Ms. Chow had asked me what I wanted to make for our Chinese cooking day.
“I want you to choose,” I said. “Something authentic. Something you like. Something you know how to cook.”
So when we met in Chinatown, she had her list.
We wandered into a small local store in Chinatown. It looked and smelled totally unfamiliar. There was frozen fish, dried fish, fresh fish and swimming fish. A Taiwan native, Ms. Chow spoke Chinese with the storekeeper. I was impressed.
We bought all kinds of things, some as familiar as carrots and garlic; some, like pickled mustard greens, I’d never used before.
“What’s this?” I’d ask Ms. Chow. “What’s that? How do you use it? What’s it like?” Like a curious toddler.
“We’re going to make Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup,” she said. “My mother would be proud of me.”
In Taiwan, there are as many recipes for Niau Ro Mia, or Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup, as there are people who make it. It has become a symbol of Taiwan’s food and every year the city of Taipei holds an annual Beef Noodle Festival, where various chefs and restaurants compete to see who has the best beef noodle soup in Taiwan. Kind of like a Texas chili cook-off.
My house was closer so we went back to my kitchen. I pulled out my wok. Ms. Chow laughed.
“Your wok looks like my grandmother’s!”
No surprise, Fellow FoodBeest. It was quite the thing from Crate and Barrel about 40 years ago. Made in China. It’s heavy, steel, and well seasoned from years of use. I’ve never seen anything quite like it since. But then it’s never seen anything quite like what we were about to do.
As we started putting together the ingredients and stir-frying seasonings like peppercorns and star anise, my kitchen took on a fragrance it never has had before. Not bad. Just very different. I began to worry that this might not have been a good idea. This was something we definitely don’t usually get at home, Fellow FoodBeest.
Mr. FB wasn’t home. Was he going to like it or was he going to turn up his nose?
A good sous chef (more like line cook), I took directions from Ms. Chow as she had me wash things, cut things, boil things, stir-fry things — just so.
Ms. Chow went home to Mr. Chow before dinner, taking with her half the soup and many of the ingredients we didn’t use.
I tasted the soup before I served it. It was a little thinner than I would have liked, so I reduced it a bit before dinner.
With some trepidation, I served the soup, putting it together the way Ms. Chow had instructed: noodles, then soup, with meat and bok choy on top and garnished with green onions and pickled mustard greens.
It was an amazing balance of sweet, bitter, spicy, pungent and umami flavors.
“Wow,” said Mr. FB, “This is good. This is really good. Is there more?”
What you need to make Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup (Niau Ro Mia)
2 lb beef shank or short rib meat
6 C water
1 cut-up Chinese turnip (we used a daikon radish that gave it just a little bitter intensity, but you can also use a jicama for a slightly sweeter soup)
2 peeled and cut-up large carrots
3 t vegetable oil, divided
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thin
1 T dried whole red Chinese peppercorns (Fagara)
10 whole star anise
2 large tomatoes sliced thin
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and cut in big chunks (so you don’t accidentally bite into one)
4 heaping teaspoons jarred chili bean sauce (Toban Djan)
1 C soy sauce
¼ C brown sugar
¼ C mirin sweet wine vinegar or sherry
½ lb dried ramen noodles
baby bok choy, leaves separated
Pickled mustard greens (available in Chinese shops or on-line)
Equipment: cheesecloth or a teaball, wok, soup pot
How to make Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup (Niau Ro Mia)
Wash the beef and cut it into bite-sized pieces. Put it in large pot of boiling water until foam forms on the top of the water. Drain, remove the beef and bring a new pot of 6 cups water to boil in the soup pot.
In one teaspoon of oil, briefly stir-fry the star anise, peppercorns and garlic until they are fragrant. Remove them from the wok or fry pan and tie them up in either a piece of cheesecloth or fill a tea ball with them. If you tie them up in cheesecloth, tie a piece of cooking string around it so it is easy to pull the ball of spices out of the soup when you are ready for it.
In the second teaspoon of oil, stir-fry the tomatoes with the ginger slices, the chili bean sauce (Toban Djan), the sugar, the soy sauce and the wine until it breaks down into a sauce.
Add the meat, the daikon radish (or the jicama) and the carrots to cook for a few minutes in the sauce to infuse the flavors into the meat and vegetables.
When the 6 cups of water come to a boil, add the sauce/meat/vegetable mixture to the pot of water.
Simmer for at least two hours until the meat is very tender. Taste the broth. It should be richly sweet, spicy and pungent. Correct the seasonings (soy, wine, chili bean sauce or sugar). If it tastes a little thin, you may want to reduce it a bit until it is rich tasting. Remove the ball of spices.
Chop the green onions and put in a bowl for garnish.
Chop the pickled mustard greens (BTW, these are not bitter, just lightly pickled) and stir-fry them briefly in the last teaspoon of oil. Put them in a bowl for garnish.
Bring another, smaller pot of water to boil. Cook the ramen noodles according to package instructions and remove them from the water. Add the bok choy leaves and simmer them just until they wilt.
Here’s how to “construct” the soup:
Fill the bottom half of the bowl with noodles. Ladle broth and vegetables over the noodles. Place cooked meat on top on one side. Place wilted bok choy on the other side. Garnish the top with chopped green onions and pickled mustard greens.
Serve and enjoy.
Thank you, Ms. Chow!
Fellow FoodBeest, now it’s your turn. What do you think?
Are you going to go out on the skinny branches and try this – or something else that you can’t get at home? Have you ever made anything totally unfamiliar to you? Or been lucky enough to have a teacher with a totally different context about how food is made or how it tastes?
Use the “Comments” section below.