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Beef Noodle Soup

Kasma Loha-unchit, December 17th, 2009

Fragrant Beef Noodle Soup Warms the Tummy and Home on Cold Days

Now that cold weather has descended upon us, devouring a steaming bowl of fragrant, stewed beef noodle soup is especially satisfying. Not that I stay away from such delicious comfort food other times of year, it is a favorite one-dish meal and snack even in the tropical heat of Asia.

Beef noodle soup

Beef noodle soup

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Each Southeast Asian culture has its favorite noodle dishes. The Vietnamese are fond of their pho, the Thai of their gkuay dtiow reua (“boat noodles”), and the Malaysians their laksa. These noodle dishes share similar roots – they are Chinese in origin, introduced by immigrants from different parts of China who settled in the region several generations ago. Their descendants continue to run the noodle shops that abound in many Southeast Asian cities, or hawk countless bowls from push-cart stalls and paddle boats, adding color and aroma to the sidewalks and canals of the Orient.

Removing the beef from the pot

Removing the beef from the pot

The common origin explains why many noodle dishes of different Southeast Asian cultures are suspiciously similar in look and taste. This certainly is true of beef noodle soup. The Vietnamese pho is not much different from the Thai gkuay dtiow reua, or the Cantonese beef noodles you get in Chinatown noodle shops.

There are essentially two kinds of beef noodle soup – one with clearer broth and a cleaner taste and the other with a darker, richer and heartier broth. The latter is what I prefer for the colder seasons of the year because of its warming qualities.

Beef tendon

Beef tendon

I like to stew the beef for my noodle soup with a multitude of herbs and spices, adding a fragrant aroma that is not only inviting to the appetite but turns the concoction into something of a preventative medicinal broth. And because a good, hearty broth is produced by simmering the beef over very low heat for a number of hours, the making of it warms and perfumes the home just as much as the finished soup is warming to the tummy and the soul.

Asians like a variety of textures in their food and prefer to stew beef that is laced with tendons. Well-tenderized tendons give a contrasting gelatinous texture to the chewier meat. Many westerners are leery about eating tendon; they often mistake it for fat and think it is bad for their health. Yet, they do not realize that this same tendon is the basic stuff that jello is made out of, and it certainly is not fatty.

Preparing the beef

Preparing the beef

For my stewed beef soup, I like to use a whole shank because it is attached by large tendons to the muscles and bone. It is readily available from Asian markets with a meat counter. I simmer it whole until the entire shank is tender. This takes about three to four hours. The slower the cooking, the sweeter and more flavorful the broth.

For further contrast of texture and flavor, tripe may be added to the stewing pot. Fresh steak slices, lightly cooked to medium rare, and beef meat balls also frequently accompany the stewed beef on the noodles. The latter is available in the refrigerated compartments of Asian markets. They have a similar elastic texture to fish balls, but are a darker grayish color.

Beef noodle soup, bowl #2

Beef noodle soup, bowl #2

The favorite noodles served in beef soup is fresh rice noodles – the same kind used for Chinese “chow fun”. Available in most Asian markets, they come in dense two-pound packages. Be sure to separate the noodles into individual strands before using, or else you will have one big lump in your soup.

The soup is served with bean sprouts and lettuce either already wilted in the broth, or separately on a side dish for dunking into the soup as each person wishes. The Vietnamese like to add sprigs of mint and basil to the side dish for bites of refreshing herbal flavors.

Finally, each partaker at a noodle meal can spice the soup any way he or she wishes with chile sauces, fish sauce and other condiments laid out on the table. Bottled sauces, such as Chinese chile sauce with garlic or Sriracha hot sauce, are available from most Asian stores. I prefer to make my own with fresh chiles as in the recipe that follows.

Check out Kasma’s recipe for:


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, December 2009.

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