Yet Another Childhood Myth
When I was a kid living in China, once a week my mom would take me to attend an extracurricular art class in a local “youth club” like the YMCA. On the way we would always pass by a restaurant with a large sign, written in some script font Chinese which I couldn’t read. My mom would tell me: “look, that’s the American California beef noodles!” At the time, the concept of beef and noodles in the same dish was totally foreign. Our local cuisine included no beef whatsoever. The only way my family ate beef was by braising some tough cuts with soy sauce and star anise seed, and then sliced and served cold. So I took my mom’s words and always believed that there was actually a beef noodle dish native to California.
After I graduated from college in North Carolina, I moved to Dallas and began my life as a foodie. One day I decided to research about this “American California Beef Noodle”, because I don’t recall ever hearing about it for the past fifteen years! And it turned out that it was actually a thing, the name of a restaurant by a Taiwanese entrepreneur who had been selling beef noodles in California, and then decided to venture into mainland China. For marketing purpose, he named the restaurant with “California” to give it an “expensive” vibe. Actually, this beef noodle dish originated from Taiwan.
Food is history, made everyday
The story goes that, after losing the bloody Chinese civil war between 1945 and 1949, the National Party troops followed Chiang Kai-Chek to Taiwan. Among his army, a lot of soldiers were from Sichuan province, and they brought their traditional cuisines and appetite along with them. One recipe that got carried across the strait was braised beef stew with chili sauce, which eventually evolved into the beef noodle soup. Traditionally, the Taiwan natives didn’t consume beef because the cattle was a valuable and respected draft animal, so exactly how they found so much beef to cook with remained a mystery. One source states that it was the canned beef stew, supplied by the United States to the National Party, that got people used to the idea of eating beef. I’m not sure whether that’s true, because canned food was very rare among common Chinese soldiers at the time, and most just rationed on mixed grains and preserved vegetables. The American aid also ended by 1948 so I really don’t think there was a huge surplus of canned food left.
However, I do believe that at least the richer immigrants, such as the government officials or military officers, were able to afford some beef stew. I can imagine them adding a lot of Chinese spices to mask the gaminess of the local beef. After all, the meat was most likely from old, tough draft animals instead of our tender, marbled black Angus today. It wasn’t until the seventies when Taiwan began importing beef from US and Australia, that it became more available to the common citizens, allowing the beef noodle soup to start gaining popularity.
Wheat noodle was also foreign to Taiwan, since the local staple crop had always been rice. Based on the fact that the noodles in this dish are supposed to be relatively thick and chewy, I don’t think they originated from the Cantonese or Shanghai/Yangzhou regions of China, but rather from north and northwest China where wheat was the main staple. Good quality noodles for this dish must remain al dente even after being soaked in the soup for up to an hour, so they have to be thick enough and freshly made.
One last important ingredient was the chili and fava bean paste. In Sichuan, it’s called “Pi (pronounced as ‘pea’) Xian Dou Ban”, meaning “the bean paste from the town of Pi Xian.” It’s made from fermenting fava beans mixed with a type of thin and elongated hot chili peppers from Sichuan. The processing and fermentation processes are highly complex and secretive. Luckily, our beloved Andrew Zimmern covered this magical seasoning in one of his Bizarre Food episodes, and you can see the incredible production plant in action:
The chili peppers used for Pi Xian Dou Ban are called “Er Jing Tiao”, a name I couldn’t figure out how to translate. They are mildly spicy, and once dried will release a load of red pigment into oil or water, granting many Sichuan dishes their signature red color. The Good Fortune Supermarket in Richardson carries these peppers in fresh, green form pretty much all year round. My favorite way of cooking them? Thinly sliced into long strips and stir-fried with shredded pork. The original Sichuanese immigrants in Taiwan missed the Dou Ban sauce so much that they imitated it and created what eventually became the famous Gang Shan Dou Ban (a sweet version of the Sichuan Dou Ban).
How to cook Beef Noodle Soup
The cooking process for the beef noodle soup is like making a Hungarian goulash. First, blanch whole beef shanks, a very succulent cut of beef that’s best for braising, in boiling water to get rid of the excess myoglobin. Blanching meats before braising is a stand practice in Chinese cooking, with the goal of reducing gaminess and producing cleaner broth. The shank muscles from the legs contain an abundance of blood vessels. If not properly blanched, they will taste very bloody in the end (trust me, I learned it the hard way).
Then, the fully cooked beef is sliced into large chunks. You might ask, why slicing it after blanching and not before? See, beef tends to shrink and deform a great deal within the first few minutes of boiling, so if the meat was cut before boiling, those nicely squared chunks will shrink into little balls and even break apart, which doesn’t look good in the final product.
The next step is to saute the Dou Ban sauce in hot oil until it releases all that beautiful red color and fragrance. Spices (mainly star anise seeds and Sichuan pepper corns) are added to the oil to fry as well, which adds more complexity to their piquancy. Finally, add the chunks of beef, dark soy sauce and plain water, bring to a simmer and just let time do its magic.
The noodle soup doesn’t need any fancy toppings besides the beef, a few bok choy leaves and some sliced scallions. Sometimes tomato paste is mixed in for a more sweet-and-sour variation. In my opinion, though, what makes a great bowl of beef noodle soup is the noodle. There are many noodle-making techniques in northwest China, ranging from hand pulling to slicing directly from a dough. For this dish, the dough is first rolled out into a large sheet, usually using a skinny rolling pin several feet long. Then the dough sheet is folded and sliced to desired width.
Cooking the noodle is yet another nuanced practice. Unlike cooking spaghetti where the dry noodles just sit in the boiling pot for 12 minutes, fresh hand-cut noodles are thicker and must be “poached”. The raw noodles are first added to boiling water, which stops boiling due to the noodle’s cooler temperature. Then, as soon as the water is brought to a boil, add cold water to again stop the boiling. This process is repeated for at least three times to ensure the interior is cooled through. Interestingly, boiling dumplings in northern China has the same exact procedure.
Where to find Beef Noodle Soup in DFW
Well, I bet you are craving for some beef noodles by now! But worry not, you don’t have to make it yourself. In the past few years, several new Taiwanese restaurants have opened in Plano and they almost all serve some delicious beef noodles – each with its own style and twists.
First up is Wu Wei Din, a dine-in restaurant on 15th St and Independence Pkwy. They specialize in the beef noodle soup and various types of dumplings, including the Xiao Long Bao. Wu Wei Din provides a lot of customization options for the beef noodle, including thin vs. thick for the noodle itself, and four soup flavors: original, spicy, tomato and garlic. On top of that, you can also opt for a “dry noodle” style with the soup on the side.
If you are a heat seeker, Bull Daddy Noodle Bistro on Coit and Parker offers four levels of spiciness for their beef noodle soup, and if level four is not enough for you, you can challenge yourself with their Hell Noodles featuring the ghost pepper. There are also quite a few meat topping options, including shank, tripe, and tendon. For those who are savvy with Taiwanese street food, Bull Daddy also has a menu with 22 items dedicated just for that.
For residents of Dallas and Richardson, if Plano is a bit too far, King’s Noodle in downtown Richardson is a good alternative. Although there are only two options (beef noodle soup and dry noodle), they offer an impressive list of non-beef noodles that you’ll keep coming back for. It was also the very first beef noodle soup I have ever tried (my own concoctions don’t count). Also, from what I remember, it was cash-only and self-served. It’s been ten years since I first tried it and they are still well in business, so that says something about their food!