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.