Udon: Something To Noodle Over
What is Udon? It's one of Japan's most profound noodle dishes and is characterized by its thick wheat flour noodles. Udon can be served both hot or cold but the broth can differ from bowl to bowl. A simple bowl of Udon will contain a soup of dashi (cooking stock), soy sauce, and mirin (cooking wine). It can then be topped with a myriad of ingredients including, scallions, tempura, eggs, mushrooms, fish cakes, etc.
The origins of Udon are unclear. One source explains how a Buddhist monk named Kukai had traveled to China, witnessed noodle greatness, and introduced the noodle to Japan's Sanuki prefecture in the 9th century. That's like 4x older than America.
Other stories say that a different monk, Enni, introduced flour milling from China to Japan, which subsequently led the Japanese to create noodles like udon and soba. The Chinese equivalent is called cū miàn and is commonly found in the cuisines of Northern China. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any data on the dates when cū miàn was first created. So, now I'm stumped.
Either way, the Japanese have clearly made Udon their own given its sheer number of variations. I'm not just talking about the different combinations of ingredients that a bowl of Udon could have.
There are two overarching regional varieties. Udon is served differently in the east versus the west (of Japan). In the east (Kanto - Tokyo), the broth will be stronger and more rich. In the west (Kansai - Osaka), the broth will be lighter and thinner.
If we look closer at specific prefectures of Japan, each one may have a unique way of preparing and/or serving udon. In Nagoya (Aichi Prefecture), their type of udon is called Kishimen and the noodles are flat and thin. In the Yamanashi Prefecture, their variant is called Hoto and these noodles are flat and wide then cooked in a cast iron hot pot.
Similar to Soba, this noodle dish can be enjoyed throughout the year. You can enjoy cold udon in the summer and hot udon in the winter. Alternatively, you could defy all logic and eat cold udon in the winter and hot udon in the summer. The choice is yours! Regardless of your eating preferences, a nice bowl of udon can always suit your needs.
In my opinion, good udon starts with the noodle. They should bite back with a little al dente bounce. Otherwise, it just feels like wet Bucatini. Nobody likes wet bucatini. When it comes to the broth, it's really up to personal preference. Some people like the Kansai-style while some people prefer the Kanto-style. I like the Kansai-style because it's simple and I can really enjoy the Kombu and Bonito flavor.
If you're interested in learning about more varieties of Udon, check out this Japan-Guide article.
If you're looking to try Udon in New York City, check out these spots:
Udon West - $ - Several Locations - Yelp
Also, check out our TsuruTonTan vs. Raku post here: Ngo Your Meal Battle Series TsuruTonTan vs. Raku