As we approach the Year of the Ox, we want to celebrate with a recipe that features oxtail—a cut of meat that traditionally came from the tail of oxen, but is now more commonly derived from cow.
My go-to association with the cut has always been oxtail borscht soup, a common appetizer in Hong Kong, but one that is also dear to my heart because it’s a soup that I grew up enjoying in the Hong Kong-style cafes in Los Angeles. Created by Russian exiles to China, the dish is a Chinese spin on the traditional Ukrainian borscht, but with tomatoes and oxtail in lieu of beets.
A well-balanced Hong Kong oxtail borscht should be a mix of sweet, sour and savory. Half a lemon in the stock brings out the acidity, braised oxtail adds the savory element, and the natural sweetness of tomatoes rounds out the entire dish.
The soup became associated with Hong Kong when some of the Russian diaspora moved there and local chefs co-opted their dish into cha chaan teng diners across the city. Today, the borscht is commonly served alongside thick slabs of bread and butter, and other Western fusion dishes like baked spaghetti with cheese and grilled steaks drizzled with black pepper sauce.
Of course, throughout time, the Hong Kong rendition of borscht has evolved to taste nothing like its Eastern European counterpart. It’s much sweeter than its progenitor and is more like a classic tomato soup than a beet borscht. Yet for many people who grew up around Hong Kong cuisine, this dish is an idyllic source of comfort food and a reliable way to start off a meal.
It is also remarkably easy to whip up. Tomato paste, onions, garlic, and bay leaves are the main aromatics. Then a parade of vegetables—like carrots, cabbage, potatoes and celery—give it texture and depth. The main attraction, of course, is the oxtail. Oxtail is especially beautiful in stews because it creates a deep, nuanced flavor. The bone in the middle of the tail is chock-full of nutrition, and its punchy essence can only be extracted with a long stewing time. But be warned: It takes two to three hours of slow-braising to get the gelatin and meat on the oxtail soft enough so that it falls off the bone. You can make the beef stock ahead of time with oxtail and beef bones, but if you don’t have the time, buying pre-made beef stock works just as well. This recipe can be easily adapted to work in a slow-cooker or pressure cooker, but I did it the old-fashioned way—with a big stock pot over low heat.
Hong Kong Oxtail Borscht Soup
Cooking time: 3 hours
1. In a medium-sized pot, add in the oxtail and beef shank and fill the pot up with water so that the meat is covered by about an inch. Turn the heat up to medium and when the water comes to a gentle simmer, skim off the bubbles and foam. Turn off the heat and strain out the meat. This process blanches the meat to get rid of the blood and other impurities. Set the meat aside for later.
2. In a large Dutch oven or stock pot over medium heat, add in 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When the oil starts shimmering, add in the garlic, onions and tomato paste. Stir until the paste is evenly distributed, then add the cabbage, carrots, tomatoes and the blanched meat. Mix it all together, then add in the broth, lemon, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Turn the heat to low and cook for 1 hour.
3. Add the potatoes and celery. Add salt and pepper to taste. If it’s too strong, dilute with a bit of water. Cook on low heat for another 1-1.5 hours.
4. Serve and enjoy.