Chengdu Challenge #26: Pork Rib Noodle Soup With Sichuan-Style Broth (Sichuan 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 douban jiang 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 yu xiang-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 Fong Chong and Craig have requested this 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 zha cai, which is Sichuan-made preserved mustard tuber that is pretty easy to find at Asian markets in the U.S. (Not to be confused with yacai, or preserved mustard stems, used in many other Sichuan dishes.)
Because Fong Chong 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 insure she gets this soup again.
Revised February 2017
- 2 pounds baby back or spare ribs, sliced vertically through the bone into strips, and then horizontally between the bones, ending in bite-size nuggets
- 4 cups chicken broth
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorn
- 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
- 3-inch piece cassia bark (or shorter cinnamon stick)
- 2 star anise
- 2 cao guo (Chinese cardamom, optional)
- 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-width Asian wheat noodles
- A large handful of Chinese greens such as baby bok choy or taku choy, leaves separated and trimmed
- Zha cai (Sichuan preserved mustard tuber), coarsely chopped
- Bring large pot of water to boil and add pork pieces. Parboil for 5 minutes and remove.
- Clean pot and return to heat with 4 cups chicken broth and 6 cups water. Add the pork pieces, Sichuan peppercorns, fennel seeds, cinnamon stick, star anise, Chinese cardamom, Mandarin orange peel, ginger chunks and 4 scallions to the pot. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer at a low boil for 2 to 2½ hours, stirring every so often.
- When pork is soft and is starting to separate from its bones, after about two hours, cook the noodles in boiling water until desired doneness. Quickly boil the Asian greens separately or, as I do, by throwing them into the noodle pot about two minutes before noodles are done. Drain both and set aside.
- Remove pork from heat, extract the pork nuggets from the broth and set aside. Strain the broth, discarding the remainder of the solids. Stir in 1 tablespoon soy sauce, sugar and salt to taste. You should have about 5 cups of broth.
- Portion noodles and greens in individual serving bowls and top with a few pieces of pork. Garnish with chopped zha cai and pour about ¾ cup broth over each serving. Serve hot.