Silky noodles, slow-cooked brisket, and beef shanks with marbled fat submerged in a tangy, rich bone marrow broth—this is beef noodle soup, Taiwan’s pride and joy.
With roots in China’s culinarily diverse province of Sichuan, this swoon-worthy dish is the most soulful of comfort soups. No two bowls are exactly alike, and shops in Taiwan have long deployed different flavors—some as sweet as strawberry tomatoes, some as sour as, well, sour cabbage—to show the vast diversity and complexity of this quintessentially Taiwanese dish.
Beef noodle soup in itself is a blank canvas. As the name implies, there are only three basic parts: beef, noodles, and soup. The real challenge is trying to strike the perfect balance of sweet, spicy, and salty through accoutrements like herbs and spices.
“Many people think that beef noodle soup is something you can casually make,” says Bai Jiaxin, the owner of Manor Beef Noodle Restaurant in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. “But actually, it’s incredibly nuanced.”
At his restaurant, Bai likes to plop a few apple slices in the simmering broth of his own homemade beef noodle soup for a “sweeter” sip.
Most restaurateurs keep their recipes closely guarded like family heirlooms, and many families steep their various versions of beef noodle soup in secret ingredients that Mom will likely take to her grave. Even Lay’s, the potato chip maker, is mum about its recipe for the Taiwan-only red braised beef noodle soup flavor.
Making the perfect soup requires the right timing. The savory stock is usually kept on a low boil for hours, sometimes overnight, until the beef is so tender that it falls apart at first touch.
After that, what makes a soup really stand out is its flavor profile, and the list of spices can stretch for miles. Pickled mustard greens, fennel seeds, Chinese cinnamon, and Sichuan peppercorn are all fair game.
Here are a few beef noodle shops in Taiwan that let us peek into their kitchen and explore how they make their soup unique.
Halal Beef Noodle Restaurant (Taipei)
A flock of white-collar workers, families with bouncing toddlers, and hijab-wearing tourists stream into this 60-year-old halal eatery that’s no secret to Taipei’s tight-knit Muslim Malay and Indonesian communities, who willingly endure the daily lunch rush to get a taste of the Lanzhou-style beef noodle soup.
In the kitchen, owner Zhong Zhiwei ladles a deep-red, chili-spiked broth into clear, white bowls. Tender slices of beef that have been stewing in the broth for eight hours are thrown in and topped with a generous sprinkling of green scallions.
The dish, with roots in the Muslim community of the Chinese city of Lanzhou, adheres strictly to halal standards, meaning there’s no trace of pork and the cow is slaughtered according to religious dictates.
The noodles are hand-pulled, giving them the springy elasticity that has made Lanzhou noodles famous. It’s a rare, time-honored practice; many beef noodle shops in Taiwan opt to forgo the extra labor and source their noodles from elsewhere instead.
“Everything is fresh, not frozen,” says Zhong, as he threads his way through the hubbub and admires the spectacle. This lunch-hour feeding frenzy is his chef-d’œuvre. Small wonder, then, that this old-school establishment was awarded the Bib Gourmand in Taipei’s first Michelin Guide in 2018.
Inside a glitzy mall in Taipei’s buzzing financial district, a hungry crowd of black-suited bankers scarfs down overflowing bowls of redolent beef noodle soup filled with numbing Sichuan spices.
This bold beef noodle soup with the fiery, in-your-face flavor known as mala—literally numbing spice—is the brainchild of Mazendo’s Marcus Lo, who long pined for the flavors of Taiwan when he was living abroad. He then promptly spent a month in Sichuan province researching the intricacies of its famous mala peppercorn, which is “now trending in Taiwan,” he says.
(Watch: Inside a spicy hot pot factory)
The result: beef noodle soup that’s “more numbing than spicy” and charged with 20-plus aromatic herbs and ingredients like star anise, red peppercorns, grated garlic, crispy bean sprouts, tofu skin, green scallions, and spicy duck blood, just to rattle off a few.
The meat, by the way, is a trio of Australian, Taiwanese, and American beef and pork cuts, all gingerly sliced into small slivers that are plunged into an ultra-rich beef bone broth.
That’s not to mention the handmade, tongue-scorching chili oil, which is optional for anyone who dares to play with fire.
A shot of tea
Cha for Tea (Several locations)
Cha for Tea is the restaurant chain of Ten Ren Tea, one of the world’s largest tea retailers. At their locations in Taiwan, everything on the menu is infused with tea.
The pu’er tea beef noodle soup is no exception.
Here, the beef noodle soup actually comes with a shot of black pu’er tea that is meant to be splashed directly into the bowl, which is already filled to the brim with imported Australian beef, soft white carrots, a few stalks of bok choy, and the crème de la crème: bright green noodles.
How exactly the chefs dish up such a vibrant grass-green color is something of a hidden secret, though copious amounts of spinach and green tea are likely involved.
In any case, the specialty here is the traditional brews, which pack a punch when added to the soup, says Ten Ren spokesperson Irene Xie.
Sweet and sour
Location: 南南一村 (Taipei and Taoyuan)
Sweet, sour, and fruity—those are the flavors that Lin Qihuang is striving for at his beef noodle shop in Taiwan. The trick? A healthy dose of tomatoes soaked in sour plum juice.
“Typically, most beef noodle soups have a salty, heavy, spicy flavor,” Lin says. “It masks the taste of the ingredients itself.”
Which is why Lin throws in a hefty amount of beef tomatoes soaked in sour perilla plum juice. It’s accompanied by carrots, radish, American sirloin, and Okayama spicy bean paste. The combination makes for a sweet and sour soup that soothes the throat.
His shop’s knife-cut noodles are also kneaded by hand and then slivered off a block of dough by a flat piece of metal right before it comes to your table. The final product is a tangy bowl of springy, serrated noodles that offers more resistance to the bite than most clean-edged, machine-cut noodles.
During strawberry season, which runs from December to April in Taiwan, Lin also makes a beef noodle soup with strawberry tomatoes.