Travel in Taiwan Dining

Beef Noodle Soup
A Simple but Widely Loved Dish

By Conrad Oust Photos by Sung Chih-hsiung


One of the most celebrated varieties of this popular food is the Lai Lai Sheraton's Taiwan-style beef noodle soup.

The very term "beef noodle soup" could be misleading. Beef noodle soup as it is served in Taiwan has little in common with dishes bearing the same name in the West. And for many Chinese, one bowl plus a side dish or two it is a meal in itself. In its heyday, from the 1960s to the 1980s, beef noodle soup was enjoyed by both the upper and the lower strata of Taiwanese society. Served in large bowls filled with beef, vegetables, and noodles, it has become one of Taiwan's most popular varieties of food.

Beef noodle soup originated in northern China, where wheat has long been the staple crop. Thus eating beef and noodles has been customary since time immemorial. Beef noodles gradually found its way south and reached Taiwan on a significant scale in 1949, when two million Nationalist Chinese fled the mainland, taking refuge from the communists. To make a living in the new land, many of these refugees set up stalls selling foods from their homelands; beef noodle soup soon became one of the most popular. Prior to the arrival of mainlanders, most Taiwanese were opposed to eating beef. They saw oxen, which were essential to the agricultural economy, as important benefactors. Not eating beef was a means of expressing gratitude.

The Good Old Days
In the Taipei of the 1950s, most beef noodle soup stalls were concentrated in the old downtown area near the Nanyang Street arcades and in some spots in Hsimenting, but many have long since disappeared. The oldest surviving establishments in Taipei are those in or around the Food Circle on Nanking West Road, Lao Tung's on Kunming Street, and the fine noodle houses on Taoyuan Street.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, many new establishments gained reputations for delicious beef noodles. They were Yungkang Beef Noodles at the East Gate, Yipin on Kunming Street, Moslem Halal on Poai Road, Lao Chang Tantan Noodles on Jenai Road, and various shops on Chengchou Street to the north of the Taipei Railway Station.

Szuchuan-style--Spicy Hot


Many restaurants that serve excellent beef noodle soup make their own noodles.

Most beef noodle soup in Taiwan is of the Szuchuan variety. Its meat is braised in soy sauce, and served in a spicy dark red soup. Two excellent places to try this variety are Yungkang Beef Noodles and Lao Chang Beef Noodles, located side by side at 17 and 19 Chinshan South Road, Section 2, Lane 31.

"To make a bowl of good beef noodle soup, the soup and meat must be cooked separately," insists Charlie Chang, executive sous-chef at the Lai Lai Sheraton Hotel's food and beverage division. The broth, explains Chiang Chih-lun, chef at Hsiao Er Ta, "is made by boiling mainly beef bones." These principles apply to all styles of beef noodle soup. For the Szuchuan-style, marbled sirloin complete with tendon is cut in chunks and boiled with sliced beans, ginger, garlic, and chili peppers. Nowadays many people, especially younger generations, cannot eat much chili pepper, so various degrees of hotness have been adopted. Some chefs even substitute tomatoes for chili peppers for their similar reddish color. The addition of tomato adds a slight acidity and sweetness, which further stimulates the appetite.

Northern-style


Red peppers, sliced green onions, and pickled cabbage are served on the side to assure just the right blend of flavors.

The northern Chinese-style beef noodle soup is made with clear broth. Chinese northerners, especially Moslems, are skilled at raising cattle and really know beef. The beef they choose is much less likely to have too strong of a taste. It does, however, have a rich flavor. With northern-style noodle soup, the beef's natural flavor is fully pronounced, so the selection and preparation of the meat requires particular care.

Moslem Halal Beef Noodles on Poai Road now has a branch at 21 Yenping South Road and another at 41 Chunghsiao East Road, Section 4, Lane 223. The beef they use is all supplied by local orthodox Halal butchers, who recite the Koran to purify the soul of the animal and follow Moslem codes when slaughtering it. Only meat prepared in this way is allowed in a Moslem restaurant, and a notice reminding patrons to refrain from bringing in uncertified food from the outside is posted clearly on the wall. Like most other excellent noodle houses, the noodles at the Moslem Halal are hand-made.

How do you make a bowl of good northern-style noodle soup? "Choosing excellent meat is most important," says Mrs. Chiang. Imported frozen beef will not do, it loses its texture after it's been thawed. Chiang claims that the beef she uses is from local "free-range" cattle. She and her spouse formerly worked at the well-known Hsiao Er Ta restaurant in Taichung before its closure. Recently, they opened two restaurants by the same name in Taipei at 1 Chunghsiao East Road, Section 4, Lane 235, and 6-1 Hsinyang Street.

Local Varieties


A ubiquitous dish, beef noodle soup is typically eaten not in high-class resturants but in open-air street stalls. This price list shows a large bowl costing sligthly more than US$2.

Taiwanese-style beef noodles are combinations of various styles; chefs can have vastly different recipes. The most celebrated Taiwanese-style beef noodles in Taipei are perhaps served at the Lai Lai Sheraton Hotel's Four Seasons Cafe (12 Chunghsiao East Road, Section 1). A few enthusiastic local food critics have even exclaimed that the Lai Lai Sheraton has single-handedly turned beef noodle soup into a gourmet dish. The beef used is a mixture of rib and tendon; the meat is tender and juicy, while the tendon is pliant and pleasing to the palate. Seasoned with a trace of herbs, the soup is fresh and sweet.

Accompanied by finely chopped pickled mustard greens and red chilies, this beef noodle soup has the look of Szuchuan-style soup but is genuinely Taiwanese. Over the past 45 years, beef noodle soup has both adapted considerably and become extremely popular in Taiwan. According to travelers returning from visits to mainland China, beef noodles are hard to find and the Taiwan version bears little resemblance to its predecessor. Although the mainland is the place where the soup originated, perhaps Taiwan has become its true home.


Travel in Taiwan Dining
Copyright 1995 Vision International Publishing Co.