d o c t o r a n d m a m a

Linda Shiue

Linda Shiue
San Francisco Bay Area, California, USA
December 31
I am a physician and spend my free time with my husband and kids, reading everything in sight, eating, traveling, and cooking meals inspired by my travels. These days I'm spending more time at my food blog, spiceboxtravels.com. Please visit me there and follow me on Twitter @spiceboxtravels. Disclaimer: Health information presented here is not intended nor recommended as a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your own physician or other qualified health care professional regarding any medical questions or conditions. © 2010-12 Linda Shiue. All Rights Reserved.

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JANUARY 16, 2010 5:43PM

Love, and Taiwanese Beef Stew Noodle Soup

Rate: 12 Flag

beef stew noodle soup by Linda Shiue 

My mother doesn't cook for us anymore.

Growing up, I always thought she enjoyed cooking because-- well, she cooked every night. I have vivid and fond memories of her cooking- our nightly meals were a couple of stir-fried vegetable dishes, one meat or seafood dish, and always steamed white rice.  I also remember long weekend afternoons spent cooking more complicated or special foods.  My memories are multisensory: the savory scent of stir-fried rice noodles, which in the eighties were fortified with bacon drippings; my throat tickled by the vapors of making homemade chili oil; the air, humid from boiling homemade dumplings; the visual snapshots of her chopping, cutting, rolling, and stirring.  I can still hear the crackling sounds of cold vegetables being fried in hot oil and remember the crunch of biting into a just fried egg roll.   And of course, the flavors; I tasted umami long before learning the word.  My mother never complained about cooking, and we rarely ate out, so I assumed cooking was a task she liked.  In retrospect now, I wonder if she would have preferred going to the park with me and my brother, which is what we did with my father when she spent those hours cooking on those weekend afternoons.

vegetables by Linda Shiue 

She is still an excellent cook, and her food is the flavor of my memories.  It wasn't until I had my first child and she came to help that I realized she didn't love cooking; in fact, she considered it a chore.  She was still a great help-- changing diapers, holding my newborn, doing random chores around the house.  But I was in survival mode, the most basic of survival mode, and the one thing I really needed and indeed expected, making dinner, didn't seem to be a priority to the new Grandma.  Indeed, it fell to the bottom of her list, with sweeping the house and yard work an easy 1 and 2.  Truly, my floors have never been so clean, and the garden never so carefully cultivated.  Not a weed was left unpicked.  No pebble was out of place.  Don't get me wrong--  I can't fault her for that-- all help was (and is) appreciated.

It was an epiphany, though, that many of those wonderful home cooked meals were cooked out of a sense of obligation, rather than pleasure.  There are a few dishes my mother makes which I either cannot and/or will not learn how to cook as well as she does.  The Mandarin expression, "ma ma de wèi dào" or "Mama's flavor," is her humble excuse for how much better she cooks those dishes than I can, but I know she has a secret or two.    Top of the list is the beef stew she braises to go over noodles in soup.  This is the dish by which a Taiwanese  home cook (or food stall) is judged.  In Taipei, there is a whole section of town where unnamed stalls are known for their variations on this theme, and competition and loyalty to them are fierce.  I have seen this obsession with beef stew noodle soup in other families, too.  My family friend and honorary Auntie may not have always had the best relationship with her daughter, but she always made a large pot of her beef stew when her daughter came home from college to visit.   Her daughter would slowly eat her way through it daily, usually without her mother's company, until it was time to go back to school.  Like their mother-daughter tensions, the flavors in the braise would only intensify as the week went on. 

Of all the beef stews I have had, no question,  my favorite is my mother's.  It is the one thing I ask her to make when she visits, and the one thing I miss most about her cooking.  I try to make it myself, but my little girls tell me, "It's not as good as Ah-Ma's."   I have asked her to teach me before, and I have all the right ingredients-- stew beef, a tomato, a few carrots, some soy sauce, star anise, black peppercorns, Sichuan peppercorns, ginger, an onion, dried red chilies, and some sugar.  But it never comes out right.

aromatics by Linda Shiue 

I have accepted that most of the cooking is done by me when my parents visit now.  When I ask my mother why she doesn't seem to enjoy cooking as much anymore, she answers tangentially, "You are such a good cook, so now I don't have to."  But she doesn't seem to understand that it is not flattery I am giving (or asking for) when I ask her to cook her beef noodle soup.   There truly is nothing better to warm you, inside and out, on a cold winter's night.  

It is also much more than a stew.  It is a taste of my childhood.  A mother myself now, sometimes, I still want my mother.

*    *    *

Taiwanese Beef Stew Noodle Soup


3 lbs. Beef chuck roast, cut into 1 inch chunks and lightly salted seasoned with ground black pepper

1 tomato, halved

1/2 small onion, coarsely sliced

2-3 quarter sized slices of fresh ginger

6 whole black peppercorns

6 whole Sichuan peppercorns

6 whole cloves 

1-6 dried red chilies, depending on your personal Scoville scale

6 whole star anise 

1 cup soy sauce

1/2 cup sugar

peel of 1/2 orange or tangerine, or 1 clementine 

2 large carrots, cut in 1 inch pieces

chinese dried wheat noodles or Fresh Japanese udon

bok choy, yu choy, napa cabbage, or other Chinese greens

Suggested condiments:  chili sauce, preserved Chinese vegetables (such as Sichuan pickles), cilantro sprigs, sliced green onion, fried shallots. 


1. Brown the beef chunks in a few tablespoons of canola or vegetable oil over medium heat in a heavy cooking pan, about 5 minutes.

2.  After meat is browned, add in tomato and onion, and stir and cook for another 2-3 minutes.

3.  Add and stir in all whole spices, soy sauce and sugar.

4.  Add carrots and enough water to just cover the meat and vegetables.

6. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low to simmer for 2 hours or more, stirring occasionally, until meat is fork-tender.

7.  Cook noodles until al dente and add cut greens for one minute.

8.  Drain noodles and greens.   Reserve the cooking liquid.

9.  Serve noodles into soup bowls, and spoon beef stew and broth over the noodles.  Add cooking liquid from noodles to make it soupier, if desired.

10.  Serve with chili sauce and preserved Chinese vegetables, if desired.  Garnish with sliced green onions and cilantro sprigs.

condiments for beef noodle soup by Linda Shiue 



 © Linda Shiue, 2010

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Your story is very touching. Sometimes food really is love. r
"Mama's flavor" flows throughout your writing in your beautiful memoir of loving and eating her food! Rich in all ways, indeed!
Linda, I love everything you write and everything you cook. This is wonderful. You have such a gift for unearthing so much of a relationship while telling us about a dish. And maybe that's it; food is core to our biography. Thanks for this fantastic p0st.
Joan: thanks for stopping by and commenting. I agree, food is love.

Bonnie: glad you enjoyed it. You should try the recipe-- even if you can't get all the spices, it will still be good (just not the same as mom's).

JulieShanti: thank you. That is a huge compliment!

Rebecca: I appreciate all of your support. The SKC has been so much fun, hasn't it? Looking forward to seeing your next entry, too.
Linda, this is a wonderful post, like so many of yours. How you manage to be a physician, a mother, and such a fantastic cook and writer all at the same time, I marvel. I'd eat at your house anytime.
Fantastic story, and that stew looks so good I am going to make it tonight!
This is so beautifully written, and I was SO glad to see it on "regular" Salon! Congrats, and thanks for sharing this story and this recipe; I see Beef Stew Noodles in our future.
Oh my goodness, I'm going to have to try & make this. Your writing is delicious!
Ah. I relate so much to this ... I still miss my mother's cooking and will look forward to hers when we visit but when she comes here, I feed her as a payment for all those years she fed us. :o) She has just rediscovered the joy of cooking again in the last few years but admits that it's hard to cook for just two.

Beautifully written as always and love the recipe too!! R
Nice looking recipe.
Thank you for sharing.

What a beautiful memoir...and the recipe and photos are very inspiring...thank you...xox
Hsieh Hsieh!!
I am a wai gwo ren who speaks a little mandarin thanks to the USAF language school in Monterey California. I spent a couple of years in Taiwan and I remember being introduced to the "noodle stands" located in an alley very close to where the taxi dropped us off.
Sichuan pepper in spring rolls and the noodle soups - hao hao chr.
Thanks for the memories.
I want to say to the proprietors of so many chinese restaurants here: You call this Chinese food?!
A wonderful memoir that took me back to my own mother's kitchen.
Very enjoyable essay and mouth-watering recipe. I can't wait to try it and I'm glad I don't have mama's version to compare it to - sometimes you're better not knowing what you're missing.
Kathy- I'd be happy to cook for you anytime, come on by.
Teresa, Caroline Marie, Ann, and Beth- yes, please try out my recipe. I'm sure you'll enjoy making it "your own."
Rebelmom- thanks again!
Robin- thank you, I appreciate the compliment.
Leepin Larry- thanks!
Coach Captain- I am glad you got to reminisce about Taiwan and the excellent food there, and practice your Mandarin.
Scupper- there's no place like mom's kitchen. Thanks.
"Growing up, I always thought she enjoyed cooking because-- well, she cooked every night."

ahhhhhhhhhhhhh, yes. I thought the same thing of my mother. I found out I was wrong.

This is just lovely. So very lovely. Thanks for writing and posting it.
I will make this!! Thank you for sharing your recipe. I now love to cook, but for a long time it was an odious chore. I miss my mother's spaghetti sauce and cod fish cakes. My mother wasn't a very good cook, but she had some dishes she made better than anyone else.

Linda, I'm making this tonight. I can't believe I didn't comment back in January. DH is under the weather - we'll see if it cures!
Made this today for my Taiwanese step-family. It is very delicious and reminds me of Taiwan. The kids were very happy to have a taste of home when they are so far away. It was really easy to make and I even had the Sichuan peppercorns in my pantry. Restaurant beef noodle soups are disappointing & full of MSG. Thank you for sharing this recipe and the memories of your mother.
@Gemini74, thanks so much! I am glad that your family enjoyed this recipe and that it reminded them of home.