Behind the Recipes

Hawaiian Oxtail Soup

In this Chinese-influenced local favorite, spicy-sweet aromatics perfume a rich broth brimming with pungent greens and meaty knobs of its signature ingredient.

Published Jan. 19, 2022.

In Hawaii, oxtail soup is steeped in history—and the ghost of homesickness. Early versions date to the mid- to late 19th century, when scores of Chinese people from Guangdong Province arrived in Hawaii as laborers for its sugar and pineapple plantations. With thousands of miles of ocean separating them from their families, the newcomers found consolation in preparing familiar foods. And oxtails, readily available thanks to Hawaii’s burgeoning cattle industry (see “How Beef Came to Every Hawaiian Table”), allowed them to re-create some of the nourishing, long-cooked soups from Guangdong that more commonly featured pork or chicken. They loaded up the pot with this cut, along with traditional Cantonese flavorings and vegetables, and a Hawaiian classic was born.  

The succulent meat and bits of mineral-sweet marrow clinging to the oxtails’ bony hollows are star attractions in the soup. But the whole ensemble is a stunner. The broth is beefy-rich; silky with gelatin; spicy with ginger; and fragrant with star anise and the aged dried orange peel known as chen pi. There’s a hint of sweetness from jujubes (Chinese dates) and earthy notes from dried black mushrooms (and in banquet‑worthy versions, maybe a whisper of alcohol). Creamy peanuts add texture, and depending on the cook and the occasion, so might other items such as lotus root and winter melon. Mustardy gai choy goes in at the end, and then cilantro and scallions are heaped on before serving. Everyone gets soy sauce and grated ginger at the table for additional seasoning.

How Beef Came to Every Hawaiian Table

Beef has long been a thread in the vibrant, multicultural tapestry of local Hawaiian cooking, but this wasn’t exactly the goal when British explorer George Vancouver made a gift of several cows and a steer to Hawaii’s King Kamehameha I in 1793—the first cattle to ever graze its grassy, rolling hills. The move was self-serving. “It was the custom of the British explorers to drop off cattle and sheep in case they came back,” said culinary historian Rachel Laudan, author of The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage (1996). “They would leave them in strategic spots and hope that they’d multiply and become provisions in the future.” At Vancouver’s urging, the king even put a temporary moratorium on slaughtering the animals. The cattle multiplied so dramatically over the next few decades that the Hawaiian monarchy hired cowboys from the then-Mexican territory of California to help control them. The upshot: the birth of cattle ranching on these islands—and beef not only on British tables but also on native Hawaiians’ and those of all the immigrant groups who settled on the archipelago. –Amanda Agee

The appeal of this dish among locals is so universal that it’s as likely to be served in a diner as it is to company for dinner. Lynette Lo Tom (@brightlightcookery), a fifth-generation Hawaiian of Chinese descent and author of A Chinese Kitchen: Traditional Recipes with an Island Twist (2015), attributes Hawaiians’ special love for the Chinese version (it can also tilt Okinawan, Japanese, or Korean) to its heady aroma. “It’s the smell, you know, you just get that feeling,” she told me. 

Oxtails: Perfect for Pressure Cooking

There’s hardly a better cut for imparting beefy flavor and lustrous body to broth than oxtail. This appendage from the posterior of a cow is full of connective tissue that transforms into gelatin during cooking, making the meat meltingly tender and the broth satiny. On the stovetop, that process can take 3 or 4 hours, but using the high setting of a multicooker, we were able to reduce the time to an hour, plus 30 minutes for releasing steam naturally. A note on shopping: Oxtails are sliced into sections that range greatly in diameter depending on whether they were cut from the top of the tail or the bottom. If possible, buy wider, 2-inch‑thick pieces to help ensure that the meat doesn’t overcook and stays attached to the bone. You can order oxtails from your butcher; they’re also often found in the freezer section.

Beefing Up the Broth

For a soup as rich and nuanced as this one, I quickly discovered that pulling it together was straightforward. The trimmed oxtails go into the pot with water and everything save the greens (and other vegetables that can’t withstand the long simmer), and then they’re cooked until they’re tender. The aromatics are then discarded, the broth strained of fat, and the gai choy briefly wilted. My main challenge: getting a rich, gelatinous, clear broth without hours of cooking; laborious skimming; or having to blanch the oxtails first, as many Hawaiian cooks do to remove impurities. I also wanted to figure out the best way to ensure that the gai choy didn’t lose its tender chew and that any other vegetables I might include were perfectly cooked, too.

Using a multicooker solved the first issue. It dramatically shortened the usual 3 to 4 hours necessary to cook the oxtails, and because liquid in a pressure cooker doesn’t bubble violently except when it’s venting, the foam remained intact and was easily strained. One hour under pressure, plus 30 minutes for the pressure to release naturally, gave the oxtails’ collagen enough time to convert to silky gelatin while still allowing the meat to cling gently to the bones—a must in the soup, according to Lo Tom. “For us,” she noted, “the joy is the meat being the perfect texture, where it’s soft but not dissolved off the bone.”

Flavorings That Taste Like Home 

The vast majority of the first Chinese settlers and sojourners in Hawaii came from Guangdong Province, where long-simmered broths known as lo foh tong (“old-fire soup”) were essential to daily life. A number of ingredients treasured in those soul-satisfying tonics, such as the aged dried Mandarin orange peel called chen pi, made it into the oxtail soup they crafted in Hawaii. We use some of them, too, for a soup suffused with a remarkable array of flavors and fragrances. 

Figuring Out the Add-Ins

For the aromatics, Lo Tom stressed using plenty of ginger for spicy kick. I landed on 8 ounces, bundling it into cheesecloth for easy removal, along with lots of star anise and slivers of the musky, floral chen pi I’d sourced from an Asian market. For the remaining ingredients, after testing recipes from other Hawaiian Chinese cookbooks, I opted to stick with the essentials: peanuts, dried jujubes, and dried shiitakes, all of which could be slipped in with the aromatics at the start of cooking. Gai choy would then be easy to add at the end. For seasoning, soy sauce and salt did the trick. 

Once the oxtails were done and the broth enriched by all the other ingredients, I transferred the meat, shiitakes, and peanuts to a large bowl. I strained the stock, including the jujubes (some cooks chop the dates and add them back, but I found the soup plenty complex without them), to yield a clean, full-bodied broth. Cooking the gai choy was a simple matter of reheating the strained broth on the highest sauté function until it was piping hot and then wilting the greens in the broth with the heat turned off.

I divided the oxtails, shiitakes, and peanuts among bowls; ladled the broth and greens over the top; and capped each with cilantro and scallions, all while luxuriating in the soup’s beefy, vibrant aroma. 

Multicooker Hawaiian Oxtail Soup

In this Chinese-influenced local favorite, spicy-sweet aromatics perfume a rich broth brimming with pungent greens and meaty knobs of its signature ingredient.  
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