Beef Soup. It sounds unremarkable, conjuring images of a German soup kitchen, huge ladles of cloudy brown soup, and broken pieces of stale bread. But in Tainan, beef soup gets a new reputation.
By Jessie Chien
In Tainan, a historic city in Southern Taiwan, signage for restaurants featuring various regional and specialty dishes climb up the squat concrete buildings that line the narrow streets. Every business storefront seems to be matched with a neighboring eatery- But what else would you expect from a city that is famous for it’s Tainan Xiaochi (or as translated, Tainan Small Eats)?
Along the same lines as Tapas, Xiaochi are smaller portions of particularly-crafted plates of food, and whose selection is almost as limitless as flavors are varied. Xiaochi can be eaten at any time of day, in any amount and any sequence. Where you will never enjoy Xiaochi at formal, sit-down restaurants or banquets, you will happily consume them at any road-side stand, no-frills eatery, and night markets throughout the town.
A pilgrimage to Tainan is for only one cause: to eat these Xiaochi, and to eat a lot and often. Though I was only in town for a total of half a day and one night, rattling off my list of eats that can fool anyone into thinking I stayed for a week. I tried the Tainan regional specialty shrimp rolls, pigs liver with ginger and sesame oil, a heap of fresh mango shaved ice, local avocado smoothie, eel noodle soup, oh the list continues. All good, all happily consumed at nondescript shops in alleyways and on the sides of roads. But my favorite? Quite possibly the simplest of them all- Beef Soup.
If you are familiar with Taiwan’s cuisine you will have heard of the famed beef noodle soup- tender chunks of braised beef, in a wonderfully salty and occasionally spicy dark broth and with hand-pulled noodles. However this beef soup is of a different breed, and unlike the bold, in-your-face flavors of the more widely-known beef noodle soup, this other, simpler, beef soup has a lighter, clearer but just as flavorful beef broth, with smaller and thinner slices of meat and no noodles at all.
What makes this soup so special, aside from the light broth, is the beef that is used. This roadside stand is doing what “sustainable” or “local” groupies in the Bay Area, New York, or Chicago can only dream of. Twice each evening (the stand is only open through the night, though there is a competitor open during the day that sells the same product- a true 24hour cycle of beefy delight if you dare), a delivery of fresh beef arrives to the stand. The delivery does not come by frozen coolers or even in any sort of delivery van, but rather, is picked up from the slaughterhouse by a man- a cabdriver, specifically, and with beef as sole passenger driven direct from the countryside to the stand in busy Tainan. From animal to plate, no serving of beef is fewer than 12 hours old, and will have never touched the likes of a refrigerator.
When a bowl of beef soup is ordered, the meat is weighed out and the shopkeeper ladles a generous spoonful of piping hot soup over the beef. The meat, sliced ever-so-thinly, retains a tender, slightly rare quality as the soup slowly breaks down the raw enzymes, cooking the meat, and with a sprinkle of green onions over the top, the dish is complete.
With decor that matches the simplicity of the dishes, this eatery can be best described as a roadside stand that happens to extend back along the side of a building. As a benefit from the rainy monsoons that pass through the city, it is also located under an overhang. Though it’s not much of an ambience, the bright yellow sign in front with “Beef Soup” written boldly in red is enough to bring people in- even on hot, humid, sticky Taiwan nights such as the one I experienced. If you’re in Tainan- heck, if you’re anywhere on the island of Taiwan- head south for this $3 bowl of soup.
Zheng Family Beef Soup
Beef soup $100 NTD, about $3 USD (other dishes $1-$4)
No.. 2, Lane 47, Section 4, JinHua Rd, ZhongXi District
Jessie Chien Bryson grew up spending sunny California Thanksgivings eating 20lb. free-range turkeys along with sides of Chow Mein, which is what she thinks cemented her insatiable interest of food cultures and sustainable methods as an adult. She recently spent two years in Guangzhou, China, where the locals were said to eat anything with four legs but a table and anything that flies but a plane. She's now on the other side of the world in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where she keeps a diary of food, travel, and expat adventures at www.jessbopeep.com