That being said, I was a little nervous about attempting this recipe at home. Not only are most of the ingredients a bit exotic compared to my usual Southern fare, but trying to duplicate a memory often ends in complete failure. Expectations are usually set far too high. I was convinced the recipe was going to be both labor and time intensive; I allotted my whole day to slaving in the kitchen. To my pleasant surprise, the hardest part of this was shopping at the Asian grocery (the ability to read Mandarin Chinese would have helped immensely.). Other than that, this recipe really does all of the work itself. Throw the ingredients in the pot, bring to a boil, pour a glass of wine, reduce heat, and simmer. Those Taiwanese are really on to something!
I made this recipe the day before I was planning to eat it and I'm so glad I did. It was a little spicy when I first sampled it and each flavor was a little too distinct for my taste. I decided to wait it out and adjust the flavors before serving. And good thing I did! It was absolutely perfect! Seriously, the recipe was fabulous. It took me right back to that little noodle shop, slurping broth and dripping juices all over my chin. At least from my house I could use a spoon... chopsticks just aren't my forte.
For the soup
3-4 pounds beef shanks with bone still in (or beef short ribs)
5 garlic cloves, smashed
1 inch knob fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
1 bunch scallions, cut in 2 inch slices
1 plum tomato, quartered
1 teaspoon Chinese five spice powder
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
4 - 5 whole star anise pods
2 Thai chilis, split lengthwise (optional)
2 tablespoons chili bean sauce
1/2 cup Chinese (Shaoxing) rice wine
1 cup good-quality soy sauce
1 (14.5 ounce) can chicken stock
10 cups water, or enough to cover beef
1 pound baby bok choy or broccoli rabe
1 pound Chinese egg noodles or wheat noodles
Chopped fresh cilantro, if desired
For the soup, in a large stockpot, cover the beef shanks with water and bring to a boil. Immediately drain the water and set the beef aside.(This step helps remove impurities to make a more pure soup.) Clean out the stockpot (or have another ready).
Add the par-boiled beef, garlic cloves, ginger, scallions, tomato, five spice powder, brown sugar, star anise, chilis, chili bean sauce, rice wine, soy sauce, chicken stock, and water to the pot.
Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for approximately 2 hours, or until the beef is fork tender. Turn off the heat and shift the lid to allow steam to escape. Let meat stand in the cooking liquid for another hour.
Remove the beef to a cutting board. Pour the stock through a cheesecloth-lined sieve into another pot. Discard the vegetable solids. Slice the beef and return to the stock. (At this point, it's best to refrigerate soup overnight, or up to three days. The flavors will improve while resting and the fat will be easier to remove.) Skim the fat from the surface, and return the soup to a boil.
To serve, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the bok choy and blanch until bright green and tender, about 2 minutes. Remove the bok choy with a spider and set aside. Bring the water back to a boil. Add the noodles and cook according to package directions. Strain.
Divide noodles and bok choy among bowls. Ladle the beef and hot broth into the bowls. Garnish with chopped cilantro and serve warm.
(Images: Nealey Dozier)