Meaty Memories

My Dad taught me to love this unconventional cut of beef.


The name alone may make some people blanch.

But to me, the tail never fails to get me in the heart.

You see, oxtails were the very last dish that I cooked for my Dad before he passed away. And so, they always make me think of him.

He’s the one who taught me true appreciation for this once-shunned, once-inexpensive cut that has such brazen beefiness.

If you like short ribs, you’re sure to go crazy for oxtails, which cook up even more tender with even more profound flavor. You can find them easily in the butcher case of Asian markets.

Sure, there’s more cartilage and bone in oxtails. But that’s what adds to their flavor and makes eating them such messy fun.

My Dad would cook up a cavernous pot on weekends, simmering the cut-up oxtails with star anise, soy sauce and ginger in a brothy cross between a soup and a stew. He’d throw in carrots and turnips, then let the pot simmer for hours until the meat was as tender as can be.

Then, he’d ladle big scoops of it into flat bowls filled with fluffy steamed rice, with the grains absorbing the aromatic broth so perfectly.

When I was a kid, I liked the smaller ends of the tail better than the larger ones that held more meat. That’s because the tinier ones fit my fingers so much better when I gnawed on them heartily to get every last strand of meat.

Fancy restaurants bone out the meat now for a neater presentation. But at its core, oxtails make for a dish you just have to dig into with your hands, just as you would aƂĀ  cracked crab. If you’re familiar with the gleeful slurping sounds you hear at ramen restaurants, you’ll be more than prepared for that sucking sound that’s a clear signal that someone is happily eating oxtails with their fingers.

“Savory Braised Oxtails with Preserved Lemon Polenta” is from Chef Ming Tsai’s first cookbook, “Blue Ginger” (Clarkson Potter). I’ve made this dish once every winter since the book came out in 1999. That’s how good this dish is.

It’s not the traditional, soupy-style of Chinese oxtail that my Dad used to cook. It’s more contemporary, and even a little richer.

It’s still a long-simmered dish that cooks on the stovetop for about three hours. There are still plenty of wonderful aromatics, including fennel, carrots, celery, garlic, lemongrass, bay leaves, plum tomatoes, dark soy sauce and Shaoxing wine.ƂĀ  Once the oxtail are cooked, remove them from the pot, then puree the cooking liquid with an immersion blender. The result is a velvety sauce with the color and body of mole negro.

The oxtails are served with creamy polenta brightened with the tang and saltiness of preserved lemon, which you can buy at gourmet stores or make your own easily at home with my directions here. The genius touch is that the polenta cooks in the oven, so you don’t have to give your arm a workout with all the usual stirring. The oxtails also go great with plain white rice, if that’s more your fancy.

You’ll probably end up with quite a bit of extra sauce leftover after finishing up all the oxtails. I like to freeze it to use as a base for making beef stew later on. Trust me, you don’t want to waste any of the sauce.

I hope this oxtail dish becomes a favorite that you look forward to making every winter, just as I do. One taste always makes me nostalgic for my childhood and for the man who taught me to savor some of the finer, more unorthodox tastes in life.

Savory Braised Oxtail with Preserved Lemon Polenta

(Serves 4)

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 cup salt

2 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper

12 large oxtail (6 to 8 pounds)

4 tablespoons canola oil

2 large onions chopped

2 medium fennel bulbs, cored and roughly chopped

1 celery stalk, chopped

1 large carrot, peeled and chopped

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger

10 garlic cloves, peeled

4 lemongrass stalks, white parts only, pounded and finely chopped

2 cups Shaoxing wine

1 (1-pound) can plum tomatoes, drained

1 cup dark soy sauce

4 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried

2 bay leaves

1 lemon, halved

Preserved Lemon Polenta (see recipe below)

On a platter, combine flour, salt and pepper, and mix. Add oxtails and dredge on all sides. Set aside.

Heat a Dutch oven or heavy large pot over medium high heat. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil and swirl to coat bottom of the pot. When the oil shimmers, add oxtails and brown on all sides, about 10 to 12 minutes, working in batches if necessary. Remove the oxtails, wipe out the pot, and add remaining 2 tablespoons oil. When oil shimmers, add onions, fennel, celery, carrot, ginger, garlic and lemongrass. Saute, stirring until soft, about 10 minutes. Add wine, stir, and cook to reduce it by half, 6 to 8 minutes. Add tomatoes, soy sauce, thyme, bay leaves and lemon. Return meat to the pot, add water to cover, and correct seasonings. The liquid should be well seasoned. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, and simmer, covered, until the meat falls from the bones, about 3 hours.

Remove oxtails to a plate and skim sauce to remove fat. Remove bay leaves, lemons, and thyme sprigs, if using, and cook over high heat to reduce sauce by one-fourth, 8 to 10 minutes. Using a hand or standard blender, puree sauce. Correct seasonings. Divide polenta among 4 plates, top with oxtails, spoon some of the sauce over, and serve.

Preserved Lemon Polenta

(Serves 4)

5 tablespoons butter

1/4 cup finely chopped shallots

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger

1 cup medium-grain polenta or cornmeal

1/4 cup preserved lemons

4 cups chicken stock or low-sodium canned broth

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Heat a large ovenproof saucepan over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Add shallots and ginger, and saute, stirring until soft, about 6 minutes.

Add polenta, preserved lemon, and stock. Season with salt and pepper, stir well, fold in remaining butter, and cover tightly with foil. Transfer to the oven and bake until liquid is absorbed, about 45 minutes to 1 hour. Correct seasonings and serve.

Recipes from “Blue Ginger” by Ming Tsai

Another Ming Tsai Recipe: Cranberry-Hoisin Chicken ‘N’ Rice

More: My Q&A with Ming Tsai

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  • An absolutely amazing meal! The oxtails sound so good and I love the idea of polenta with preserved lemons, excellent!

  • My hubby loves oxtails. This dish sounds wonderful. And the lemon polenta sounds like a wonderful companion to the hearty meat!

  • Great momories. That dish looks really flavorful and delicious! I’ve never had oxtail and would be glad to taste such a wonderful specioality.



  • How wonderful. I don’t think I have ever tried ox tail, it did use to scare me when I was younger and now I will try anything, really. Do you still have your dad’s recipe?

  • This soup looks superb! Oxtail makes the best soup –thick and savory with all the cartilage and beefy goodness…I just cook mine in a crockpot and make a peanuty sauce with lots of blanched veggies.

  • This sounds amazing. I like oxtails but haven’t had them in a long time. My dad would make them too! Must be a Chinese thing. I am definitely going to try this.

  • Polwig: I do not have my Dad’s exact recipe for oxtails. But it seems similar to many that I’ve seen in traditional Chinese cookbooks. One day, I will have to try to recreate it.

  • I’ve never really eaten a lot of oxtails in my life, but your version looks sooo meaty. You must have gotten some nice cuts at the market!

  • Oxtails are the best. We used to eat them a lot in our family dinners…this is a great inspiration to make it again!

  • beautiful memories of your father, a perfect dish to celebrate him..I love the blue ginger cookbook…and the preserved lemon polenta..yum!

  • I love braised oxtail or oxtail in a stew! I will try this sometime. Let me buy the oxtail first! LOL!

  • OH yes! We definitely are spookily similar. To me oxtail equals lovely, luscious amounts of flavour. And when people blanch at the mere mention I just think “more for me!” šŸ˜›

  • How delicious! I’ve never tried oxtail, but I’d love to. It looks so savoury and rich. This definitely looks like a must try.
    *kisses* HH

  • I don’t think I have ever made a Ming Tsai recipe I didn’t love. He is brilliant in the kitchen! Thank you for sharing your story and memory with us. Food finds a way, with its aromas and flavors into our souls and provides comfort when we need a little reminder about the ones that are no longer with us.

  • Wow, I’ve never really felt compelled to try oxtail but these look so good that I now know I absolutely must!

  • I love Ming Tsai and this dish has me swooning.

  • I am chinese jamaican and we also ate stewed oxtail. It was and still is my favourite comfort food. I’m hosting a dinner party in a few weeks and I’m making your posted recipe. Thanks!

  • Savory Braised Oxtail with Preserved Lemon Polenta is very delicious, thanks! I think healthy ingredients are as important, try getting them and putting it into the dishes you are making to eat at

  • I don’t think I have ever cooked oxtail. Just don’t know how to cook it. But yours looks good and tastes good. Love all the ingredients used. I have never tried polenta. Sounds like a great combination…mmm

  • What a lovely, touching post. And isn’t food such a part of our memories? And this dish looks so flavorful and delicious I would most definitely eat a serving. The Asian flavors are stunning! I love polenta and I am so intrigued by your preserved lemon version. I must try it.

  • Wow, you have me convinced I need to run to my neighborhood butcher and acquire some ox tail. Thanks for sharing this wonderful recipe.

  • Oxtail is truly one of my favourite cuts to cook with. In winter I substitute mince beef for a hearty oxtail spag bol. So beautiful to have fond memories of your Dad associated with a favourite dish you shared.

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  • I make Oxtails every week for my daughter. She can’t get enough of them. And they freeze very well. But I make them Haitian style and slightly spicy. All her friends are amazed her Dad can cook Oxtails. Great post!!

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