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Udon: Japan’s Versatile Veteran Noodle Steals the Show

Kenichi Watanabe of Onya regales participants with everything they ever wanted to know about udon.

Ramen is often described as Japan’s soul food, but udon is another noodle universally loved by the Japanese. Throughout history it has been more popular than ramen as well as soba, and with a birthdate of 1300 it is the oldest of the three. Udon is known for its versatility, as it can be served cold or hot and enjoyed all year around in numerous styles. The chilly winter months might have you wanting nabeyaki udon (hot-pot with various toppings), whereas our current warm weather is likely to make you crave tsukemen (noodles dipped in chilled sauce).

Udon’s variation lies not only with its preparation, but with the noodle itself. Each region has its own type of udon that is quite distinct from others. For example, Inaniwa udon from Akita is thin, whereas Gunma’s Mizusawa udon is the thickest in Japan. Kagawa’s Sanuki udon is also known for its thickness and body.

The excess flour gets shaken off the noodles before they are boiled.

Here in the city we have our own Sanuki udon specialty restaurant called Onya, located near the Japanese Culinary Center (JCC). These two entities co-sponsored an udon event led by Onya’s Manager Kenichi Watanabe. Watanabe began by highlighting udon’s distinct features. It is comprised of the three basic ingredients flour, water and salt, but is kneaded for a long time to produce its firm texture. In the case of Sanuki udon, the noodles are cooked for about 12 minutes, and are removed after boiling and shocked in cold water. This removes the slimy feel and lowers the udon’s temperature to give it its bite.

Onya’s custom-made pot is heated by jet burners and can hold a 20-person portion of udon.

Watanabe gave a brief demonstration of the start of the Sanuki udon making process by whisking salt and cold water to create 13% salinity (ratio of 1.5 oz. salt to 11 oz. water). Following this, air is added to 2.2 pounds of flour before slowly incorporating the salted water, and then mixing for 10-15 minutes. The dough is wrapped and kept at room temperature for two hours, which activates the protein gluten that provides udon with its firmness. The next step is kneading until the dough becomes sticky, when it is put in the refrigerator to rest overnight.

The action then moved from the JCC to Onya’s kitchen, where pre-prepared udon was being cooked and shown to us via a life feed. Here a new batch of udon is added to a huge pot every 15 minutes, and the water is constantly stirred to keep the temperature consistent. The dishes we sampled were niku udon (hot soup udon noodles with grilled meat) and bukkake udon (udon noodles with clear, soupy sauce and various toppings). The broth was a combination of dashi, made up of water, seaweed, bonito flakes and dried anchovies, and kaeshi, made up of mirin, sugar and soy sauce. Both dishes were adorned with negi (scallions) and sesame, but the bukkake had grated daikon radish instead of meat and a slightly sweeter soup.

The simple perfection of bukkake udon topped with daikon, negi and sesame.

I spoke with some of my fellow participants as they enjoyed the two udon. 15-year old Renzzo Cruz was joined by his aunt and grandmother Nuhma and Norma Tuazon. It was Nuhma’s idea for the family to come, “because Renzzo loves Japanese food so it would be good for him to learn how to make it.” Renzzo commented, “It made me realize how much work goes into noodles!” Norma chimed in, “The fresh taste is so different from what we get at the grocery store.” Participants left the workshop with not only satisfied stomachs but noodles to take home, allowing them to recreate the udon experience in their own kitchens.

———- Reported by Stacy Smith

Japanese Culinary Center
711 3rd Ave., New York, NY 10017
TEL: 212-661-3333
www.japaneseculinarycenter.com/

Onya
143 E. 47th St., New York, NY 10017
TEL: 212-715-0460