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Oodles of noodles

In Taiwan, it's all about the beef noodle soup. Here's how to find the perfect bowl.

"It has to smell good enough to stimulate you to want to eat," said Chang. "For many shops, the ingredients of their soup are a business secret."

Most chefs throw in star anise, a fruit often used as a spice in Chinese cooking, he said.

Chang explained the finer points of a good beef noodle soup at Niu Ga Ting, a recently opened restaurant. He discovered this shop the old-fashioned way. One day he rode by on his scooter, smelled the shop's fragrant broth, and simply had to stop for a bite.

He insists on thick noodles, which better soak up the broth. But he said that some Taiwanese, especially women, now prefer less oily "ximian" (vermicelli-like thin noodles).

Taipei's "Michelin Guide" to beef noodles was a serious undertaking. Twelve "pioneers," including Chang, canvassed the city for out-of-the way beef noodle joints. Then 32 judges fanned out in small groups across the city's shops. Netizens were also asked their opinion in an online poll.

The judges were tough — no restaurant passed muster for the elusive "five-star" rating. But several managed to nab four stars.

Then, on Nov. 22, Taipei's best beef noodle chefs gathered across from City Hall for a cook-off. Beside a stage with gyrating "spicy girls" and break-dancers, the chefs chopped, stewed and boiled away for the top prize in one of three categories — soy sauce broth, clear broth and "creative" beef noodle soup.

The winner of the soy sauce broth category, the most classic version of the dish, was a chef from Kaohsiung, Taiwan's second city.

At the awards ceremony, the head judge generously complemented all the chefs. "Actually, all of you have improved greatly since last year," he said. "The difference between the best beef noodle soups was only slight."

Can Taiwan's famous beef noodle soup catch on beyond its shores? Perhaps, but there's one small logistical hurdle: you've got to be handy with the chopsticks and ladle to easily eat it.

"That's why it's more likely to be popular with Japanese than with Americans or Europeans," said Chang, the connoisseur.


Mentioned in this article:

Master Hong's Noodle Store. No 72, Jianguo North Road Section 2, Taipei. 02-2500-6850

Niu Ga Tang. No. 134-2, Kunming St., Taipei. 02-2331-0397

Top-rated restaurants in Taipei's 2009 Beef Noodle Soup Guidebook:

Seventy-two Beef Noodle Soup. No. 188, Jianguo South Road Section 1. 02-2752-5970

Immediate Knife-cut Beef Noodles. No. 116-3, Yanping North Road Section 3. 02-2598-0212

Old Sung's True, Good and Beautiful Beef Noodles. No. 17, Lane 137 Yanji Street. 02-2377-8866