2 lbs beef chuck, tri-tip roast, or flank steak, sliced against the grain into 1-inch chunks
Salt and pepper, to taste (I used about ¼ teaspoon each)
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon molasses (optional; you can also replace the granulated sugar with brown sugar)
2 cups diced onion (about 1 large onion)
½ cup garlic cloves, peeled and smashed (about 1 head of garlic)
½ cup sliced scallions (about 3–4 scallions), plus more for serving
3–4 tablespoons spicy chili broad bean paste (doubanjiang, the same as used in zhajiangmian; look for pixian doubanjiang for the highest quality, but more common brands like Lee Kum Kee will do you just fine)
2 teaspoons grated ginger
2 quarts water
½ cup Shaoxing wine or sake
½ cup diced tomato (about 1 small tomato)
½ cup soy sauce
2 teaspoons Sichuan peppercorns
3 pieces star anise
½ teaspoon five spice powder
4–6 small heads baby bok choy, ends trimmed but intact (about 4 cups)
1 lb noodles of your choice, enough for 4–6 servings
½ cup sliced scallions
½ cup coarsely chopped cilantro
Heat the vegetable oil in a large 5-quart Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, until shimmering. Add the steak, season generously with salt and pepper, and cook, turning the beef occasionally, until browned on all sides, about 5-6 minutes. Add the sugar and and molasses and continue to cook 1-2 more minutes, stirring continuously, until the sugar caramelizes.
Remove the beef from the pot. (I find tongs like these to be super handy for this.) Add the onion, garlic, scallions, and ginger to the pot and cook for 4-5 minutes, stirring, until onion just begins to soften. Add the spicy bean paste and stir to evenly distribute.
Add the beef back to the pot, along with the water, cooking wine, tomato, soy sauce, peppercorns, star anise, and five spice powder. Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat to medium-low and let cook at a bare simmer for at least 2 hours and ideally 3, skimming any scum off the top as it forms. (Note: You can make Steps 1-3 the night before and let the stew chill in the refrigerator overnight at this point; this is what I did.)
When you’re ready to eat, you can remove the beef from the broth and strain out any other solids from the broth; I tend to leave them in for ease (or, more accurately, laziness). If needed, reheat the beef and broth on the stovetop while you prepare the bok choy and noodles. If the soup has cooked down too much, add a cup or so of water to dilute it a bit.
For the bok choy and noodles, bring a medium pot of water to boil. Add the bok choy and simmer for 3-4 minutes, or until bok choy is tender and leaves are dark green. Remove with tongs and add the noodles; cook the noodles according to the directions on the package. Divide the noodles, bok choy, beef, and broth evenly between 4-6 bowls, then top with scallions and cilantro and enjoy! If serving for fewer, make just enough noodles as needed and save the remaining bok choy, beef, and broth for another time — the flavor will only improve with time. The beef soup will keep for 3-4 days.