Niu Rou Mian – egg noodles with beef and Chinese broccoli
Last week, after four years in DC, I finally made it out to Eden Center, a mega strip mall for Vietnamese businesses just over the river in Virginia. All the talk I’d head about it being a labyrinthine jumble of banh mi, noodles, and weird stuff in jars turned out to be true. And while the sheer volume of unfamiliar offerings there would be enough to pique any adventurous culinarian’s interest, something about the suburban sleepiness and repetitive lack of distinction between one shop and the next gave it a glum aura. The Vietnamese pop oldies someone was blasting onto the main parking lot only added to the sense that this was a lost time and place.
While there, I had some pretty unremarkable banh mi before seeking out the mall’s main supermarket to buy ingredients for this meal. After being greeted with the familiar smell of “Asian grocery”, which is not necessarily something you’d want to bottle, I headed to the produce section. Everything was fresh and neatly organized. But rather unhelpfully, nothing was labeled, not even in Vietnamese. I’m pretty sure I picked out some Chinese broccoli, though frankly, I could be wrong.
So more aptly, this dish would be labeled beef noodles with mystery greens. Niu Rou Mian originated as a Chinese Muslim dish, but can be found throughout China and Taiwan. I usually see recipes for beef noodles labeled as either Sichuan or Taiwanese. What they all have in common is the ample use of Sichuan peppercorn and spicy fermented bean paste. The beef must be braised in these and other seasonings very slowly; some chefs apparently will stew it for as long as 24 hours. The broth is then served with the meat as well as some noodles and vegetables. The end result is something I would describe as the Chinese equivalent of boeuf bourguignon – deep, complex, and hearty. It would be interesting to reduce the broth and serve it like a sauce, as the French do, concentrating the intense flavors even further.