! There's lots more, but these are a few topping my "to do" list.

Although a lot of flavors in these Taiwanese recipes derive from Chinese influence, there are certain dishes and ingredients that are positively Taiwanese favorites: stinky tofu, anyone? Although I have a lengthy list of dishes to try, I felt it most appropriate to begin this gastronomic adventure with what is perhaps the unofficial official national dish of Taiwan: Niu Rou Mian, or Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup.

Many Asian cultures have their own well-known versions of noodle soup, from Vietnamese Pho to Japanese Ramen. Each have commonalities, and yet are incredibly unique to those cultures. This Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup features basic Asian wheat noodles (I used dried), stewing beef, ginger, garlic, a touch of tomato, rice wine, soy sauce, five-spice powder, and a couple Sichuan favorites: Sichuan chili bean paste, and Sichuan peppercorns.

Sichuan chili bean paste is one of my favorite discoveries during my Asian cooking adventures. It's spicy, yet flavorful--so much more than just basic heat. Sichuan peppercorns have a very distinct effect on the palate. It's best described as "numbing."

You will be able to tell immediately if you end up with a Sichuan peppercorn in your mouth while enjoying this soup. It's an acquired taste. I love the flavor it imparts, but I'm not a fan of it in high doses. I prefer its flavor delicately steeped into the broth.

All in all, I really enjoyed The Food of Taiwan. It's the first English-language book on the subject, and I think Cathy did a wonderful job sharing her heritage and its wonderful culinary delights. If you're interested in Asian cooking, namely Taiwanese, and would like to learn more about the people and places that make Taiwan such a special island, then definitely check out this book!

Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup (Niu Rou Mian)
Makes 6 to 8 Servings (I halved the recipe quite easily)
(Adapted from The Food of Taiwan)

2 to 3 tablespoons vegetable or peanut oil
2 pounds beef stew meat, preferably boneless shank, cut into 2-inch cubes
6 thick slices peeled fresh ginger
6 garlic cloves, smashed
2 whole scallions, trimmed and coarsely chopped
2 to 3 small fresh red chilies (I omitted this)
1 large plum tomato, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon chili bean sauce
1 cup rice wine
1/2 cup light soy sauce (I use low-sodium)
1/4 cup dark soy sauce
2 1/2 quarts water
1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon five-spice powder
2 star anise (I omitted this)

2 pounds Asian wheat noodles, any width (I used less--12 ounces instead of 1 pound for a half recipe--and it was still too much)
1 whole scallion, trimmed and thinly sliced
8 small heads gently blanched baby boy choy, or substitute with spinach, sweet potato leaves, or other leafy green vegetable (optional) (I used Swiss chard)

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large soup pot or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Once hot, add as much of the beef as will fit on the bottom of the pan without too much overlap (you will need to work in batches). Cook, flipping with tongs, until both sides are gently browned, 5 to 6 minutes total. Repeat with the remaining beef, adding more oil as needed. Transfer the meat to a dish and set aside.

Add another tablespoon of the oil, if needed, to the same saute pot until just hot. Add the ginger, garlic, scallions, chilies, and tomato. Cook, stirring occasionally, until very fragrant and the vegetables are softened, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the sugar and cook until dissolved and the mixture is bubbling. Return the beef and stir in the chili bean sauce.

Stir in the rice wine and bring to a boil, scraping the bottom of the pot to release any browned bits. Let boil for a minute, then add the light and dark soy sauces, the water, peppercorns, five-spice powder, and star anise. Bring just to a boil and then reduce to a low simmer. Skim the scum that rises to the top of the pot. Cover and cook at a low simmer for at least 2 hours, preferably 3 hours.

Cook the noodles according to the package instructions. Divide among individual serving bowls. Ladle the soup into each bowl with chunks of the beef, to with scallions and the blanched green vegetables, if using, and serve.

*Disclaimer* I received no compensation to write this review other than a free copy of the book. My opinions are always my own.


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