Udon Noodles through the Centuries
Contrary to what most people believe, Japan’s culinary sensations do not end with sushi nami. Udon is a local delicacy well-loved by both Japanese and foreign travelers alike. Its noodles are made from wheat flour which is mixed with lightly salted water. The flour is then stretched, kneaded and cut into thin strips. Once cooked, it will be mixed with delicious, heart-warming soups. Its popularity knows no bounds as Michelin trained chefs all over the world seek guidance from Udon experts to make the globe’s most delectable Udon dish.
Although a traditional food in Japan, Udon noodles actually originated from China centuries ago. In fact, most of Japan’s famous local delicacies, maybe sushi nami is an exception, are influenced strongly by the Chinese culture. Trade between Chinese and Japanese merchants strongly intertwined both their cultures that it became difficult to distinguish where certain traditions originated first.
Even though Udon is now a Japanese staple, there was a time when this kind of dish was made available only for the rich people. Since it was a kind of delicacy with a foreign origin, it was considered as high class and was served only to noblemen. People of much lower classes, like the farmers, did not have the chance to taste udon at the time.
However, through the years, farmers learned to make their own version of the dish through flour from wheat that they have locally grown. This marked the beginning of the popularity of the udon dish. Now centuries later, udon noodles can be found everywhere and can be eaten at any time.
Tips on How to Eat Japanese Udon
What makes the udon dish much more special is the fact that no two kinds of serving are the same. The thickness, firmness, and texture of the noodle vary for every region in Japan. The broth, the toppings, and the flavor tell a different story every time. Ask any local from different prefectures in Japan and they will point their visitors to the restaurants that serve their specialty udon dish - a dish any traveler would swear they have never tasted before.
In fact, a lot of people say that the way the easterners and westerners eat their udon varies. This is known as the great Kanto and Kansai feud. For anything the Kansai people do, eat, or say the Kanto people have a reply. Kanto is the eastern region of Japan which is home to prefectures such as Tokyo and Yokohama. On the other hand, Kansai is the western region of Japan which is home to the prefectures of Nara, Kyoto, and Osaka. Both regions feud about everything, especially their food.
Kanto Udon Vs. Kansai Udon
Noodle - Generally, the noodle served in udon from both Kanto and Kansai are pretty similar but has no particular trend. This is because of the fact that the noodles served per prefecture varies. There are some regions that serve the noodles firm. Some people confuse udon with the rice noodles, but rice noodles are usually much thinner and softer. Udon noodles are fat and chewy.
There are other prefectures that serve the soft, chewy and smooth kinds. Although the idea of the udon noodle is to serve them as fat noodles, there are still some places that serve their noodles thin. There are even some restaurants that let their customers decide on the thickness, consistency, and firmness they prefer on their noodles when ordering.
Soup – The soup, or also known as the tsuyu¸ is where all the feud originates and where most of the argument takes places. The Kanto region udon noodles are believed to have much richer flavors while Kansai region udon noodles are much lighter.
One of the reasons why Kanto people don’t drink the soup when the Kansai people do is because of the fact that the saltiness of the soup from the Kanto region is around twice the taste of that in the Kansai region. Their sauces are also much darker because they use more soy sauce in their tsuyu.
The flavor of the Kansai soup is much lighter because they use seaweeds or dried kelp when the Kanto soup is stocked with fish and dried bonito flakes. This produces a much more pungent and robust smell for the Kanto soup which is reflected by the taste and flavor.
Toppings - Just like noodle firmness and texture, the toppings have no particular trend between Kansai and Kanto. The flavors vary from region to region and the toppings are usually based on what specialties they have. Coastal areas usually serve them with fish, prawn or octopus toppings. Other areas serve with pork, beef or chicken. It all depends on the prefecture being visited.
Common ingredients for udon are chopped scallions, sliced up onion stems, oyster mushrooms, and baby corn. Tempura prawns and tempura vegetables are also common toppings. Many Japanese prefer their udon with vegetables. When they put meat on top of their udon, these are mostly deep fried as they provide an interesting and palatable contrast between the smoothness of the soup and the roughness of the meat. Fried chicken, like karaage and tonkatsu, are common meat toppings on udon.
Some restaurants even offer up special flavored udon. There’s Thai seafood tom yum influenced udon which is quite spicy. There are also those that offer up with Kimchi broth with beef ingredients as well. However, a lot of Japanese say that curry and udon are the best combinations.
Simple Udon Soup or Tsuyu Recipe
Cooking one’s own homemade udon noodle may take some good practice. For beginners who have never tried making noodles or pasta before, it might be a good idea to purchase ready-made udon noodles from the supermarket. It will be quick and easy and would reduce the time of cooking significantly.
However, please keep in mind that rice noodles are of a different kind. These are usually made for other soups or dishes. Look for the ready-made wheat noodles or Udon. For toppings, it might be a good idea to check out first what kind of udon is preferred. However, any kind of topping can be placed on the udon.
- 4 1/2 cups of Water
- 2 to 3 Strips of Dried Kelp
- 20 to 25 g of Bonito Flakes
- Mirin to taste
- Soy Sauce to taste
- Once the water is in a large enough pot, take out the strips of dried kelp and drop into the water.
- Keep the flame on low heat and let the kelp sit in the water only about 10 to 15 minutes.
- Kelp can make the soup slimy if the kelp is kept in the water too long. Make sure that the water does not boil when the kelp is inside. Remove the kelp when the water starts to change in color and the steam becomes the scent of the sea.
- Put in bonito flakes and put the heat to high. Keep the bonito flakes on boiling water for about 5 minutes or until the color changes. Make sure to not keep the bonito flakes too long in the water as it will significantly affect the richness of the soup’s taste and smell.
- Strain out the bonito flakes after about five minutes of boiling.
- Put soy sauce to control the saltiness of the soup and for extra sweetness, add in mirin to taste.
Different Kinds of Udon Noodles
- The Most Popular Sanuki Udon
Also known as the Kagawa-style udon noodle, this is the most commonly served udon in all of Japan particularly in urban areas like Tokyo. This is the kind of udon most foreign travelers are most familiar with. Not only are they delicious, they are easy to make, they are everywhere and they are also very affordable.
The sanuki udon is one of the most simplistic, yet delicious variants of the udon in the entire country. It is served from a recipe of just a few ingredients – udon noodles, broth and raw egg. Then it will be topped a generous amount of chopped scallions - voila! The best udon in all of Japan.
- The Chilling Zaru Udon
Not all udon noodles are served with hot soup. There are some regions in Japan whose delicacy is to serve cold noodles. These kinds of noodles are just like any normal udon. However, they are not served with soup. Oftentimes, these are served and topped with nori shredded to perfection. The best part about this kind of udon is that it is served with a delicious and cold dipping sauce which is usually made from a recipe of mirin, shoyu, wasabi, grated ginger, and dashi.
It got the name zaru because instead of being served in a bowl with broth, it is served on an iconic bamboo tray with the same name. This means that udon is a dish which is served not just for the cold seasons. Sometimes, it could also be served when the temperatures are quite hot like the summer season.
- The Delicious Kitsune Udon
The Kitsune udon is also one of Japan’s all-time favorites. It is commonly served in a number of restaurants throughout the country for which every region gives it a special twist. However, the general idea of the kitsune udon is its simplicity and nutritional value. This is one of the best kinds of udon best for vegetarians solely because it is made from no meat at all.
The soup base is normally made from broth from dried kelp. What makes this particular udon style special is the generous slab, or sometimes thin strips, of fried tofu on top of the noodles and the broth. The dish got its name from the word fox because during the earlier times a lot of people believed that tofu is one of the most favorite food of the said animal.
- The Traditional Nabeyaki Udon
Most Japanese love the Nabeyaki udon because it is the one that is most elaborate. It is topped with a variety of vegetables and seafood. On top of that, it has a distinct traditional taste because it was cooked in a Nabe, or clay pot, for which it got its name.
It is normally topped with boiled carrots, baby corn, mushrooms, and spinach. Then it is also topped with prawns, fishcakes, and poached eggs. It is jam-packed with flavors and toppings making it one of the most well-loved udon style recipes in all of Japan.
Where to Get the Best Udon Soup: Best udon restaurants in Tokyo
One of the most affordable and best-reviewed restaurants in all of Tokyo is the Shin Udon in Shinjuku. It is a very tiny shop in the middle of the city that can serve only up to six people at a time. People fall in line to get a taste of their delicious Kagawa-style udon. This small, but very popular restaurant is one that has the best reviews and is a must-visit for all travelers.
Located in Hongo, Tokyo the Kokuwagata is one of the most popular and most reviewed take-out joints in the area. Their specialty is none other than Kagawa-style udon. It is a standing-only restaurant but is jam-packed by hungry eaters, traveling home from a long day’s work. Their best serving includes the udon served with deep-fried Tokushima chicken breast.
For a less traditional serving of udon, the Ginza Sato Yosuke might be a good place to visit. Located in Ginza district of Tokyo, this is one of the most visited places for udon because of their not-so-common menu. Their udon style is considered as one of the “Three Great udon Recipe” and has originated from Akita. Not served with soup, it is a traditional dip-style udon. Visitors can watch the chefs while cooking the meals in the large aquarium like glass in the middle of the restaurant.