This comforting dish is sure to be a hit with any housebound traveler who misses the street food of Thailand.
While on assignment several years ago in Buriram, a city and province in Thailand’s vast northeastern region of Isan, I stumbled across a small noodle joint run by a young chef just steps away from the hotel. Running along a counter down one side of the venue was a large rectangular stainless-steel vat of clear, caramel-colored soup. I recognized the ingredients floating in the aromatic broth as it gently simmered away: star anise, cinnamon, whole Sichuan peppercorns, goji berries, and knotted pandan leaves. Over those few days in Buriram, I returned time and time again for bowls of mee toon, which I later learned was simply the generic Thai term for “braised noodles,” made with either pork, chicken, or beef, and featuring blanched beansprouts. This place served a slightly elevated version; it was always garnished with fresh watercress dusted in powdered white pepper, and was perfectly styled for Instagram.
Since that trip, I’ve always wanted to try replicating mee toon in my own kitchen. But I didn’t act on those thoughts until social-distancing restrictions here in Jakarta made eating out impossible. Three separate tries based off online recipes taught me a few things: the thinner the noodles, the better (don’t use kwetiau); beef shank is preferable to chuck and sirloin because of its high collagen content; and patience is a must. Making mee toon is not particularly labor intensive, but you’ll want to attempt this on a weekend afternoon as it requires a few hours of braising so the beef shank—which starts out tough, dry, and sinewy—develops a tender, melt-in-the-mouth texture.
My own recipe diverges somewhat from the mee toon I had in Buriram, as it does not feature blanched beansprouts, goji berries, Sichuan peppercorn, or a topping of fresh watercress. The addition of clove and cumin brings a bit more warmth and complexity, and paprika gives the soup a redder tint. I have also added chopped chilies for an extra dash of color and heat. It might not be exactly the same, but there’s enough of a resemblance to transport me back to that little noodle joint in northeast Thailand.
THAI-INSPIRED BRAISED BEEF NOODLES
600g beef shanks, deboned
3 large cinnamon sticks
5 pieces star anise
6 pieces galangal, cut into sections roughly 2 cm thick
1 tbsp coriander seed
1 tbsp cumin
½ tbsp clove
½ tbsp ground black pepper
3–4 pandan leaves, tied into knots
1 tbsp Thai fish sauce
2 tbsp oyster sauce
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp palm sugar
½ tbsp Worcestershire sauce
Salt to taste
220g (four bundles) of egg noodles or rice vermicelli
4–6 chopped thin red chilies, depending on your preference for heat
4 large cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 tbsp ground paprika
Sprigs of fresh Thai basil or lemon basil, for garnish
- Using a Dutch oven, toast the cinnamon sticks, star anise, coriander seed, galangal, cumin, and clove on medium-high heat until fragrant.
- Pour in 1-1.5 liters of distilled water, or until the Dutch oven is about 3/4 full.
- When the water begins to boil, add the ground black pepper, palm sugar, and sauces, stirring as you go along.
- Add the uncut beef shanks to the stock. After 15 minutes or so, skim the fat and impurities off the surface.
- Once the fat and impurities have been removed, cover the soup and cook over low heat. You may have to top up the water every 20–30 minutes to keep the beef shanks completely covered.
- After two and a half hours, remove the beef shanks from the stock and set aside.
- In a separate pot, sauté the garlic and chilies on medium heat until fragrant. Coat with the powdered paprika and sauté for another minute or so. Before the garlic turns golden brown, ladle the soup into the pot, using a strainer to catch the spices. Bring to a boil.
- When the beef has cooled enough so it is safe to handle, cut the meat into smaller pieces or slice it thinly across the grain.
- Add the pieces of beef into the pot and simmer on low heat for another hour, or until the meat is fork-tender. Taste the soup and add a bit of salt if required.
- Bring a smaller pot of water to a boil, and blanch the egg noodles for 1.5–2 minutes. If you are using rice vermicelli, soak the bundles in hot water for about two minutes, or until the noodles soften while retaining a bit of bite. Drain thoroughly and divide between serving bowls.
- Arrange the pieces of beef on one side of the noodles, pour in the soup, and garnish with sprigs of Thai basil or lemon basil before serving.