Every Sunday for several years when I was growing up in Manila, we’d pile into the family car and head out to our favorite Chinese noodle house for lunch.
We kids could order whatever we wanted, but somehow I always chose the same thing: a beef brisket noodle soup with each element of the dish in its own bowl. The clear broth was deliciously beefy and the fresh wheat noodles supple and al dente. But it was the brisket itself that I always polished off. The moist hunks, tender yet pleasantly chewy, were infused with exotic aromatic spices that I found irresistible. Dipping each bite into a bit of bright red chile sauce (there was a jar on every table) made it even better.
My father, who knew the owner of the noodle shop, said that each of the chefs, who’d been brought in from Hong Kong, jealously guarded his culinary secrets. The dumpling chef, for one, would retreat to a corner in the kitchen to make the fillings, hunching over so prying eyes would not see his masterful proportions. Not that anyone was looking; each cook was in his own nook furtively concocting his specialty.
Knowing that raised the beef brisket in my esteem. After all, secret things happened in the kitchen to make it so good.
For decades afterward, I was content to leave that brisket as just a delicious memory. But as I grew into a cook myself, that memory returned more frequently -- and most persistently after chance encounters with what I came to realize was its signature spice: star anise. And so grew my hankering, and courage, to conjure up the dish in my kitchen.
It seemed such a daunting task, though, that I kept putting it off. But one day, I happened to ask my father if he remembered this brisket, and he surprised me by rattling off the requisite spices: fennel seeds, cumin seeds, cinnamon stick, dried orange peel, fresh ginger and of course, star anise. And don’t forget, he said, the rice wine, soy sauce and Chinese crystal rock sugar. I wanted to yell, “Why didn’t you ever tell me this?” But in fact, I had never asked. So instead I asked how he knew. “I used to do the purchasing for the restaurant when it first started,” he said, quite matter-of-factly.
I gathered the spices and went into the kitchen. I recalled helpful techniques from my father, an avid watcher of Chinese cooking shows. I consulted Chinese cookbooks.
What I found surprised and delighted me. It turns out that my favorite brisket, a so-called red-simmered or red-braised dish, is also a favorite at Chinese New Year celebrations. Red is the color of prosperity, so a red-braised brisket (meaning that it’s cooked in a reddish-brown sauce of spices and stock) symbolizes luck in the year ahead.
It’d be easy to take this dish for granted today. My grandmother, though, who lived in a poor rural area of Guangdong, could only dream of the dish. “They didn’t have the luxury of those spices,” my father said.
In a pinch, you could do without the cumin seeds or the cinnamon stick, but forget the star anise and this brisket will be a shadow of itself. It’s the one spice this dish cannot do without. And star anise makes red-braised brisket even luckier. Native to China, the spice has aromatic oils that are concentrated in its eight seeds, each held in one of its eight segments. Eight, to the Chinese, is the luckiest number of all.
It’s a lucky dish for the cook, too: It’s one of the easiest things to make for a party. Just blanch the beef, then leave it to simmer in a heady concoction of rice wine, soy sauce and spices. It can -- and ideally should -- be made ahead, whether it’s the day before or the morning of dinner. That way, after a couple of hours of braising, the brisket can steep in the fragrant cooking liquid and settle into a lovely state of tender chewiness. All the while, the flavors continue to meld.
It’s best made with the leaner half of the brisket, called the flat cut, rather than the more familiar -- and fattier -- point cut. (A whole brisket, which comes from the breast section under the first five ribs, is usually divided into these two cuts.)
These days, instead of serving noodles and soup with red-braised brisket, I steam or stir-fry some baby bok choy or nappa cabbage; the greens are a perfect foil to all that meaty succulence. And just as I did as a child, I reach for that jar of hot chile sauce.
But for real proof of red-braised brisket’s auspiciousness, consider that it is more long-sighted than you might think.
Save the braising sauce and your fortune is set: Your next brisket will be even better. All you need to do is use this mother sauce in place of some of the water and replenish it with spices. Do this every time and your brisket will be more flavorful than the last. How lucky is that?