Even as the mercury rises, we crave noodles. Luckily, there are styles of noodles, such as udon, that are served chilled.
On June 30 the Japanese Culinary Center held an udon event to extol the virtues of this Japanese staple that is thicker than ramen but just as tasty. Kenichi Watanabe, the general manager of Onya, New York City’s udon specialty restaurant, began his presentation with a slide that proclaimed “UDON: The most popular noodle in Japan.”
In writer Stacy Smith’s report about the event for Chopsticks NY, she explains, “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 birth date 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 round in numerous styles.”
Just as with barbeque from around the US, udon varies regionally. From Akita Prefecture in the north – thin noodles that are similar to pasta – to the very soft noodles of Fukuoka in the south, udon is enjoyed in many different ways. It takes fourteen days to make udon in Gunma Prefecture, making Mizusawa udon the thickest and hardest in Japan. Kagawa Prefecture on the island of Shikoku boasts Sanuki udon, Japan’s most popular udon and Onya’s specialty. The thick noodles have a smooth surface and “koshi,” or chewiness of texture.
Udon, no matter what style, is made from the simplest ingredients: Flour, salt, and water. But that doesn’t mean udon is easy to make. In fact, the process for making the noodles from start to finish takes more than a day. Twenty ounces of water and 2.2 pounds of flour require stirring, kneading, resting for two hours, more kneading, resting in the fridge overnight, and more kneading before being rolled flat and cut into strips.
Watanabe demonstrated the noodle-making process, and then he showed us how to make the broth, which consists of dashi (dried bonito flakes, a seaweed called kombu, and anchovies) and kaeshi (soy sauce, mirin, and sugar).
After Watanabe’s presentation, the class was treated to a live look-in at Onya’s kitchen a few blocks away from the Japanese Culinary Center. Using FaceTime on an iPad, we watched the noodles being boiled and stirred in a giant vat of scalding hot water.
Minutes later, we were treated to those same noodles. The staff at Onya brought us samples, one chilled and topped with scallions and grated daikon, one hot and topped with scallions and beef. Both were equally delicious.
Onya is located at 143 East 47th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues. For more information about the Japanese Culinary Center, go to http://japaneseculinarycenter.com/