I’m not a cookbook reviewer, and this certainly won’t be a cookbook review. Instead, I’d like to discuss how one dish and one person can enhance one’s culinary life.
If you’ve been following along, you know that I’ve just returned from Tokyo. Aside from all the ramen, I was treated to lots of magnificent home-cooked and restaurant food. After travel, the thought of coming home and cooking for yourself can be a bit of a let-down, but with a food-loving friend immediately coming to visit, I knew what I wanted to make: Taiwanese beef noodle soup from The Newlywed Kitchen.
I should disclose that I know one of the authors, Lorna Yee, who developed (just about) all of the book’s recipes. And, yes, there are actually a couple of pictures of my partner Akiko and me in the book. (As fellow food writer Surly Gourmand pointed out, though, what was going on in the publisher’s mind in cutting off parts of our heads, leaving us with “disembodied cadaver’s grins”? So much for my modeling career.)
Funny thing is: I actually “met” Lorna and her now-husband Henry online years before meeting them in person, as I’d bantered with them both on Chowhound and eGullet (which is where they eventually met). This is a pair of savvy food lovers, both knowledgeable about good grub and fairly (double entendre intended) opinioned about what they like and don’t like. Luckily, their likes and don’t-likes usually resonate with mine, and I was thrilled to finally cross paths with them about a year ago – and to find that they live in my neighborhood. They’re generous people, and one night while I was out reviewing a couple of restaurants, they invited Akiko over for the aforementioned beef noodle soup. By the time I got there, Akiko was devouring her third big bowl. Barely taking time to stop slurping, eyes open with astonishment, she blurted out, “This soup is amazing.” Lorna, ever-encouraging, said, “It’s one of my favorites, and it will be in the cookbook when it comes out, but I’ll email you the recipe later. You should make it.”
Make it we have. Many times. We’ve tinkered with the recipe a bit, as cooks should (picture a recipe as a canvas to which you can add your own artistic flourishes), and we’ve actually taken a sample to a Taiwanese chef we know and whose food we appreciate: Henry of Henry’s Taiwan in Seattle. This Henry makes a modified version of Taiwanese noodle soup (his includes apple and tomato) which he describes as lighter, healthier, and refreshing. He slurped up some noodles, tasted the meat and the broth, opened his eyes, and exclaimed, “This is very Taiwanese.”
That’s a big compliment!
(Note: Beef noodle soup is a classic dish of Taiwan. Just as there are endless numbers of ramen shops in Japan, Taiwan boasts numerous beef noodle shops, and each year there’s a national competition to judge the best.)
We’ve not yet made any of the other recipes in The Newlywed Kitchen. We will, once we get past our obsession with this soup. (I’m looking at you, roasted tomato soup with rosemary croutons, pancetta-wrapped pork with gorgonzola sauce, and Henry’s famous chicken wings – made with sambal oelek.) The list of ingredients and investment of time might seem daunting at first, especially if you don’t stock Asian goods in your pantry, but those ingredients can be used in many other recipes, and most of the cooking time is passive. This is slow cooking, extracting all the flavors and depth out of the bones. This photo shows the ingredients we used for our latest version. Henry (of Henry’s Taiwan) recommended we buy marrow bones and “shin” meat separately, as he believes the cooked meat is more tender, but bone-in shank is perfectly fine. Among our tweaks, you might notice some dried tangerine peel, which in Chinese medicine is said to be good for the digestive system, and also a ball that’s luohanguo, which benefits the throat and lungs, adding longevity to one’s life. But we’ve learned that the luohanguo also adds a lot of sweetness (it’s used as a sugar substitute), so we’d recommend dropping the rock sugar out if you plan on dropping the ball (cracked open, wrapped in a cheesecloth or “teabag”) in the soup. Not pictured are some pickled greens that we like to serve on the side as a crunchy option, along with the chili oil for those, like us, who want their soup a little spicier.
This soup, called niu rou man in Chinese, is something special. Much like the liquid bacon known as tonkotsu ramen is pig-in-a-pot, this is beef-in-a-bowl. It’s a hearty soup featuring melt-in-your mouth meat, great noodles, baby bok choy, and wonderful notes of star anise, ginger, garlic, black bean, chili, and more.
For now, Akiko and I are enjoying moments (well, hours) of simmering stock, the smell of the soup transforming our home into a Chinese restaurant. It’s a favorite dish to prepare and share together, and it’s encouraging us to experiment more with Asian ingredients, slow cooking, and “tougher” recipes.
And when we tell Lorna this, she likes it. After all, that’s the point of The Newlywed Kitchen.