Sichuan Red-Braised Beef Noodle Soup (Hongshao Niurou Mian, 红烧牛肉面) Using the Instant Pot (or Not)
The Chinese Instant Pot~~
The Sichuan version of China’s (and Taiwan’s) beloved red-braised-beef noodle soup (hongshao niurou mian) is—you guessed it!—spicy hot with the addition of Pixian doubanjiang (chili bean paste), Sichuan pepper and chili oil. So you know it’s the best version! (Says an avowed lover of spicy.)
In my quest for the perfect bowl of niurou mian, I’ve had two major decisions to make:
- Should all the major seasonings be cooked into the broth OR should some of them be added to the serving bowl instead right before adding the broth, as is done in restaurants in Sichuan?
- Should the soup and beef be long-simmered on the stove OR quick-pressure-cooked in the Instant Pot?
Let’s start with question No. 2. I’ve only recently had the option of cooking soup in the Instant Pot, because I only recently succumbed to the siren song of the much-loved pressure cooker/slow cooker/rice steamer/yogurt maker. Before that, I always made braised meats and soups in my beloved cast-iron dutch oven.
I only became enticed by the Instant Pot when, digging around online, I learned not only that it is particularly well-suited for Chinese stews, braises, soups and even rice, but that the thing itself was invented by a Chinese man, an immigrant to Canada from Harbin named Robert Wang, who was inspired by China’s electric pressure cookers.
Then I was completely charmed by this tidbit from a profile of Wang in The New York Times: “He also revealed a secret: in every official photograph of an Instant Pot, the unit’s timer is set to 5:20 — a series of numbers that, when spoken aloud, sounds like ‘I love you’ in his native Mandarin.
‘It’s a subliminal message,’ he said. ‘It shows how much we care about our customers.'”
I’ve made lots of dishes in my Instant Pot since Christmas, but my favorite perhaps is this Sichuan niurou mian. While the Instant Pot is by no means instant, it is indeed faster and way more hands-off than cooking in a pot over a flame. Of course you can absolutely make this soup in a dutch oven or stock pot in about double the time, so I’m providing instructions for both methods. But besides saving time and effort, the other real advantage of the Pot in my opinion is that the stock does not evaporate as it cooks. The amount of liquid you put in is the amount of liquid you get out. This is helpful when you are aiming for enough soup broth to fill several noodle bowls.
Now for question No. 1: Should this be a mild broth with the bold seasonings put directly in the serving bowl or a highly flavorful broth that stands on its own? Usually in a Chengdu or Chongqing noodle joint, the serving bowl is filled beforehand with a concoction of all kinds of Sichuan seasonings including chili oil or paste, Sichuan pepper powder, soy sauce, garlic puree, sesame oil, MSG, lard… and the list goes on… to which the broth is added when the order is filled. (This is also how Japanese ramen is built, with the soup’s distinct flavoring coming almost entirely from the tare, or the sauce in the bottom of the bowl.) In Sichuan, that broth might be clear bone broth or a red numbing-and-spicy broth. If you order the red soup, you probably won’t drink much of the mala liquid. In these places, the beef (or ribs) topping is prepared separately. (Go here for a thorough explainer on eating noodles in Chengdu, both brothy and dry.)
As home cooks who are not running a noodle stall, we want to simplify this! The broth you cook the beef in becomes the soup, and since that braising liquid is already so flavorful, you don’t need to automatically add more flavorings to the bowl.
I adapted this recipe, heavily, from Sichuan Cuisine in Both Chinese and English, the bible published by the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine in 2010. Their broth from the beef braising turns out to be very flavorful, redolent with Pixian chili bean paste, soy sauce and mixed spices. But the recipe also calls for a mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, scallion and MSG to be put in the serving bowl before the soup is added. With this combo, however, we found the magical broth spoiled by the salty overkill of additional ingredients.
I have since adjusted the broth to what I (and my family) think is the ideal Sichuan niurou mian broth: It is rich and beefy and moderately spicy with chili and Sichuan pepper, but highly drinkable. I have chosen to offer the additional ingredients at the table for those who like it HOT.
Start with a nice piece of beef shank. This is not a cut normally available from supermarkets, so you’ll need to search it out at Asian markets or from a butcher. It is worth the search, because it is such a succulent, semi-fat braising cut. I got the one above from a butcher, which had the added selling point of being dry aged for 21 days. And look at that gorgeous marrow bone, which leached richness into the broth. I used only about 1 1/2 pounds here, but the 6-quart Instant Pot could handle 2 to 2 1/2 pounds, to make around six servings.
After only 50 minutes in the Instant Pot, plus 15 minutes of pressure release, the shank is fall-apart tender. If you prefer your soup meat firmer, reduce cook time by about 10 minutes to make a sliceable shank. I took two shortcuts with this step. I coated the meat with (my own) Chinese five spice blend instead of adding a bunch of whole spices to the pot. You can add your warm spices (cassia, star anise, fennel, etc.) in either way. I then browned the meat to burn off the icky parts instead of par-boiling it to do so, as is typically called for in Chinese cooking. That Western step of browning makes it possible for this to be a one-pot dish, since the Instant Pot has a very handy and functional saute function.
Pull the meat out of the pot, then strain the broth. You should have about seven cups of wonderfully rich and spicy soup. As the broth sits, the oil will rise to the top (as you can see here) and you can carefully pour it off before serving. (This beef may have been cooked a bit too much, at 1 hour in the Instant Pot.)
The main components of the niurou mian soup are the beef, broth, wheat noodles and a Chinese green. (I chose the unorthodox Chinese celery for the soup in these photos, because, you know, beef and celery! Plus, it doubles as vegetable and garnish.) Another possible, and highly recommended, ingredient is zhacai pickle, a preserved and spiced mustard tuber from Chongqing. Simply remove it from the packet and coarsely chop, no need to wash or prepare it. Garnishes include scallion and cilantro.
Those who like it super bold can add homemade or artisan-made chili oil and/or vinegar for a touch of tang. And then you have it! Absolutely the best bowl of spicy homemade beef noodle soup you can get.
Actually, I suppose it could be better if you made your own noodles….but that’s the one thing you can’t make in an Instant Pot.
Sichuan Red-Braised Beef Noodle Soup (Hongshao Niurou Mian) Using the Instant Pot (or Not)
- 2 to 2½ pound piece of beef shank with marrow bone
- kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon good-quality Chinese five spice (or 1 star anise, 1 small piece cassia bark, 1 teaspoon fennel seeds and ¼ teaspoon whole cloves)
- 1 yellow onion, quartered
- 2 inches ginger, peeled and cut into chunks
- 7 cloves garlic, peeled
- 4 tablespoons Chinese light soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine
- 2 tablespoons Pixian doubanjiang (chili bean paste)
- 2 tablespoons Chinese or American dark brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon Totole chicken powder or 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 teaspoon red Sichuan peppercorns
- 1 caoguo (Chinese black cardamom)
- 1 dried erjingtiao chili, or other moderately hot chili (optional)
- 4-6 portions Chinese wheat noodles, 100 grams per portion (thin and round is traditional)
- 4-6 portions Chinese greens such as baby boy choy, baby yu choy, napa cabbage or Chinese celery
- Zhenjiang black vinegar
- chili oil
- sesame oil
- zhacai pickles
- scallions, sliced
- cilantro, roughly chopped
- Sprinkle beef shank generously with kosher salt and coat it all over with five spice. (If using whole spices instead, add them later.)Instant Pot: Push SAUTE button and add 3 tablespoons oil. Add beef and brown on both sides, about 4-5 minutes per side.Stovetop: Add 3 tablespoons oil to a soup pot or dutch oven at medium-high heat. Brown beef on both sides.
- Add 7 cups water to the pot along with the onion, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, wine, chili bean paste, brown sugar, chicken powder (if using), Sichuan peppercorns, black cardamom, and dried chili (if using). Add other whole spices (star anise, cassia bark, fennel seeds and cloves) if you did not use five spice in step 1.
Instant Pot: Cover and secure lid, turn vent to sealing position and press PRESSURE COOK. Adjust pressure level to normal and set timer for 50 minutes. (Or 40 minutes if you prefer your shank sliceable.) Then walk away! When the time is up, let the pressure release naturally, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Stovetop: Bring liquid to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low so that the soup bubbles away at a low simmer. Partially cover pot with lid, leaving just a small opening. Simmer for about 3 hours, stirring periodically. When meat is tender and beginning to fall apart, it is done.
- Remove the beef pieces from the pot with a spider or slotted spoon and hold. Carefully strain the broth to remove solid bits. I do this into a large glass measuring cup so that it's then easy to pour. Let the broth settle for a couple minutes. The oil will float to the top and can be carefully poured off. Or, ideally, use a fat separator.*
- In the meantime, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add your greens and cook briefly, until just barely done. Fish them out with a spider or slotted spoon and hold. Add the noodles and cook until just done. Remove noodles and rinse briefly under hot water. Add noodles to individual serving bowls and top with beef, greens and broth. Let diners add chopped zhacai pickle, scallions, cilantro, chili oil and Zhenjiang vinegar to suit their own taste.