Classic Japanese Noodles

Unassuming in their simplicity, udon are some of the most popular noodles in Japan. These plump and chewy noodles are made of only three ingredients: wheat flour, salt and water. After being vigorously kneaded to ensure that the texture of the noodles will be just right, the dough is then cut into easy-to-slurp sized strips and cooked in plenty of boiling water. A few ways to enjoy udon are: in a hot broth with some toppings, dipped into a sauce, or with a sauce lightly poured over them. While udon is a quick and easy meal, frequently eaten at home it's not confined to home kitchens; according to a 2010 survey, there are now about 28,000 udon restaurants in Japan which tells us that udon is just as beloved a dine-out meal as it is a home-cooked one. Udon shops range from less expensive fast-food styles to fashionable sit-down types aimed at the well-heeled. A 2009 survey of over 15,000 foreign visitors to Japan entitled "Ranking the most satisfying dine-out meals in Japan" listed udon in fifth place after sushi, ramen, sashimi, and tempura. These simple, but oh-so-satisfying noodles have a profound appeal that's worth a closer look!

History of Udon

The cultivation of wheat began about 7,000 BCE. It's said that wheat first appeared in Mesopotamia. Harvested wheat, along with the technique for milling the flour, was brought to China, the country known by some to be a shrine to dining culture, via the Silk Road. China then processed the wheat and developed noodles. Among the many varieties of noodles, the ones called "cut-noodle types" include udon and soba. The method of production for these types starts with mixing the ingredients into a dough, kneading it well, rolling it out thinly, and finally cutting it into strips. The production of these noodles, spread out over an extremely wide area, with each location adding their own local touch resulted in the creation of a noodle culture rich in regional distinctions.

There are many theories with regard to when udon made its appearance in Japan and much debate over the specifics. It is generally agreed, however, that an envoy to China during the 700s (the Nara period) introduced the predecessor of udon to Japan. These noodles were a type of confection, made of blended wheat and rice flours, and twisted into a rope shape (it is believed that this was the ancestor for many types of Japanese noodles). Gradually these were transformed into noodles similar to the udon of today. Another theory is that a Buddhist priest brought back the manufacturing method of noodles from China, and a distant relative of udon was created using this method.

Udon of the Edo Period (1603-1868)

There were many mentions of udon in documents from the Muromachi period (1337-1573), but they all referred to udon being used for celebratory occasions among the elite. It was during the mid-Edo period that udon spread among the general population. With the burgeoning development of urban areas, the population of Edo (the old name for Tokyo) also increased, and with more people who had more disposable income looking to enjoy a quick bite, or a convenient meal outside their homes, the restaurant industry started to briskly pick up steam. The style of eating udon with broth made from bonito and flavored with soy sauce began post-Genroku (1688-1704), which was considered to be the golden age of the Edo period when commercial economies rapidly expanded and urban cultures blossomed. This was the time when soy sauce began to be used throughout the country. Today's typical udon dishes, such as tempura udon, tamago toji udon, and torinanban, were developed during the period from mid-Edo through late-Edo, when Edo's food culture was in full swing. Today, about 300 years later, they are as thoroughly enjoyed and just as indispensable a part of Japanese cuisine as they were back then.

Udon Wars! Kanto vs. Kansai

The two main types of udon are the Kanto style and the Kansai style. Kanto makes up the region covering Tokyo and surrounding prefectures, and Kansai covers Osaka and its neighboring prefectures. While there are broad variations in the shape and thickness of the noodles, the main difference is the broth, or tsuyu. Simply speaking, Kanto uses koikuchi soy sauce ("dark" soy sauce"), and their tsuyu is dark colored with a strong flavor, and Kansai uses usukuchi ("light" soy sauce) for a paler color and lighter flavor. The terms dark and light refer to the color of the soy sauce, not the salt content. The Kanto diner enjoys udon by making sure the noodles are thoroughly coated with the tsuyu, and then eating them, but not drinking the broth, while the Kansai diner enjoys drinking the broth as well as eating the noodles. Now let's go into tsuyu in depth!

Kanto Style Tsuyu
Kanto chiefly uses both thickly and thinly sliced bonito flakes for its tsuyu which is finished by adding a generous amount of koikuchi soy sauce and a bit of sugar or mirin to round things out. (There are versions which use neither sugar nor mirin.) The tsuyu's dark brown color is due to the richly colored bonito stock and the koikuchi soy sauce. The sort of udon dishes that match well with this type of tsuyu are robustly flavored and include meat, like niku udon, and fried toppings, like kakiage udon.

Kansai Style Tsuyu
This tsuyu is kelp (konbu) based, with dried fish (iriko) and bonito flakes added in. The flavor of the broth is finely tuned with salt flavor from the usukuchi or shiro ("white") soy sauce, the latter being composed of mostly wheat with little soybean, and the broth's light color is due to both the pale color of the stock and the soy sauce. The milder taste of Kansai tsuyu brings out the flavors of toppings such as white meat fish and seasonal vegetables.

While Kanto and Kansai styles are considered the two fundamental types of udon, the division between the two is not black and white. Because there are many, many local varieties within both Kanto and Kansai, it could never be said that one type is better than the other. You can also enjoy changing the flavor of the tsuyu depending on the toppings that you chose. Since there is such a great regional assortment of udon, tsuyu and toppings, when you find yourself visiting Japan it's a lot of fun checking out local udon joints as you travel around. You'll be amazed at the diversity, and the pride that locals have regarding their udon!

Udon—descended from the first noodles brought from China and transformed by the Japanese into the cherished udon of today. Japan is a mountainous island nation blessed with water naturally filtered and flavored by the rocky terrain through which it flows and salt from the surrounding ocean. It is the abundant use of these ingredients that is the key to making delicious udon. Looking at udon's rich history, it would not be an overstatement to say that these delectably smooth and silky noodles, with their delightful springy and resilient exterior and firm yet chewy interior, were created for a reason. The increase of wheat crops among the farmers who needed to sustain themselves after much of their rice crop was taken by the local warlords led to the spread of flour production which in turn led to the spread of udon to the general population where they became firmly rooted as one of the classics of Japanese cuisine.

Udon is a magnificently flexible dish that can be enjoyed year round. Eat the noodles cold with a chilled dipping sauce in the hot months or savor them warm in a hot broth or nabe when the temperature starts to go south! You can find authentic udon, flash frozen at the peak of flavor, which can be easily enjoyed simply by defrosting, or by a few minutes boil if you prefer it warm, dried udon which keeps conveniently at room temperature, and instant udon at Marukai, where a bounty of udon awaits you! As the nights get longer and cooler, doesn't a steaming hot bowl of tasty udon sound inviting? Top mine with shrimp tempura, please!