Historians, culinary experts search for best bowl of noodles
2005-08-21 / Taiwan News, Contributing Writer / By Nancy T. Lu
Chinese noodles command a big following. Restaurants offer them in many forms: plain noodles and egg noodles; noodles made of wheat, of rice and of beans; thread noodles, thin noodles and broad, irregularly shaped, knife-cut noodles; noodles in soup, stir-fried noodles, roast noodles, cold noodles, and hot noodles.
Gourmets in Taipei gather at the launching of the Taipei Beef Noodles Festival at the Sheraton Taipei Hotel to exchange notes about eating the most typical and common Taiwan food./ Keye Chang, Taiwan News|
An ongoing food festival in Taipei, however, takes a look at the culture and history of "niu jou mien" or beef noodles in particular. Tasting of beef noodles across Taipei is encouraged during the festival period to run until September 24. The public is invited to participate in the comparison and evaluation of the culinary qualities of the beef noodles all over the city. Simply go to Web site www.tbnf.com.tw for details.
The Taipei Beef Noodles Festival being undertaken by the Taipei City Government with support from the private sector kicked off about a week ago with a roundtable discussion followed by actual noodles tasting by food experts and gourmets at the Sheraton Taipei Hotel.
Of "niu jou mien," historian and essayist on culinary culture Lu Yao-tung had this to say: "Beef soup and beef noodles as known in areas north and south of the Yangtze River in mainland China are defined in form and flavor. Lanchou has its pulled noodles. The Shanghainese people like to have a serving of beef soup in the morning. Even though the early settlers in Taiwan did not have the habit of eating beef, this did not prevent them from finding market vendors, who collected fresh stomachs and hearts of cattle as well as beef cuts of the day, boiling them for eventual consumption.
As for the so-called 'Sichuan-flavored' beef noodles, suffice it to say that this was an original Taiwanese concoction."
Lu figured that the snack recipe from Chengdu, calling for big chunks of beef, fermented bean sauce, a kind of wild pepper, Japanese star anise, onion and ginger, among others, was adopted with noodles thrown in to create "hung shao niu jou" (red-cooked beef noodles). The food delight first appeared in Kangshan before arriving in Taipei for the eating pleasure of local residents. Lu elaborated: "Kangshan is where the air force training school is located. In fact, this training center for airmen got relocated from Chengdu in mainland China after the Nationalist forces moved to Taiwan. Many of those who were among the first to come to Taiwan were from Sichuan province. Kangshan's famous, rather spicy fermented bean sauce called 'la tou pan chiang' could be described as an imitation of the sauce produced originally in Sichuan. If the introduction of Sichuan cooking took off successfully in Taiwan, Kangshan's production of the sauce contributed to it."
According to Lu, the authentic Sichuan-style beef noodles do not require this sauce. The misleading "Sichuan" recipe in truth originated from the airmen's village in Kangshan.
The popular "Sichuan-style" beef noodles - a misnomer actually - in Taipei could be traced at first to the neighborhood of the old Pao Kung (Treasure Palace) Cinema along Hsinyi Road. Several eateries opened for business in that area. One eventually moved to a location near the triangular park on Yungkang Street. Other stalls and joints serving noodles also popped up on Linsen South Road, Jenai Road and Hangchou Road.
Taipei, circa 1955, saw the sprucing up of a whole stretch of Chunghua Road from Peimen to Hsiao Nanmen. The different buildings, which became the famous Chung Hua Commercial Center, were where the newly settled mainlanders decided to set up their eatery business, serving cuisines from their places of origin. Beijing's sour plum soup, Sichuan's red oil wonton, Shanhsi knife-cut noodles, Wenchou's big wonton, and so forth attracted quite a clientele.
Along Hengyang and Taoyuan Streets, some 20 beef noodles places sprang up. Competition in pulling in the customers was very keen. In fact, Hong Kong tourists made it a point to go to this area in Taipei for beef noodles in those days. While there, they enjoyed sightseeing and taking souvenir pictures.
The Shantung style of "niu jou mien" was at one point as popular as the Kangshan kind, noted Lu. Big chunks of meat from an ox butchered that very day were scooped out of a boiling kettle and sliced in front of customers. Actually the diners could take their pick of the beef parts. Preferences could range from the fatty portion to the lean meat.
Stalls catering to the residents' fondness for Shantung cooking thrived along Huaining Street and Poai Road. These hawkers got driven away eventually during a government drive to ease traffic congestion in the neighborhood.
Regarding personal memories of beef noodles, Chiao Tung said at the festival launching: "The soldiers from mainland China, especially those who hailed from Sichuan province, actively promoted the consumption of beef noodles in post-1949 Taiwan. The people in Taiwan did not eat beef at all in the past."
This bowl of beef noodles costing NT$80 can easily be ordered in a Taipei eatery./courtesy By Nancy T. Lu News|
According to this poet, gourmet, recipe book author and food magazine editor, the big difference about the enjoyment of delicious beef noodles today is that it is inexpensive. The experience also does not have to take place in a fancy restaurant with ambience. The delicious taste of the beef noodles is what truly counts in the final analysis.
"I tend to associate a certain 'wildness' with a bowl of beef noodles," remarked Chiao, a participant in the beef noodles appreciation session at a five-star hotel. "The eating is done quickly. Music and restaurant atmosphere are unimportant. The slurping over the soup and noodles in a crowded space is what is essential to the most suitable eating environment."
Chen An-chi, a cooking teacher who happens to be the daughter of the celebrated Chinese cuisine authority Fu Pei-mei, revealed that she has always gone to Yungkang Street for her beef noodles. Her daughter, currently studying in the United States, even asked her to send by email a picture of delicious beef noodles for her to put on her desktop as a reminder of the much-missed home aroma and flavor.
Yu Peng, a painter by profession and a gourmet by avocation, remembered how his uncle, an expert butcher, used to bring home a bag filled with parts of a locally bred cow. He would make a savory soup in a big kettle for everyone to relish.
"The fantastic taste was unforgettable," said Yu. "No eatery or home could produce an equally delicious dish. Nowadays imported beef has replaced the native variety in the beef noodles served by stalls and eateries. The resulting taste differs by a long shot."
Landis Taipei Hotel chef Tseng Hsiu-pao shared reminiscences of how he grew up on a diet which did not include beef chunks because his mother did not eat beef. At best he could have beef soup only.
"After I received my first pay envelope at my first job years later," said Tseng, "I rushed out to buy myself a bowl of beef noodles with beef chunks included in the serving. What a wonderful flavor the beef noodles had! Pork could not produce something just as delicious."
Tsai Chin-chuan, the brain behind the myriads of culinary ideas at the Taipei Chinese Food Festival, seemed the best person to talk about marketing Taiwan-style "niu jou mien."
"As part of my preparation for the Taipei Chinese Food Festival this year, I made a trip to Lanchou," pointed out Tsai. "I had the occasion to eat the famous pulled noodles. On this trip, I was totally taken by the enthusiasm and fervor with which every seller of the noodles spoke knowledgeably about the food. If Taiwan's beef noodles are to make it internationally and gain worldwide acceptance, we all need to be familiar with the noodles' special characteristics and qualities. Coming up with a slogan is going to be very helpful in the marketing of beef noodles, too."