Soup, Spices, and a little Sorrow (Recipe)

Po-Po's Beef Noodle Soup with new spices and homemade noodles. 

Po-Po's Beef Noodle Soup with new spices and homemade noodles. 

Dad and I sat comfortably on the couch together. Our shoulders touched and we were laughing about who knows what. This was our sitcom family moment, 20 years too late. 

I visit with my father a few times a year and toggle between being a “broken woman” and “dutiful daughter” each time, a little pissed about his absence during those complex and sometimes mortifying teenage years. (I’ll never forget all the excuses I made when friends would ask where my dad was.) Before leaving his house, I dutifully quiz him on his diet and finances. He’s always consuming too much canned foods or spending too lavishly. A “few times a year,” is probably enough for both of us. 

But here we were, half-pretending to be close and half-experiencing an unusual father/daughter bond. He was ecstatically bragging about the beef noodle soup recipe he recently perfected, born from an old family recipe. I was happy to see him so enthusiastic, especially around me. 

“My beef noodle soup is better than your grandmother’s,” he boasted. And suddenly, our family sitcom moment came to a halt. How dare he? I love my Po-Po’s beef noodle soup so much that I wrote an essay about it for Bon Appétit Magazine years ago. I felt the broken woman in me rising to the surface, ready for a fight. 

He continued. “The secret is in the spice blend,”

“Duh!” I fired back. “I know. Po-Po uses star anise and peppercorns, too.” 

Dad shot up and left the room for a brief second. He returned with a homemade spice bag. 

“Here, smell this.” Unwillingly, I did as I was told. The scent was magical. It was spicy, zesty, and importantly, it filled my insides with hunger. How can a spice blend make my mouth water so much, I thought. I took another whiff and nearly od’ed from the melange of dried orange peels, anise, cloves, peppercorns, and ginseng packed into the tiny sack.  

“Take a few bags home. You’ll see.” He threw a couple bags my way. While I feigned reluctancy, I was both excited and nervous inside. It was like a couple of those bags made up for the twenty years I longed for him, though I hoped the flavor was as remarkable as he proclaimed. He’s disappointed me before. 

Recently, I was hosting my friend Amanda for dinner. I wanted to make Po-Po’s beef noodle soup but was out of star anise. Dad’s untouched spice bags were practically begging me to be used. I decided to go for it. The spices, along with beef shank, soy, sugar, garlic, and green onions, went into my dutch oven. For four hours, my apartment inherited an unfamiliar scent. Perhaps it was the dried orange peels? 

Before Amanda showed up, I helped myself to a spoonful of the soup. It tasted different from Po-Po’s version, but it was nonetheless delicious. For the first time, Dad came through. He was right, the secret was in the spice blend. I called him immediately to share the good news, eager for praises, but the call went straight to voicemail. Strangely, I didn't feel so broken anymore. 

Dad's secret spice blend.

Dad's secret spice blend.

The quintessential food blog photo, starring my friend Amanda. 

The quintessential food blog photo, starring my friend Amanda. 

Here is the recipe that ran in Bon Appétit. Play around with the spice blend until you find your perfect combination. 

Po-Po’s Sichuan Beef Noodle Soup with Pickled Mustard Greens