Origins of Beef Noodle Soup

+ Zai Lai’s homestyle take on it

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When you dig into the origins of BNS (that’s “beef noodle soup” for the uninitiated), you’ll find that mixed opinions dominate the space. The term typically conjures up the molasses brown soup, chock full of beef shank and noodles, that is hailed as Taiwan’s national dish. Even within Taiwan, its city of origin is disputed: Did the first bowl appear in Kaohsiung or Tainan?

Regardless of the city, the aromatic bowl is commonly believed to be inspired by Sichuan cuisine, made by Sichuan natives who fled to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War. Early eateries that sold the dish usually had signs that called their cuisine Sichuanese, and often included common Sichuan street eats like steamed pork ribs with rice powder and pork knuckle noodles as additional menu items. In fact, many Taiwanese who had resided there for many generations prior to the war didn’t even eat beef, since cows were seen as critical farm workers in agricultural pre-war Taiwan, and not as a source of food. Chef Edward’s own grandfather did not eat beef.

Over the years, the dish has evolved into countless forms. From the original red braised and light broth styles to bowls rich with tomato or eaten with rice noodles, beef noodle soup is always changing, much like the rest of Taiwanese cuisine. Popular iterations nowadays include half tendon and half meat, and some places will even throw in tripe. Hard to believe it was once served with just soup or soup with noodles because some customers couldn’t afford the meat—Taiwan yellow cows are still a prized commodity. 

At Zai Lai, we serve a homestyle red-braised beef noodle soup with tender beef shank that is stewed for half a day with spices like star anise, cloves, cinnamon, fennel, sugar, dried chilis and Sichuan peppercorns. We also add carrots, scallions, garlic, ginger and sugar for a beefy, vegetal complex flavor. The texture of the soup must have enough body to coat your tongue, with soy sauce, douban sauce and rice wine to finish out the flavor.

No bowl of Taiwanese beef noodle soup would be complete without pickled mustard greens, so we make ours in house for the best flavors to brighten the bowl. We salt press and ferment them for the perfect crunch and tang, drawing out the meaty flavor of the soup. We then add wok fried vegetables and a healthy sprinkling of cilantro and scallions for extra aroma and freshness. Our noodles are cooked just past al dente for the right amount of chew, or what Taiwanese people have dubbed “Q”—the ultimate goal for every noodle. When you’re digging in, feel free to slurp...it’s cool In Taiwanese culture!