Taiwan in a Bowl of Beef Noodles

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Taiwan in a Bowl of Beef Noodles

By Nancy Liu

For those who could never figure out the difference between Taiwan and China, here is a simple history lesson that begins with a bowl of braised beef noodles.

Niurou mian, or braised beef noodles, is a dish that most Taiwanese consider a vital part of their daily lives. With robust flavor and reasonable prices (USD 3 to 5 on average), niurou mian is to Taiwan what ramen is to Japan, pizza is to Italy, and burgers are to the United States. In 2005, Taipei launched the first niurou mian festival to put this Taiwanese staple on the global stage.

The birth of niurou mian can be traced back to 1949, when Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, after losing the Chinese mainland to Mao Zedong. Retreating to what he called “the retaliation base”, the Kuomintang leader brought with him 1.2 million soldiers and civilians and, allegedly, 70 tons of gold bars. Chiang always planned on “returning home”, and so he died in 1975, filled with nostalgia for his homeland and regret that his dream of returning had not come true.

The Generalissimo was not the only nostalgic one. 900,000 soldiers who had followed him through four years of civil war felt the same pain. The luckier ones had got married somewhere along the way; the joy of starting a new family soothing the bitter sting of homesickness. But most remained bachelors stuck in military communities. Their thoughts lingered on their hometown on the other side of the Taiwan Strait.

The soldiers' homesickness is unsurprising; Chiang and his men had not exactly been welcomed by the seven million indigenous island-dwellers: a small number of Taiwanese aborigines and a large number whose ancestors had emigrated from China four centuries before. The difference in dialects, customs, and political and economic interests caused clashes that resulted in the 228 Massacre - an anti-government uprising that was violently suppressed by Chiang. In this one incident alone, the estimated number of civilian deaths was between 18,000 and 28,000.

The difference between “Mainlanders” and “Taiwanese” was also exemplified in their food preferences, and here's where the difference between mainland China and Taiwan can be seen in a bowl of braised beef noodles. When Chiang and his men arrived in Taiwan, indigenous Taiwanese rarely ate beef. Taiwanese relied heavily on water buffaloes to do the work in the rice fields and developed a strong bond with these animals. There are still Taiwanese people today who don’t eat beef because their ancestors were farmers.

Less sentimental reasons also explain the lack of beef in the Taiwanese diet at that time. Records suggest that there were just over 800 milk cows on the island in 1945, making quality beef both scarce and expensive. Though water buffalo meat was cheaper, given the water buffalo's average life-span of 15-20 years, the chance of coming across dead buffaloes was slim.

So if Taiwanese didn't eat beef, how and why did braised beef noodles become so popular in Taiwan?

Well, according to the late epicurean and historian Lu Yao-dong the answer lies with a military community which lived in Kangshan, southern Taiwan. Most military dependents living there came from Sichuan Province of China: a place famous for making thick, hot broad bean paste. These settlers from the mainland originally cooked this paste with just noodles and broth, but industrial revolution allowed the addition of a fourth ingredient: beef.

In the 1960s Taiwan underwent a major transition: changing from being a farming society to an industrial one. Huang Chun-ming, a renowned local literary figure, believes that industrialization was the push that made niurou mian the fastest rising star in Taiwanese gourmet.

As agricultural machinery became more easily available, water buffaloes were not relied upon for farming, and so began to be sold to butchers in bulk. Mainlanders purchased the beef, an important source of protein and nutrients during the period, and incorporated it into their previously meat-less Sichuan noodle broth, creating a genuine taste of Taiwan.

There are said to be over 30,000 niurou mian shops on the island today; more than one could ever have imagined half a century ago. In 2012, local gourmet judges even published a Michelin’s guide to 173 best tasting Taiwan niurou mian: ranking the shops in terms of service, food quality and price.

Every year, tens of thousands of visitors, including those from China, come to Taiwan to see Taipei 101, one of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, the National Palace Museum, where Chiang hid all the treasure he brought from China, and exciting night markets. Nevertheless, when it comes to food, a dish both as simple and as rich as niurou mian is the major attraction.

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