For Chinese New Year – the year of the dragon begins Monday – I have one more recipe from my mom’s kitchen: a long-braised beef shank cut thinly and piled in a bowl of steaming noodle soup. It’s a celebratory meal for the new year, as long noodles symbolize long life, but it’s also comfortably nourishing winter fare. When my mom makes beef noodle soup for lunch, everyone drops what they’re doing and comes running.
Chinese New Year is Christmas, Thanksgiving and birthday rolled into one giant holiday. Kids collect money in red envelopes (hong bao) from extended family. For days beforehand, cooks in the family prepare for the biggest meal of the year. And everyone – no matter when their actual birth day – turns a year older on Chinese New Year. Noodles celebrate the shared birthday of an entire country.
To know your age in China, people need only know your sign in the Chinese zodiac – a 12-year cycle of animals. Chinese people know the order of the zodiac cycle as automatically as those on the solar calendar know the months of the year. Knowing your sign, anyone can easily calculate your age by counting the number of years ahead or behind their own. And the long 12-year cycle helps people readily distinguish whether someone who is year of the dog is 5 or 17, 29 or 41, 53 or 65, 77 or 89.
Braised beef shank is easy food for those with a bit of patience. Beef shank goes in a pot with soy sauce, scallions, ginger and wine. Flip it once after two hours of simmering, and in two more hours it’s done. Refrigerate overnight, and the next day cut the beef crosswise into thin slices. Then you’re ready make beef noodle soup at a moment’s notice.
The only trick is finding a whole boneless beef shank. Lamb shank and veal shank (used for osso bucco) are easier to find in Western markets. Asian or Mexican markets commonly have beef shank, sold as a long whole or in a thick crosscut with a round cut of bone. Even more than brisket, beef shank is a sinewy cut with a lot of connective tissue. But when braised long and slow, the connective tissue dissolves into rich gelatin that melts into the hot broth and leaves the beef falling apart to the touch.
No wonder that beef noodle soup (niu rou mien) is so popular in China and practically an obsession in Taiwan. It’s a celebration of life and comfort food at its best.
Many recipes have a lot of ingredients – sugar, garlic, spices, hot bean paste, tomatoes – but my mom’s is simple. Beef, ginger, scallions. Sichuan peppercorns and an anise seed if you have it.
Add soy sauce, wine and water. Many recipes stew the meat in liquid to cover. But my mom likes to braise in a low, concentrated broth.
Simmer for two hours.
In another two hours, it’s tender and breaking apart to the touch.
It’s impossible to cut well when hot, but it cuts easily when cold.
The meat will keep well for a few days in the refrigerator or weeks in the freezer. The deeply flavorful gelatin is pure gold.
These are the fresh noodles my mom buys in the refrigerated section of the Asian market. One package comes with four or five skeins of noodles, each a very generous serving for a hungry adult.
My mom makes a quick soup base with chicken broth and water. The main flavoring will be the beef broth gelatin. You can add blanched vegetables to the broth, or blanch them quickly in the noodle-cooking water.
If the broth needs a bit more flavor, you can add salt, pepper and/or a bit of soy sauce. My mom makes a hot soy sauce by infusing chili peppers into it. She stores her hot soy sauce is a cute chili pepper jar.
It’s cold and snowy in Ohio – good weather for slow-braising meat and enjoying a nourishing bowl of hot noodle soup.
Here’s to long life, the year of the dragon and staying warm. And to my mom.
Chinese Braised Beef Noodle Soup
A steaming bowl of beef noodle soup is the ultimate in Chinese comfort food. This recipe looks long, but it’s simple – beef shank slow-braised in soy sauce and wine, ginger and green onions. Serve over hot noodles and broth. Sigh with satisfaction.
Braised beef shank ingredients
- 1 or 2 boneless beef shanks, about 1 1/2 or 2 pounds each (it’s just as easy to make two – uses the same amount of sauce and freezes well)
- 1/2 cup Kikkoman soy sauce
- 1/2 cup wine (traditionally rice wine, such as shao xing; but my mom uses sake and says any wine will do)
- 2 cups water
- Two whole green onions, ends trimmed
- 3 to 4 slices ginger
- 8-10 Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 anise seed (optional)
Braised beef shank directions
- Wash beef shanks and trim excess fat if necessary. Place in large pot with rest of ingredients.
- Bring to boil. Cover tightly, turn heat to low and simmer for approximately two hours. Flip both shanks (add additional water if liquid is low), cover again and continue to cook for another two hours.
- Let beef shanks cool. Refrigerate overnight in sauce (makes for easier cutting).
- Remove beef shanks from sauce (will be solid from gelatin in the beef) and cut crosswise into thin slices. Reserve beef and sauce for noodle soup.
Noodle soup ingredients
- Chinese noodles (preferably fresh refrigerated wheat noodles, but you can also used dried wheat or rice noodles)
- Chicken broth (my mom likes Swanson), one can for every two servings
- Salt and pepper
- Soy sauce
- Greens (eg spinach, napa cabbage, bok choy)
- Slivered scallions or chives
Noodle soup directions
- In a soup pot, combine one can of broth, two cans of water and two or three tablespoons of reserved sauce from the beef shank. Bring to a boil and adjust flavorings (salt, pepper, additional reserved sauce or a touch of soy sauce) as necessary. Set aside.
- Bring a large pot of water to boil. Add greens to blanch for a few seconds, remove and set aside. Cook noodles as directed (do not overcook) and drain.
- Divide noodles into large bowls. Add a few greens and a generous serving of beef shank slices. Ladle in soup broth. Top with green onion slivers and serve steaming hot.
Makes enough broth for two big servings.
- Boneless beef shanks are easily found in Asian markets. You can use crosscut shanks with bone in, but you won’t be able to slice the beef as easily. If you use bone-in shanks, boil the shanks in water for a few minutes and drain before starting the braise.
- Ideally cook the beef shanks a day or two ahead, as it’s easier to cut the beef in thin slices when it’s cold.
- Taiwanese beef noodle soup often includes tomatoes and/or bean paste. Other flavorings to consider: rock sugar (or brown sugar), cinnamon stick, five spice powder, dried orange peel.
- If using fresh noodles, don’t cook more than two servings at a time, or they’ll get sticky.
- You can freeze the beef shank after slicing and have it handy whenever you need a beef noodle fix.
Here’s a link back to the post and pictures.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.