Beef Noodles Expert Talks Traditional Markets – Chef David Bagherzadeh
Article: Cheryl Robbins
Photos: You Juhuang, 4Point Design
David Bagherzadeh, who is from Tehran, Iran, runs Lao Wai Yi Pin Beef Noodles (老外一品牛肉麵) on Jilin Road (吉林路). The first two Chinese characters in its name, lao wai, refer to foreigner. As he dons his chef’s jacket for the interview, he looks down at the embroidered Chinese characters lao wai and the letters that spell out his first name David. He smiles as he says, “I am lao wai. We are all lao wai.”
Traditional Markets: Taiwan vs Iran
Bagherzadeh shops for many ingredients at the nearby Binjiang Market (濱江市場), also known as the Taipei Second Fruits & Vegetables Wholesale Market (台北市第二果菜批發市場). This is an outdoor traditional market that operates from early in the morning and from where he buys vegetables both for his restaurant and for cooking at home. Across from it is the Taipei Fish Market (台北魚市), where there is plenty of fresh seafood available. At these markets, in addition to picking up fresh ingredients, he enjoys eating fast fried foods and sashimi.
He notes that this market is well organized. Similar items are placed together, such as meats with meats and vegetables with vegetables. This differs from traditional markets in Iran where household goods can be in the same area as produce and meats. He says, “This means that you spend a lot more time walking around looking for what you need.”
One of the things that he has had to get used to in traditional markets in Taiwan is the use of catties, rather than kilograms to weigh meats and produce. Moreover, in Iran it is not possible to ask for discounts on any foodstuffs in markets as prices are fixed, while in Taiwan bargaining is allowed. What he considers the largest difference is that in Taiwan’s traditional markets, you can choose which fruits and vegetables you want to buy. “In Iran, you cannot touch the fruits and vegetables. Fruit that is bruised or overripe has already been removed by the vendor, so you don’t have to worry about that.” Bagherzadeh says that he does appreciate being able to select the fruits and vegetables he considers best, even when buying a lot.
As there is much difference in terms of the types of produce sold in traditional markets in Taiwan and Iran, it is difficult for Bagherzadeh to fully compare them. However, he does like the shopping experiences in both.
Traditional markets are good places to see many different ingredients and foods of a place when traveling. Bagherzadeh adds his own personal tip when visiting markets in other countries. “I first go to a convenience store to buy a bottle of cola to understand the local prices before shopping at the market.”
Road to Glory
Bagherzadeh has led an interesting life. At the age of seven, he began training in martial arts, specifically judo. Later, he dabbled in cooking and shoemaking, skills that he applied to earn money to travel. However, his passion for martial arts has not waned. He is now involved in kurash, a term that refers to the folk wrestling styles of central Asia. In his free time, he referees the sport and helps to organize competitions. In August, he accompanied a kurash team from Taipei to the Asian Games.
But, how did he become a beef noodles chef and restaurant owner? Bagherzadeh arrived in Taipei in 1995 after hearing about Taiwan from other backpackers during his travels through Turkey, Greece and Cyprus. When asked why he chose Taipei, he says, “That was the only place in Taiwan I knew.” It wasn’t until several months after his arrival that he tried beef noodles. He says, “There weren’t many signs or menus in English then. So, I would go to the supermarket and look for ingredients and foods that I knew.” As his adventurous spirit kicked in, he began to sample some of the city’s street foods.
It was not a straight shot from his first bowl of beef noodles to opening a beef noodles restaurant, however. Bagherzadeh says that although he was intrigued by the dish, he wasn’t sure about selling it. He decided it would be better to rely on his experience and he opened a Persian restaurant, selling kabobs and other dishes. “It was really difficult to keep staff,” he says. “They would stay for only a few months, because they didn’t see how being trained in Persian cooking would serve them in the future.” After two years, Bagherzadeh threw in the towel on his Persian restaurant idea and decided to focus on beef noodles instead. That was 2007.
After spending the latter half of 2007 and all of 2008 refining his culinary skills, Bagherzadeh joined his first Taipei International New Row Mian Festival (台北國際牛肉麵節) cooking competition in 2009. He recalls, “When I arrived at the competition, people just stared at me.” In the preliminary round there were 60 chefs, with five selected for the final round. Bagherzadeh was among them, ultimately coming in third. Since then, Bagherzadeh has participated in various competitions and among his numerous honors is the title of best-selling beef noodles earned in 2012.
Bagherzadeh uses an imported combination of Persian spices that includes ginger powder, cumin, cinnamon, black pepper and turmeric. This is what gives the broth of his beef noodles its distinctive flavor. Its richness comes from slow simmering of beef bones.
Ingredients are Key
Lao Wai attracts diners from China, Korea, Japan and Western countries. Most come via word of mouth, such as concierge recommendations from nearby hotels, including The Landis Taipei (台北亞都麗緻大飯店). Bagherzadeh adds that, “There are many customers who bring friends or family members who are visiting to try the beef noodles here.” Among Westerners and Japanese, the most popular item on the menu is Braised Beef Noodles (紅燒牛肉麵). For those from China, Korea and Hong Kong, the favorite is Three Treasures Beef Noodle Soup (三寶麵). In addition to braised beef, this dish includes beef tendon and beef tripe.
Bagherzadeh notes that there are large differences in the cooking methods of Taiwanese foods and the foods he grew up eating. He says that, “For Taiwanese foods, you prepare all of the ingredients and then cook them quickly. In Iran, one ingredient is added, then a while later another and so on. It is a much longer cooking process.” He adds that, “For people from Iran, beef noodles would be thought of as a snack, not a full meal.” But, no matter the place or the cooking method, ingredients are key. “If you know how to drive, you can get behind the wheel of almost any car,” he says. He adds that it is the same with cooking.
It seems that Bagherzadeh’s love affair with beef noodles, Taiwanese cuisine and Taipei City will not end anytime soon. He says that Taipei has become very familiar to him. “Anytime I travel in Taiwan, I start to miss Taipei.” To experience this passion and to taste his unique take on beef noodles, head to Lao Wai!
Lao Wai Yi Pin Beef Noodles
403, Jilin Road, Zhongshan Dist.
A Favorite Recipe
Bagherzadeh not only prepares beef noodles for his restaurant, but also side dishes such as Golden Kimchi (黃金泡菜) and even beverages such as Smoked Plum Juice (酸梅湯). One of his favorite dishes to make, and also a best-seller, is Pickled Cucumber Salad (涼拌黃瓜) (recipe below). He researches each new dish online and often finds several versions. He experiments with the recipes and adds his own touch. He encourages those interested in learning how to make Taiwanese dishes to do the same.
Pickled Cucumber Salad
‧fresh cucumbers: 2,400g
‧sesame oil: 30cc
‧white vinegar: 600cc
‧chopped garlic: 15-20 cloves of garlic
‧chopped chili peppers: 3g
At least 8 hours before preparing this dish, cut the cucumbers into pieces and allow to air dry.
Then, add the chopped garlic and chili peppers and, finally, the cucumber pieces.
Into a large bowl or container add the salt, sugar, sesame oil and white vinegar. Stir to allow the sugar to dissolve.
Mix all ingredients thoroughly. Store overnight in the refrigerator. If kept refrigerated, this dish can last for about one week.
For Pickled Cucumber Salad, it is necessary to cut the cucumbers into sections at least 8 hours before using them to ensure that they are dry enough. If too wet, the color of the cucumbers will fade and the dish will not stay fresh long.