Pork Rib Noodle Soup in Sichuan Broth (Paigu Mian)
Chengdu Challenge #26: Paigu Mian, My Favorite Mistake
This is one of those recipes that is the result of a beautiful mistake. I was merely attempting to make Sichuan-style stock when I ended up with an entire soup.
My daughter has been mostly deprived of one of her favorite foods—homemade soup—because I don’t particularly like or crave soup and just don’t ever think about making it. She grew up in China eating freshly made wonton soup every morning for breakfast at school. I grew up in Oklahoma eating Campbell’s chicken noodle soup out of a can—and only when I was sick. Hence, our different feelings toward soup. Plus, making stock just seems like so much trouble for flavored water.
But just like mapo doufu made me a believer in tofu, Sichuan stock made me a believer in soup. It was just dumb luck that I ended up with pork rib noodle soup, or paigu mian, on top of that. Attempting to make Sichuan-style stock, I started with a recipe for everyday Chinese stock, made with chicken parts and pork bones, to which I would add the Sichuan spices that make it much more than flavored water—Sichuan peppercorns, fennel seeds, star anise, cinnamon bark, fresh Mandarin orange peel, ginger, scallions.
But my market did not have any pork bones. That’s ok, I thought, I’ll just use pork ribs, since they have so much bone. The bad news was the ribs soaked up much of the broth. The good news was how great those spice-laden ribs were. I discarded the chicken wings at the end as planned, but then I tasted the pork rib meat that I bought merely to flavor the stock and it was fantastic, falling off the bone and wonderfully perfumed by the Sichuan-style broth.
So, on the second try, I had the butcher cut my ribs into bite-size pieces, and after they were cooked they went back into the strained broth along with noodles and taku choy—and it was soup! Add a little garnish of Sichuan preserved vegetable and chili pepper and it’s awesome soup. If you don’t believe me, then believe my daughter, who not only ate the ingredients but then drank all the broth—something she doesn’t normally do.
Before you get the wrong impression, Sichuan-style broth is not spicy, chili hot. It doesn’t have doubanjiang or any chili heat that can sometimes overwhelm (in a good way) like hotpot or other mala-broth dishes can. (Or like Matt Gross’s version of paigu mian in Saveur, which includes douban and vinegar in a delish yuxiang-style broth.) The traditional Sichuan broth is merely rich and fragrant with warm spices and tangy orange peel, and therefore far more adaptable and drinkable.
Both Fongchong and Craig have requested paigu mian in regular rotation, though I have to admit that if I lived in California I’d sometimes cheat with an artisan-brand of Sichuan bone broth that I recently tried. I never promote products other than those made in China, but after Nona Lim sent me a sample of her Spicy Szechuan Broth and I experienced how similar it tastes to the three-hour-simmered homemade kind, I decided to tell you about it. Check it out. (Some Whole Foods nationwide carry it, and it’s also available online.)
Otherwise, stick with me, and make this version from scratch. It is more than worth the effort, and I’ve even shortened the process by starting with readymade chicken broth. To push the soup over the top and serve it like they would in Sichuan, garnish it with zhacai, which is Sichuan-made preserved mustard tuber that is pretty easy to find at Asian markets in the U.S. or at The Mala Market. (Not to be confused with yacai, or preserved mustard stems, used in many other Sichuan dishes.)
Because Fongchong is a normal teen, I get few compliments at the dinner table for my Sichuan food. She kind of expects it now, maybe takes it for granted just a bit. But when something new comes along, she gets excited.
“You should open a restaurant,” she said, while eating the paigu mian.
Then after another couple bites: “You should open a restaurant in China. Chinese people would love this.”
I think she’s overselling it just a bit. Or a lot. But she does know how to make me happy—and how to ensure she gets this soup again.
Pork Rib Noodle Soup in Sichuan Broth (Paigu Mian)
- 1 slab (about 2 ½ pounds) St. Louis-style ribs, sliced vertically through the bone twice into three strips (by a butcher), and then horizontally between the bones, ending in bite-size nuggets
- 4 cups chicken broth
- 1 teaspoon red Sichuan peppercorns
- 2 star anise
- 2 caoguo (Chinese black cardamom)
- 3- inch piece cassia bark (or shorter cinnamon stick)
- 1 cloth spice bag (optional)
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- peel from 1 Mandarin orange
- 2- inch piece of ginger, cut in large chunks and smashed with flat side of knife
- 4 scallions, cleaned and cut in half
- 1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- 4 servings fresh or dried medium-thin Asian wheat noodles
- A large handful of Chinese greens such as baby bokchoy or napa cabbage, leaves separated and trimmed
- zhacai (Sichuan preserved mustard tuber), coarsely chopped
- Bring large pot of water to boil and add pork pieces. Parboil for 2-3 minutes and remove. Drain and rinse ribs and clean the pot.
- Return ribs to pot, add 4 cups chicken broth and enough water to cover the ribs by about 1 inch. (Alternatively add water only along with 2 tablespoons Chinese-made Totole chicken soup base, a miracle flavor booster that is less than 15% MSG.) Bring to a boil and skim if needed, then lower heat so that pot is at a simmering boil.
- Place Sichuan peppercorns, star anise, black cardamom and cassia bark in a cloth spice bag, which makes it easier to remove them, or if you don't have one add them directly to the pot. Add Shaoxing wine, Mandarin orange peel, ginger chunks and scallions. Simmer at a low boil for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until the meat is tender and done to your liking.
- When pork is nearly done, bring another pot of water to a boil and add your greens. Cook briefly and remove. Add noodles to the same pot and cook until done. Drain and set aside.
- Remove spice packet, orange peel and aromatics. If you added the spices directly to the pot, you will probably need to extract the pork nuggets from the broth and strain the broth, discarding the remainder of the solids. Stir in soy sauce, sugar and salt to taste. (If you used Totole, you will not need them.)
- Portion noodles and greens in individual serving bowls and top with a few pieces of pork. Garnish with chopped zhacai and pour broth over each serving.
Your daughter has given you the highest compliment ever! I aspire to that level of comment from my three. : )
(The soup, by the way, looks utterly fabulous.)
Thank you! But don’t get me wrong–I still field plenty of complaints at the dinner table. I guess that’s why it’s so noteworthy when she gets overexcited about a dish. 🙂
I can’t wait to try this. I live in Qingdao, Shandong Province and am about the Sichuan cuisine! Love your blog!
Thank you, Jacq! Even though I write the blog mostly for an American audience, it’s a thrill to know people living in China are reading.
I just made this recipe for a dinner party and everyone loved it! I made it exactly as written except I had 10lb pork rib and made enough to feed maybe 20+ people. Also I seared the meat instead of parboil because I didn’t want to wait for more water to boil. Delicious! I will be adding this to my list for regular dinner rotation.
I love that you made noodle soup for a crowd! That’s so ambitious. And I’m thrilled to hear that this recipe worked in larger batches. I have to throw a noodle soup dinner party now!