TAIPEI, Taiwan — Think beef noodle soup is just some chunks of meat sprinkled over noodles in broth?
Think again. Every foodie in Taiwan has an opinion on what makes for great beef noodle soup — and where the best can be slurped up.
Now, Taipei City has entered the fray with what it calls its unofficial "Michelin Guide" to the city's beef noodle joints. They also solicited locals' opinion on a website, and sponsored an "Iron Chef"-style cooking contest to decide who's the best beef noodle chef of them all.
It's all part of the city' plan to promote Taipei as the world's "Beef Noodle Soup" capital.
"Taiwan is well-known for its food, so we wanted to present this special item to show the world Taiwan's famous beef noodles," explained Chen Hsiu-hua, from the city's commercial office. She estimated there are up to 80 beef noodle joints in Taipei alone.
Beef noodle soup is part of Taiwan's unique culinary heritage. Before the 1940s, Taiwanese didn't eat much beef. Plow-pulling water buffalo were farmers' best friends, and too important to eat. Other beef was too expensive.
Beef noodle soup at Niu Ga Ting in Taipei.
That changed when Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang fled here in the 1940s, after losing China's civil war to the communists. The KMT, which included much of China's upper class, brought with them master chefs from all over China. One of the dishes they brought was beef noodle soup, a northeast China specialty.
Male Taiwanese developed a taste for the dish while serving mandatory military service, explained Mr. Lin, a 60-something Taipei cabdriver and beef noodle soup fan. It became popular on military bases.
China-born chefs refined the dish in exile and created new varieties to appeal to customers. And as Taiwanese living standards rose rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s, beef became more affordable.
Chef Hong Tsai-chan, chairman of Taiwan's beef noodle association, has made beef noodle soup for more than 20 years. In an interview at one of his shops, he broke down the three essential parts of the dish.
"Choosing the meat is very important," he said. For his standard "hong shao" ("red-cooked," or cooked with soy sauce) beef noodle dish, he uses Australian beef for the big chunks, and Taiwan beef for the skinny strips.
He stews the big chunks for two hours, and roasts the thin strips in a few seconds.
"The noodles should be thick and very chewy," he continued. "Now comes the soup. We make soup with natural vegetables and fruits, cabbage, chives, carrots and white radish. Then we add some Chinese medicine — just a little bit, to stew, so that the smell will be good."
Beef noodle soup connoisseur Chang Jia-wei, 30, emphasized that the soup is the key ingredient.
"It has to smell good enough to stimulate you to want to eat," said Chang. "For many shops, the ingredients of their soup are a business secret."
Most chefs throw in star anise, a fruit often used as a spice in Chinese cooking, he said.
Chang explained the finer points of a good beef noodle soup at Niu Ga Ting, a recently opened restaurant. He discovered this shop the old-fashioned way. One day he rode by on his scooter, smelled the shop's fragrant broth, and simply had to stop for a bite.
He insists on thick noodles, which better soak up the broth. But he said that some Taiwanese, especially women, now prefer less oily "ximian" (vermicelli-like thin noodles).
Taipei's "Michelin Guide" to beef noodles was a serious undertaking. Twelve "pioneers," including Chang, canvassed the city for out-of-the way beef noodle joints. Then 32 judges fanned out in small groups across the city's shops. Netizens were also asked their opinion in an online poll.
The judges were tough — no restaurant passed muster for the elusive "five-star" rating. But several managed to nab four stars.
Then, on Nov. 22, Taipei's best beef noodle chefs gathered across from City Hall for a cook-off. Beside a stage with gyrating "spicy girls" and break-dancers, the chefs chopped, stewed and boiled away for the top prize in one of three categories — soy sauce broth, clear broth and "creative" beef noodle soup.
The winner of the soy sauce broth category, the most classic version of the dish, was a chef from Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second city.
At the awards ceremony, the head judge generously complemented all the chefs. "Actually, all of you have improved greatly since last year," he said. "The difference between the best beef noodle soups was only slight."
Can Taiwan's famous beef noodle soup catch on beyond its shores? Perhaps, but there's one small logistical hurdle: you've got to be handy with the chopsticks and ladle to easily eat it.
"That's why it's more likely to be popular with Japanese than with Americans or Europeans," said Chang, the connoisseur.
IF YOU GO:
Mentioned in this article:
Master Hong's Noodle Store. No 72, Jianguo North Road Section 2, Taipei. 02-2500-6850
Niu Ga Tang. No. 134-2, Kunming St., Taipei. 02-2331-0397
Top-rated restaurants in Taipei's 2009 Beef Noodle Soup Guidebook:
Seventy-two Beef Noodle Soup. No. 188, Jianguo South Road Section 1. 02-2752-5970
Immediate Knife-cut Beef Noodles. No. 116-3, Yanping North Road Section 3. 02-2598-0212
Old Sung's True, Good and Beautiful Beef Noodles. No. 17, Lane 137 Yanji Street. 02-2377-8866