Taiwanese Food - Beef Noodle
Though it is debatable whether the Chinese, the Arabs, or the Italians are responsible for the creation of noodles, there is no question that this 4,000-year-old staple dish still plays an important role in the Taiwanese diet today. The following introduction to three restaurants in Taipei will provide an insider’s look at the many different types of noodles that the island has to offer.
Located on bustling Yongkang Street, Tu Hsiao Yueh offers a dish that dates back to 1895. Along with locals, foreigners from all over come to eat this restaurant’s widely acclaimed danzai noodles. Thin, round, moist noodles are served in a delicious soup that has been cooked with sweet shrimp head, mashed garlic, and black vinegar. Minced stewed pork, bean sprouts, cilantro, and a small shrimp finish the dish and serve as a beautiful garnish combo. Though served in small, delicate bowls, each bite is filled with a mix of rich flavors that blend together smoothly. The famous stewed-pork recipe creates a savory sauce for the noodles, while the shrimp-flavored soup washes down the entrée without too much saltiness. For only NT$50 a bowl, you get tremendous value.
Though the hip, dimly lit décor has a modern atmosphere, the restaurant keeps the history behind the food present and very much alive. With my first step inside, a brick countertop reminiscent of that from the original stand where the noodles were sold caught my attention. A restaurant worker was seated in the partition, serving noodles from a big kettle. Directly behind the server, a black and white photo showed Hong Yu-tou, the creator of these noodles, with his streetside stand balanced on a wooden shoulder-pole. After migrating to the southern Taiwan city of Tainan from mainland China, Hong made a living by catching fish. However, during the “slack season” (the meaning of Tu Hsiao Yueh), or the time between the Tomb-Sweeping Festival and the Mid-Autumn Festival, the sea was too turbulent for fishermen to venture out onto the waters. In order to sustain himself, Hong began selling noodles. These slack season danzai noodles became so popular that a Qing Dynasty provincial magistrate wrote a poem inspired by the noodles’ power to leave a strong desire for more. In addition to the Tu Hsiao Yueh chain’s two locations in Tainan, these history-laden noodles can now be enjoyed at the three branches in Taipei. I would also recommend that when visiting this restaurant you try the other Tainan specialties on the menu, including the kao shimuyu du (milk fish maws), huangjin xia juan (gold shrimp rolls), and the qingzheng xiaren rouyuan (steamed meatballs with shrimp), each with a distinct, ambrosial taste.
Like slack-season danzai noodles, la mian was also invented in mainland China. La means “to pull,” referring to the noodles being made by repeatedly stretching, twisting, and pulling the dough to arm-span length. Master noodle-makers can pull hundreds of these beautiful long, thin noodles at the same time! At Xiao Liu La Mian, customers have the privilege to watch the creation of these noodles through the kitchen’s glass window. At this restaurant, located within walking distance of Tu Hsiao Yueh, the la mian noodles are served in one of Taiwan’s staple dishes: niurou mian or beef noodle soup.
Though this combination of noodles and beef is ubiquitous on the island, Xiao Liu La Mian’s version of this common meal left a lasting impression. The savory soup, including the chunks of beef, is stewed for twenty-four hours. The pulled noodles are added to beef and broth, and served in a deep bowl. This version of niurou mian, which sells for NT$120 a bowl, surprised me with its bold taste, the flavor permeated with spices. After being stewed for 24 hours the meat is incredibly tender, and the noodles are delightfully fresh and chewy. I also tried the yangrou mian, which is made with the same noodles as the niurou mian but with mutton instead of beef (NT$160). The sweet taste of the mutton and the perfect amount of spiciness gives the dish a unique flavor. Like the beef of the niurou mian, the mutton is so tender that it practically melts in your mouth. I was truly impressed by Xiao Liu La Mian’s quality, taste, and ability to transform an everyday meal that people can prepare without much difficulty at home into something of such distinctive character. I also recommend this place for the chance to watch the ancient art of Chinese noodle-making.
Lao Zhang Beef Noodle Restaurant, located near the MRT Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall Station, offers its own variation of niurou mian. This restaurant has definitely made a name for itself, with people such as Hong Kong martial artist and movie star Jackie Chan stopping by for a bowl. Most foreigners who visit this place are particularly fond of the fanqie niurou mian (tomato-flavored beef noodle soup) and the lawei niurou mian (spicy-flavored beef noodle soup). I sampled the shao la (mildly spicy) version of the latter (NT$160). The spices in this dish are so fragrant that I felt I could taste the soup upon smelling it. However, my first sip revealed that the dish’s fragrance was only a teaser. As soon as my lips made contact with the spoon, an array of strong spices flew in volatile directions inside my mouth. Though the soup’s piquant taste was a real kicker, I was pleased that the mild level of spiciness did not leave me feeling that my tongue had been set on fire. In fact, the sharp flavor complemented the pieces of prime tendon nicely; these cuts, not unexpectedly, were a bit tougher than those at Xiao Liu La Mian, though still loaded with good taste. And the thin, moist noodles added still another texture to the dish, creating a veritable taste-and-texture symphony.
Though this dish was an exciting and tasty experience, I was especially impressed by the restaurant’s zha jiang mian (NT$100). This northern China dish is traditionally made of thick wheat noodles topped with a mixture of ground pork and salty fermented soybean paste. However, I have seen most restaurants in Taiwan prepare this dish with thin, round noodles instead. In fact, Lao Zhang uses the same noodles found in its famous niurou mian dishes. Before my trip to this eatery, most of the zha jiang mian offerings I had experienced were remarkably salty and oily. With my first bite, however, I discovered that the Lao Zhang edition is not oily at all. Here, the zha jiang mian topping is made with Chinese red pepper, thick broad-bean sauce, and sweet soybean paste, resulting in a less greasy, sweeter-tasting meat topping. The dish’s succulent flavor secured it the position of being the best zha jiang mian I have ever tasted. I would highly recommend this special noodle combination, and would be surprised if vegetarians were not satisfied with the restaurant’s meatless version of this dish, too.
Though most of the noodle dishes mentioned to this point were brought over from the China mainland, one can easily find a uniquely native variation on the streets of Taiwan. Oh-ah-mi-sua (Taiwanese name), which means “oyster vermicelli,” can be purchased for NT$40 to NT$60 from roadside vendors and night-market stalls. Though the Mandarin name for this dish is kezai mianxian, the locals most often use the Taiwanese name when referring to this specialty. Oh-ah-mi-sua is a thickened soup that consists of small oysters and vermicelli. Unlike rice vermicelli, the mianxian in this special dish is made from wheat and resembles extra-fine spaghetti. The soup contains a prominent oyster flavor, and the gooey texture is worth trying at least once in order to experience a small piece of Taiwan’s exotic street-food tradition.
Whether you prefer your noodles salty, spicy, vegetarian, or glutinous, Taiwan offers a dish to satisfy every taste bud. My visits to just three Taiwanese restaurants opened my eyes to a food culture full of fragrances, spices, history, and exacting craftsmanship. With ancient family recipes, century-old methods, and a fine talent for food preparation, one is sure to discover the perfect bowl of noodles in Taiwan.
Xiao Liu La Mian (å°å
Lao Zhang Beef Noodle Restaurant (èå¼µçèéºµé»)
CHINESE & ENGLISH
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