red-braised beef noodle soup

photo by Betty Liu

Red braising is traditional to Shanghai, and should not be confused with the more popular Taiwanese beef noodle soup called niu rou mian, made with a tomato-y beef bone broth and served with pickled cabbages. The home-style, Shanghai version is simpler and utilizes the traditional red-braise method. Chunks of beef shank are simmered until they become meltingly tender and fall apart in strips. Star anise and Sichuan peppercorns are essential, with star anise providing much of the signature red-braise flavor, and Sichuan peppercorns giving a kick that is necessary for beef (or so my father says). This recipe calls on a fermented bean paste called dou ban jiang, a seasoning central to many Sichuan dishes. Pi Xian (or Pixian) refers to the city where dou ban jiang is traditionally made, and you can find it in most Asian supermarkets. It lends an earthy, spicy, tangy flavor to the dish and is essential.

Sometimes, I tie the spices into a bag of cheesecloth for easy removal. Alternatively, I drain the soup and remove chunks of ginger, anise, or chile peppers before serving. Either way, the noodles are cooked separately and plated first, and any type of fresh noodle may be used. I personally prefer wheat noodles over egg noodles, and thinner rather than thicker.

1 1/2-2 pounds boneless beef shank
Vegetable oil, for frying
1/2 white onion, roughly chopped
3 thin slices ginger
2-3 Thai chile peppers, roughly chopped, optional
8 cloves garlic, smashed
3 tablespoons Pi Xian dou ban jiang (chili bean sauce)
1/3 cup light soy sauce
3 teaspoons dark soy sauce
4 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup rice wine
Kosher salt, to taste
10 cups water (or stock)
5 star anise
3 bay leaves
2 tablespoons Sichuan peppercorns
2 cups diced daikon radish, (about 1/2- to 1-inch cubes)  
Shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced
Baby bok choy
10 ounces fresh wheat or egg noodles

Cilantro, optional
Fried or soft boiled egg , optional
3 thinly sliced scallions, optional

  1. Soak beef in cold water for 1 hour (at room temperature), changing water 2-3 times.
  2. Rinse beef and cut into 2-inch pieces. 
  3. Place beef in a pot with enough cold water to cover by 1 inch and bring to a boil. Simmer for 3-5 minutes, until foam appears. Skim off foam, drain, and rinse again. Pat dry.
  4. In a wok, heat 3 tablespoons oil. Turn heat to medium-low. Add beef chunks (in batches if necessary), and brown all sides. Set aside.
  5. Add another tablespoon of oil to wok. Add onion, ginger,  Thai chiles, and garlic and stir-fry for a few seconds. Add chili bean sauce and stir-fry for 3-4 minutes, until fragrant.
  6. Return beef to wok and stir-fry until evenly coated. Add soy sauces, sugar, and rice wine. Add water or stock (transfer to a larger pot if necessary). Bring to a boil. Add star anise, bay leaves, and peppercorns. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, for 2 1/2-3 hours, until beef is tender.
  7. When 1 hour cooking time remains, add cubed daikon. Taste soup for flavor and add sugar or salt, as needed.
  8. When 15 minutes cooking time remains, cook mushrooms by sautéing in oil for 3-4 minutes. Set aside.
  9. Remove beef cubes and daikon and set aside. Strain soup. Remove and discard aromatics. Return soup, beef, and daikon to pot and bring back to a boil. Add bok choyand cook for 2 minutes. Remove bok choy from broth and set aside. Turn off heat. 
  10. Cook noodles in boiling water according to package directions. Rinse and divide among bowls. Ladle soup, with beef chunks and daikon, over noodles. Top with bok choy, mushrooms, cilantro, egg, and scallions (if using) and serve hot.

Serves 2.

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