Taiwanese beef noodle soup was created by Chinese Civil War refugees who missed the taste of home. The warm concoction of flour noodles, braised beef, and slow-simmered broth is now the comfort food of an entire nation.
The dishes of our childhood embed themselves into our memories, earning the status as “comfort food” that become our go-to cravings. When consumed, they transcend the usual experience of eating, transporting us back to particular moments in time. For immigrants, bicultural folk, and others far away from home, these dishes become the sole connection we have with our former lives.
My comfort food of choice is Taiwanese beef noodle soup, a warm concoction of flour noodles, braised beef, and slow-simmered broth. A single bite brings me back to happy childhood years spent in Taiwan surrounded by extended family. My parents and I didn’t eat out very often, and walking around the corner to my favorite beef noodle shop was always something I looked forward to.
Fast-forward to today, and my love of beef noodle soup has become somewhat of an obsession. In the States, I seek out this dish wherever I can and tinker with variations of the recipe in my own kitchen. And as I learn more about the dish that shaped my formative years — the product of a melting pot of culture and history — it seems natural to bring this love to my blog and share it with the world.
Table of Contents
- What is Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup?
- A Brief History of Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup
- Beef Noodle Broth Variations
- Key Ingredients
- The Best Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup Recipes
But First, What is Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup?
Taiwanese beef noodle soup, 台湾牛肉面 (tai wan niu rou mian), is an iconic Taiwanese dish featuring rich simmered beef broth, slow-braised stew beef and beef tendon, and hand-pulled noodles. Think of it as the comfort food of an entire nation. A variety of ingredients are used as toppings, the most common being pickled mustard greens, blanched bok choy, and a generous spoonful of chili sauce.
A Brief History of Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup
Taiwanese beef noodle soup first surfaced after 1949 when the Kuomintang party lost the Chinese Civil War and retreated to Taiwan. As one article puts it, “every Taiwanese person has that one bowl of beef noodle soup from a specific vendor that they can’t forget; it holds a special place in their hearts and memories.”
These days, Taiwanese beef noodle soup is to Taiwan as burgers are to America, but, surprisingly, beef consumption in Taiwan is still a relatively new thing.
Until the second half of the nineteenth century, eating beef was considered deeply taboo, a mindset tracing back to ancient China where laws prohibited the killing of cattle. In traditional Taiwanese society, bovines were essential for converting land into rice paddies and farmers formed special relationships with their “loyal coworkers.”
As the A Culinary History of Taipei notes, cattle feature prominently in traditional Chinese folklore:
Literature and folk songs from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries celebrate cattle that are admirably loyal to their masters, even saving their lives by warning of impending earthquakes or other disasters. Eating an animal after it has labored in your service would be to invite karmic retribution; in stories where an ox is butchered for food, the farmer often suffers nightmares in which the animal takes revenge on him.
There is even an old Taiwanese saying, “毋食牛犬，功名袂顯；食了牛犬，地獄難免,” that roughly translates to “don’t eat beef and dog and prosperity follows; eat beef and dog and hell is inevitable.”
The perception of cattle as food vs. friend started to change after Japan’s takeover of Taiwan in 1895. Japanese immigrants and their families brought their eating habits with them and began to normalize beef consumption in the country.
Interestingly, meat-eating was also frowned upon in traditional Japanese society until recently, a mindset influenced by the predominant Shinto and Buddhist religions. However, by the Meiji Period, the meat-loving Western diet was beginning to infiltrate Japan. In 1872, a sighting of the emperor eating meat caused a trickle-down effect in Japanese society, and beef has been a fixture in Japanese cuisine ever since.
In the second half of the Japanese colonial area, Taiwan began exporting canned beef. By the 1930s, levels of beef production suggest that the Taiwanese were beginning to gradually overcome their previous compunctions.
In 1949, an estimated 2 million Chinese Nationalist soldiers and their families relocated to Taiwan following their defeat by the communists in the Chinese Civil War. Taiwanese beef noodle soup was created by these refugees who missed the taste of home. Impoverished gastronomers among these veterans sold noodles as street food to support themselves, spreading the phenomenon to the nation.
Though it is widely acknowledged that beef noodle soup was created by Nationalist veterans, there are contradictory opinions on the dish’s Chinese province of origin. Some credit the dish to the wheat-growing, noodle- and dumpling-making Northern Chinese, others to the bold culinary traditions of the Sichuanese. Veterans hailing from different regions introduced their own takes on beef noodle soup, blending and evolving into the many variations that exist today. Even now, beef noodle soup’s origin story is a subject of much debate among the Taiwanese.
In the early days, different parts of [Taipei] were associated with particular flavors. Certain streets near the Taipei Main Station were dominated by families originally from Shandong, so beef noodles sold hereabouts tended to come in a semi-clear qing dun stew…Gastrophiles looking for Sichuan-style beef noodles headed to Yongkang Street or Taoyuan Street, between the Presidential Office and Ximending.Source: History of Beef as a Food for Taiwanese
These days, beef noodle soup is a cultural treasure, lauded as a source of national pride enjoying expansive global recognition.
Since Michelin awards arrived in Taiwan in 2018, eight beef noodle soup shops—from celebrated chain restaurants to humble night market stalls—were recognized on the Bib Gourmand list. Up until a few years ago, there was an international beef noodle soup festival held annually in Taipei featuring recipe competitions, best beef noodle shop awards, and more activities for beef noodle soup makers and enthusiasts.
Taiwanese beef noodle soup can be found at restaurants and small eateries absolutely everywhere in Taiwan. It’s not uncommon to find five or more options on one commercial block. And while you can obviously make beef noodle soup in your own kitchen, my experience is that Taiwanese families tend to grab a quick bowl at a restaurant or bring it home as takeout since it is affordable and widely available.
Variations of Taiwanese Beef Noodle Broth
Red-Braised Beef Noodle Soup, 红烧牛肉面 (hong shao niu rou main)
Red-braised beef noodle soup was likely inspired by 小碗红汤牛肉 (xiao wan hong tang niu rou), “small-bowl red broth beef,” a street food originating in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. Fermented bean paste, for example, one of the core ingredients in red-braised beef noodle soup, is a staple of Sichuan cuisine and speaks to the region’s influence on the dish.
The broth of red-braised beef noodle soup is a deep, rich brown color, slow-cooked with the staple fermented bean paste, soy sauce, and aromatic spices like star anise, clove, cassia bark, cinnamon, cumin, fennel, ginger, garlic, and scallion.
Red-braised beef noodle soup is the most “mainstream” type of beef noodle soup across Taiwan and what you usually find at night markets, restaurants, and small eateries.
Clear Broth Beef Noodle Soup, 清炖牛肉面 (qing dun niu rou mian)
Qiing dun niu rou mian is a variation of beef noodle soup pioneered by the Northern Chinese veterans from Shandong Province and beyond, including those with a Muslim-Chinese background. The qing dun broth is transparent, as you may guess by the name, and delicately enhanced with the flowery twang of Sichuan peppercorn and white pepper.
The beef used in clear broth beef noodle soup is supposed to be slaughtered on the day of cooking. I’m not sure how many restaurants actually adhere to this, but I’m sure the result is delicious at the ones that do.
The Building Blocks of Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup
As the name suggests, beef is the main ingredient of Taiwanese beef noodle soup. When ordering at a traditional Taiwanese beef noodle shop, you are often given the option to choose between an all-beef bowl or a beef and tendon combo. Sometimes, there are more exotic choices like tripe.
For the stock, a variety of beef bones (neck, leg, knuckle) are first blanched with ginger, scallions, and other aromatics to get rid of the gaminess, or 腥味 (xin wei), of the meat, then slow-cooked with spices to coax out natural flavors.
For the large chunks of meat served alongside noodles and broth, beef shank and tendon are popular choices. Since the meat stews over an extended period of time, expensive cuts are at best unnecessary and at worst suboptimal, losing all flavor and texture during the cooking process.
Beef noodle soup is served with wheat, not rice, noodles. Thick, thin, knife-cut, hand-pulled, or factory-made, all noodles are good noodles to me. Personally, I prefer a nice, thick noodle with a chewy texture, but everyone has different preferences!
Toppings are the delicious final touch to a piping hot bowl of beef noodles. Spinach and bok choy are blanched and added to the soup, along with a small handful of raw, chopped scallions. Gotta get your vegetables in, right? Less frequently, shops may add boiled daikon radish into the mix.
In Taiwan, pickled mustard greens are included as a condiment next to soy sauce and chili at most beef noodle shops. A few scoops add a tangy acidity that balances the savoriness of a red-braised beef broth.
The Best Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup Recipes
Lady and Pups is a Taiwanese-Canadian food blogger who does not take shortcuts with her recipes. This one is no different. Try making her Taiwanese beef noodle soup if you “got nothing but time” (an actual category on her blog) and have access to well-stocked Chinese markets—it will be well worth the effort.
I’ve recently discovered Munchies by Vice and have been thoroughly impressed by their recipes and reporting on Chinese food in general. Though I have not tried this recipe, the ingredients are highly authentic and the final product looks like something a skilled Taiwanese home cook might whip up in their own kitchen.
Whenever I try cooking a new Chinese dish, I like to use recipe videos made by Chinese chefs and home cooks. Many of these videos are in Chinese and mostly useless to non-Chinese speakers, but I did find a step-by-step Taiwanese beef noodle soup recipe with English subtitles! Unfortunately, the recipe is not precise—you’ll need to feel comfortable eyeballing some ingredients and have at least a basic grasp on traditional Chinese spices to make use of the video. If you don’t know anything about Chinese food, I recommend following the Vice recipe above.
For bicultural folk and those of us who move far away from home, comfort food transports us to a different time and place. As Ketu Katrak so beautifully puts it, we develop a need for the foods of our childhood as an essential connection with our past lives.
Taiwanese beef noodle soup is my connection to the seven years I spent living in Taiwan. But, even without its nostalgic value, it is a masterful dish that the world deserves to know more about. Help me spread the word!