My mother has always used food in two ways: one, to express love and appreciation, and two, as a means of currency in her community.
When mum, Ling Ling Zheng (affectionately called Momma Wong by my friends), moved from Shanghai to Chicago in the 1990s, beef noodle soup was one of the recipes she brought with her, a comforting dish to ward off the bitter winter and a sense of loneliness from leaving her family and homeland.
But she remembers being intimidated by American grocery stores, with their seemingly endless rows of cereal and canned food – it was all terribly foreign and strange.
At the time, there were no H Marts or other giant Asian supermarkets in the suburbs. She was limited to a few tiny markets tucked away in strip malls, so she found solace in Mexican grocery stores, where more familiar ingredients could be procured.
Every month, she had to convince my father to make the trek to Chinatown, where she would stock up on pastes, spices and things that could be stuffed into the freezer at home. We had two refrigerators for that purpose.
Making beef noodle soup was a huge inconvenience because it was expensive and required hard-to-procure ingredients. So she made it infrequently in favour of other recipes she could more easily adapt to accessible ingredients.
When she did make the soup, she swapped out traditional ingredients for ones she could find at the supermarket near our house.
My mum was and always has been plugged into the Chinese church, and it was there that she realised beef noodle soup far from her homeland could be more than what she was making.
An elderly Taiwanese woman was making lunch for the congregation one day, and my mum begged her for her recipe. But she refused. Prized recipes weren’t shared willingly – many of the women in the church had one or more signature dishes that they prided themselves on and kept close to their chests.
Thankfully, my mother had a few, herself. One was zhongzi, an autumnal food typically eaten during the Duanwu Festival (Dragon Boat Festival) that is bursting with fat chunks of pork belly and sticky rice wrapped into a triangle of bamboo leaves.
After some cajoling and bartering on the exact number of zhongzi for an equal trade, the elderly woman agreed to share her recipe.
But my Shanghainese mother had her own flavour proclivities, and Shanghainese food is known for being sweet. In her years living in Chicago, she had grown accustomed to some American flavours (shoutout to ketchup), which she incorporated into the recipe she’d gotten from the church lady.
This beef noodle soup recipe is both inauthentic and wholly authentic. Mum took the recipe that the elderly church lady gave her and flavoured it with her own experiences and background to create a dish that is true to her experience as a Shanghainese woman who immigrated to Chicago, found solace in the Asian church community in the suburbs and poured her love into her food she served to her tiny family.
I can’t have beef noodle soup any other way now, and like clockwork every fall, my father and I crave the rich, hearty flavours.
MOMMA WONG’S BEEF NOODLE SOUP
Makes 10 servings
900g beef tendon, cut in 1- to 2-inch pieces
1 golf ball-size knob fresh ginger, unpeeled, thinly sliced
2 star anise
2 black cardamom pods
3 tbsp rice wine
4 beefsteak tomatoes
900g beef heel meat, cut in 1- to 2-inch chunks
¼ cup vegetable oil
4 medium onions, cut in half, then cut in thirds
4 tbsp garlic soybean paste
2 tbsp spicy chilli crisp or chilli oil with black beans
½ cup soy sauce
½ cup lump sugar (also known as rock sugar)
6 hard-cooked eggs, peeled (optional)
3 tbsp ketchup
noodles, cooked, drained
6 heads baby bok choy, sliced in half lengthwise, blanched (or stems of Chinese broccoli)
Bring a large pot of water to a boil. You will need enough water to cover the tendons. Place the tendons in the boiling water; cover. When the water boils again, turn off the heat. The tendons should have changed colour and should be hard to the touch.
Drain the tendons; rinse in warm water, making sure to rinse off the foam. Place tendons in a pressure cooker (such as a 6-quart Instant Pot); add cold water just to cover, about 6 cups, plus the ginger, star anise, cardamom pods and rice wine. Seal the pressure cooker; set for 1 1/2 hours, and start. Once the cooking time is up, allow the pressure to release naturally, 25 to 28 minutes. (No pressure cooker? See note below.)
Meanwhile, prepare the sauce. Score the bottoms of the tomatoes in an x-shape; dip into a pot of boiling water to blanch them, about 30 seconds. Transfer tomatoes to an ice bath. Remove the skin; cut each tomato into eighths.
Bring about 2 inches water to a boil in a skillet large enough to hold the heel meat. Add heel meat; cook, stirring occasionally, until water returns to a boil. Remove from heat. Drain meat; rinse with warm, almost hot water to rinse off impurities.
Place a large saucepan or Dutch oven over high heat. Add the oil; when oil is warm, add onions. Cook, covered, 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes; cook, covered until tomatoes are soft and the onions start to turn translucent, 10 minutes. Add the soybean paste, chili crisp or oil and 1/4 cup of the soy sauce. Stir, then add lump sugar. Reduce heat to medium.
Add the heel meat; stir well so that the sauce coats the meat. If you’re using the eggs, add them now. Cover and cook, about 1 minute. Stir in the ketchup. Cook, covered, until the onions are softened, 2-3 minutes.
Once tendons have finished cooking and you have released pressure in the pressure cooker, pour sauce and heel meat mixture into the pressure cooker insert with the tendons; stir. Add remaining 1/4 cup soy sauce. Seal and pressure cook, 30 minutes. (Add an additional 30 minutes if you would like more tender heel meat.) Release pressure naturally.
To serve, slice the eggs in half. Place noodles in bowls; top with the soup. Garnish with blanched bok choy and an egg half.
Note: You can cook the beef tendons on the stovetop, instead of a slow cooker. Simmer in water to cover until softened, stirring often, 6 hours. – Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service/Grace Wong