Warm spices, pickled mustard greens, slurpable wheat noodles, rich beef broth: Such are the lip-smacking hallmarks of Taiwanese beef noodle soup (牛肉麵), an oft-heralded national dish (and ultimate comfort food) of Taiwan. The dish wasn’t always so beloved, however. In fact, before 1895, Taiwanese of Han Chinese descent (who now account for more than 97 percent of the population) ate beef no more often than 21st-century Americans eat cats or dogs (cringe, I know).
Beef was taboo in Taiwan. So at what point in history did beef noodle soup become so quintessential to Taiwanese cuisine?
Like many things on the island, the dish’s existence is owed to decades of colonialism, global politics, and military engagements—outside influences that have left an indelible imprint on Taiwan’s local cuisine.
It’s certainly not uncommon for cuisines to be shaped by other cultures. But in Taiwan, a small island passed around by global powers that still lacks official “country” status, these influences seem outsize, and the cuisine all the more remarkable for its ability to absorb and evolve while remaining distinctly Taiwanese.
The history of beef noodle soup, starting with three powerful nations and ending in every corner shop of Taipei, provides the perfect example.
The Japanese Obsession With Meat
Taiwan, early 1895: Unknown to many Taiwanese, the Qing Empire—the country of which their island was a remote and neglected possession—was fighting a war against the empire of Japan.
In April, the Qing court in Beijing signed a peace treaty and surrendered sovereignty over Taiwan to Asia’s rising power, ushering in 50 years of Japanese rule. The victors, who came from a densely populated archipelago that struggled to feed itself, were eager to tap Taiwan’s agricultural potential. Soon they were drawing up plans to develop and systemize the sugar industry. Over the next few decades, banana, sweet potato, pineapple, rice, and tea harvests grew in leaps and bounds.
The Japanese also pushed meat. They attributed the imposing height of the Westerners they encountered to the foreigners’ meat-eating habits. If the nation was to hold its own, the government believed, the people would need more protein. By the time they took control of Taiwan, consumption of pork, beef, and dairy products was rising rapidly in Japan.
But the Taiwanese shunned beef. On the lowlands, water buffalo were ubiquitous—rice farmers depended on them to drag plows and pull carts. Rather than see bovines as dumb beasts of burden, rural Taiwanese regarded them as valued servants. Pioneers knew that oxen were crucial to their efforts to convert wilderness into paddy fields.
Folktales implied that only a supremely ungrateful farmer would kill and eat his buffalo. Buddhist elements within popular religion reinforced a belief that to slay a cow would be to invite karmic retribution.
The 19th-century Japanese colonial authorities forged ahead, importing cattle suitable for meat production and setting up slaughterhouses. By the 1930s, Taiwanese beef was being canned and exported, as well as fed to Japanese immigrants and the Taiwanese urban elite.
Chinese Refugees and the U.S. Military
Following Japan’s defeat at the end of World War II, Taiwan was ruled by the Kuomintang Party, aka the Chinese Nationalist Party, of Chiang Kai-shek. The nationalists’ close alignment with Washington led to inflows of American food aid, including wheat flour that was made into noodles and dumplings. At the same time, the regime’s introduction of compulsory military service meant that some young Taiwanese men got their first taste of beef in an army canteen.
Taiwan became crowded with refugees from the Chinese mainland. Like the Japanese before them, the Chinese nationalists worked to increase agricultural output. Angus, Brahman, and Hereford cattle were introduced from the U.S. for cross-breeding with local strains. During the 1950s and 1960s, this local production was supplemented by American canned beef, intended for the thousands of U.S. soldiers stationed on the island but diverted to local eateries.
In fact, the emergence of beef noodle soup as a local specialty has a lot to do with servicemen—not Americans, but the hundreds of thousands of Chinese nationalist soldiers who’d followed Chiang Kai-shek to Taiwan in 1949.
By the 1960s, these men were retiring from the armed forces in droves. The pensions they received were minimal, so they had to find ways to support themselves. Many were from regions where beef-eating taboos weren’t strong, and where wheat noodles are a staple. The streets of Taipei were soon dotted with beef noodle restaurants.
Among the refugees were Muslims. One of the first beef noodle restaurants to use top-notch local meat, instead of U.S. military “surplus,” was a halal establishment.
The Birth of Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup
Different neighborhoods in the capital became associated with particular variations of the dish. Near Taipei Main Station, cooks from Shandong specialized in beef noodles sold in a semi-clear qīngdùn stew — a simple broth flavored with salt, soy sauce, perhaps a dash of rice wine, and nothing else. For Sichuan-style variants, Yongkang Street (which is still popular with food-loving tourists, and not just for beef noodles) was the place to go.
Many assume that Taiwanese beef noodle soup spread out from Taipei. Yet some food historians argue it was actually created more than 300 km to the south, in the town of Gangshan. When a Sichuan beef dish was flavored with homemade spicy soybean paste, beef noodle soup as it’s now understood officially came into being.
Interestingly, the former capital of Tainan, which is almost as far down island as Gangshan, developed a distinctive beef dish of its own. Super thin slices of raw beef, from an animal slaughtered just hours earlier, are dropped into a piping-hot clear soup just before delivery to the table. It’s a bit like Vietnamese pho, but without rice noodles or bean sprouts.
Once martial law was lifted in 1987, democratization and expressions of previously suppressed Taiwanese identity followed. Every country needs a national cuisine — and hearty, comforting beef noodle soup emerged as a key item in Taiwan’s, alongside braised-pork rice, scallion pancakes, and stinky tofu.
A lack of land on which livestock can be raised hasn’t slowed growth in Taiwan’s appetite for beef. Nowadays, more than 95 percent of the beef eaten on the island is imported. (Still, annual per-capita beef consumption in Taiwan remains modest by Western standards. From less than 0.7 kg in 1968, it crept upward to 2.5 kg in 1991, and to 6.8 kg in 2019. In the U.S. in 2019, it was 26.4 kg.)
If you order a bowl of beef noodle soup in Taipei today, it’s possible that every ingredient, except for the water and the greens, came from overseas. This use of international commodities to devise very local flavors is the story of postwar Taiwanese cuisine in a nutshell.
Where to Try Taiwanese Beef Noodle Soup in Taipei
Halal Beef Noodles (清真黃牛肉麵館; 23, Yanping South Road; map), which has been around since the early 1950s, offers almost a hundred beef-soup permutations. Alternatives to conventional wheat noodles include soy vermicelli and dense, crouton-like “bread” cubes. The menu also lists beef potstickers, boiled beef dumplings, and beef-filled pita.
Mazendo (麻膳堂; 24, Lane 280, Guangfu South Road; map) has found success with its mala (麻辣)-flavored beef noodle soups, popular with those who like a Sichuan-style spiciness to their food.
Being the haunt of eminent scholars —it’s a stone’s throw from Taiwan’s most prestigious university — isn’t Dashenggong Beef Noodles’ (大聲公臺大牛肉麵; 54-6, Xinsheng South Road Section 3; map) only claim to fame: Gourmets adore the restaurant’s spicy shacha sauce (牛油沙茶辣椒醬), made on-site using beef tallow instead of the usual soybean oil.
Better known as the putative inventor of bubble milk tea, the Chun Shui Tang (春水堂; 66 Zhongxiao West Road Section 1; basement of Shin Kong Mitsukoshi Taipei Station Store; map) chain also does an exceptional beef noodle soup (pictured below), much praised for its hint of spice.
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About the authors: Tainan-based Steven Crook and Taipei-based Katy Hui-wen Hung are the authors of A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai (Rowman & Littlefield).