Friday, February 24, 2012

Sheepish in Suzhou -- the Legend Behind a Lamb Noodle Soup

I'm a big fan of Chinese lamb noodle soup. ("Lamb," I should point out here, is the usual translation for yangrou, which can also, and in fact usually does in this context, mean mutton.) I generally associate the origins of lamb noodle soup with the cities of China's great midwest -- Lanzhou, Zhengzhou and Xi'an, for instance, not with Shanghai and the Jiangnan region. However, in the course of researching noodle houses in Shanghai I discovered that there are well over a hundred such establishments that self-identify as "Suzhou Lamb Noodle" houses. Moreover, nearly half of these more specifically identify themselves as Suzhou Cangshu lamb noodle establishments. What was this lamb that Suzhou is apparently so proud of? This sent me to Googling and Baidu-ing to educate myself on the matter and I managed to dig up this account.

Cangshu, it turns out, is a town on the outskirts of Suzhou:
"Cang means hiding and shu means books. Apart from its beautiful scenery and gardens, Suzhou is famous for producing scholars. Many famous ancient scholars, writers, poets and painters were born in the area. After the Emperor Qin Shihuang unified China in 221 BC, he became notorious for burning the books of intellectuals and burying Confucians alive. Local tales in Cangshu tell of book burning. Long ago students and scholars there had to bury their books to protect them, and to save their own lives. They dug them up 15 years later when the brief dynasty ended and named the town after their sad experience. Ancients believed that all the plants and trees in the town absorbed the wisdom and the aroma of buried books, through their roots. Local sheep grazing on the wise grasses ingested the wisdom – and that’s why mutton in the town doesn’t have that strong odor."
It's a pretty story, to be sure, that an infusion with the wisdom of the ancients can make gamey meat fragrant, but the author of the cited explanation simply couldn't let well enough alone.  Castration, he opines, is the real reason the mutton's flesh isn't gamey.

The picture at the top of this post was captured from this recent video on (China's YouTube). It's of a Shanghai TV reporter tracking down the very story of Suzhou's Cangshu lamb, and includes some mouthwatering footage of her slurping down some noodle soup. It's in Chinese, but it's easy to follow the reporter's journey from noodle shop to stockyard to restaurant kitchen. It also includes an immersion in musical Suzhou-inflected Shanghai dialect.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Sampling Chef Hou's Prize-winning Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup

Given my passion for Lanzhou niurou lamian, it figures that the famous Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup genre is one I'd like to explore further than I have.  The problem is that I've never been to Taiwan and can't seem to find any reputedly worthy examples of the style in the Bay Area, and therefore have had no real benchmark for it. 

Last night the Asia Society - Northern California presented Chef Hou Chun-sheng, winning chef at the 2011 Taipei International Beef Noodle Soup Festival  at a tasting event at l'Olivier Restaurant in San Francisco. After a pitch for tourism by a representative from the Taiwan Trade Office and a warm-up by well-known Bay Area food personality Narsai David (discussing his eating tour of Taiwan), Chef Hou was introduced and presented his and his creation's backgrounds. Hou is a Western-trained chef at Room 18 in Taipei, with a passion for niu rou mian (he plans to open a noodle shop on retirement).  He entered the competition on a lark with 188 other entrants, and took the top prize in the most popular of Festival's four categories - Spicy Braised Beef Noodle Soup. Chef's Hou's recipe is somewhat influenced by his Western training, such as his use of tomato paste, and he considers his trump card to be the use of fermented bean curd for the spiciness.  He also caused a bit of a stir by allowing as to how he preferred imported American beef because of its lack of grass-fed flavor.

The magic moment came and we were served our bowls of soup.  As is obvious from the picture, it had a luxuriant amount of good quality beef, especially in contrast to my beloved Lanzhou style, which uses indifferent beef slices more or less as a condiment.  Like a ramen master, Chef Hou even had a plan of attack, which I followed in assessing my bowl:
1) Sip the broth, including a piece of the fresh cut tomato;
2) taste the noodles; and
3) taste the beef.
Also as with ramen, the broth was the elephant in the room, which was probably the intent.  It was majestically deep and rich, and less medicinal-tasting than some Taiwanese beef soups I have tasted. There was only a tinge of spice heat to it; I would have risked insulting the chef and added a dab of chili paste had it been available on the table. I'd also fault the temperature, which was on the lukewarm side of hot, though it may have resulted from the logistical problem of serving bowls to the whole room at once, on cue. The beef was tender while maintaining a nice, slightly chewy texture, and had a very, well, beefy flavor. I might have personally preferred a little grass-fed edge to it.  The noodles themselves were of the flat linguini-style type, and a little over-cooked to my taste; they may also have been the victim of the same logistical obstacles as the broth.  It's also a fault that is easy to overlook in the Imperial presence of  a broth like Chef Hou's. I'd love to be served the same bowl of soup in a more intimate, leisurely setting.  Hou also mentioned that he contemplated competing in the "Clear Broth" category at a future festival, which I assume would demand an "A" performance from the noodles themselves.  I'm guessing he'd come up with something that would really ring my bell.

Chef Hou's recipe for his Spicy Braised Beef Noodle Soup, along with photos of its creation can be found at: