A Tale of Two Noodles

Anyone that has traveled to Taiwan easily knows that while there is no official religion, the unofficial religion of the Taiwanese is Beef Noodle Soup (牛肉麵). It can be found on nearly every city block (with every single shop claiming some kind of “top” award. I guess every soup is delicious in its own way!) The city of Taipei even hosts an annual festival honoring the national dish. So what is beef noodle soup and why is it the national dish of Taiwan?

The Basics 

A classic bowl of Beef Noodle Soup will always consist of a flour based noodle, beef (usually brisket, tendon, or both), and broth. A typical bowl of Beef Noodle Soup would look something like this:

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Beef Noodle Soup in a popular shop in Taipei

Take note of the abundant slices of slow-cooked tender beef resting on top of a nest of slightly chewy hand-pulled noodles embraced by a deep and complex beef broth. The beef must always be tender and flavorful or else a Taiwanese will scoff at the poorly made soup. In addition to the beef, the noodles must have exactly the right amount of chew–not too hard, not too soft, what a Taiwanese would describe as “QQ.” “QQ” is the term used to describe foods that are pleasurably chewy (for example, the tapioca pearls in pearl milk tea.) These noodles need to be perfectly QQ in order to make the most delicious Beef Noodle Soup. Last, but not least, the broth must be deep and complex in flavor which is often gained through hours upon hours of boiling bones to pull out the most flavor. These are the nonnegotiable elements to a Beef Noodle soup, but apart from these three elements, different things can be added such as bok choy, pickled cabbage (酸菜), tomato, and certain flavored oils to enhance the flavor.

Braised Beef Broth vs. Clear Broth

Beef Noodle Soup in Taiwan is usually served in two types of broths: braised beef broth (紅燒湯) or clear broth (清燉湯). The more common of the two broths is the braised beef broth, a base from beef bones, doubanjiang (豆瓣醬/a spicy, salty paste made from fermented broad beans, soybeans, salt, rice, and various spices), five-spice (star anise, cloves, Chinese Cinnamon, Sichuan Pepper, and Fennel), and soy sauce. Sometimes tomatoes are added to the braised beef broth in order for the soup to have a sweet element to counter the salty and spicy flavors. This broth is often very bright, salty, and complex in flavor.

Both photos are soup from 72 Hours Beef Noodle Soup (七十二牛肉麵) in Taipei

Clear broth (清燉湯) has no soy sauce in the broth and, thus, showcases the deep flavor of the beef in the broth. The base for the broth is beef bones, salt, red chili, star anise, white pepper, and green onions. The result is a much more rich broth than its counterpart. The broth is reminiscent of Tonkatsu broth in Japanese ramen, but the main difference being that the clear broth is beef based. The broth is creamy, rich, and deep in beef flavor.

Above are two photos of the two types of broth. On the left is a braised beef broth which you can see has a cloudy brownish-red color. On the right is a clear broth. I know you may be thinking, “But that broth is white?” The restaurant that serves these two soups is called 72 Hours Beef Noodle Soup (七十二牛肉麵) and is famous for its clear broth because it boils the broth for a whopping 72 hours (yes, three whole days!) The result is a clear broth that is not exactly clear, but full of deep and creamy flavor. A traditional clear broth can range from this color to a nice, translucent broth.

 The Winner?

I think that the Taiwanese are onto something when they point at every single shop and say that it is very famous for its beef noodle soup. I think that every shop in Taiwan has their own unique spin on beef noodle soup that makes the dish exciting to taste and try every single time. While I am partial to a good clear broth like the one pictured above, any soup that has the three nonnegotiable elements down perfectly is a worthy bowl to my stomach.

If you want to try making a bowl of Braised Beef Noodle Soup at home, try Lady and Pups’ recipe for a good authentic bowl.

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