Before we flew to Taiwan, I had this dream that we would eat Taiwanese beef noodle soup everyday. I wanted to, really, but there were too many other tempting food. And it’s not realistic to assume that you can eat a bowl of beef noodle soup, walk a few steps to another establishment, eat some other dish, and keep repeating the procedure for several hours.
When you finish a bowl of beef noodle soup, unless you possess an unusual capacity to properly digest food meant for three or four people, you’ll find yourself full. A bowl of Taiwanese beef noodle soup is not a snack. The dish is served in large bowls and the amount of noodles and beef is the equivalent of a full meal especially if you opt to have side dishes.
But why eat the same dish over and over again to begin with? Surely that’s boring?
Endless variants of Taiwanese beef noodle soup
In Taiwan, there are as many versions of beef noodle soup as there are cooks. Inexpensive ones have the basic noodle-beef-greens combination. In pricier establishments, beef noodle soup can include a bone from the shank arranged in the bowl artfully to display the bone marrow inside. Some beef noodle soups are ultra spicy, others not so much, some use hand cut chewy rice noodles while others have commercial wheat or mung bean based noodles.
All these beef noodle soups are based on recipes jealously guarded by their creators. Because of the sheer number of sellers, competition is rather fierce and each cook has to come up with something that makes his beef noodle soup unique to entice customers and turn them into loyal patrons who will come back again and again, and talk about the beef noodle soup to their family, friends and colleagues.
Who invented Taiwanese beef noodle soup?
Understand that Taiwanese beef noodle soup is an adaptation of the spicy Sichuan beef noodle soup by mainlanders who fled China and settled in Taiwan following the defeat of the Kuomintang by the Communist party.
Story has it that it started with a military family in Kaohsiung’s Gangshan area. To recreate a beloved dish from their home town, this family used Gangshan’s spicy bean paste in lieu of traditional Sichuan spices and came up with a spicy noodle soup inspired by Sichuan cooking but has no Sichuan spices among the ingredients.
That story could be accurate or it may be a description of a collective experience. You have immigrants from China’s Sichuan region trying to adapt to life in Taiwan. They missed their comfort food terribly but they were at a loss as to how to recreate them without traditional Sichuan ingredients because they were not available in Taiwan. What did they do? Improvise, of course! Capture the Sichuan flavors by using spices and spice mixtures that were available in Taiwan. That was what made it essentially Taiwanese.
From there, endless variations were born. Beef curry noodle soup, beef noodle soup with tomatoes, “three treasures” beef noodle soup… And Taiwanese beef noodle soup continues to evolve as more and more variants are invented by creative cooks.
Click here for the recipe for my home version of Taiwanese beef noodle soup.