People often say that you have to be your own best friend. That is a solid piece of advice, if a little trite, and in many cases I would agree. Then there are moments when your self just doesn’t cut it as a personal cheerleader. When I opened a recent magazine issue and saw a spread devoted to making udon noodles, my initial reaction was enthusiastic but ultimately besieged by self-doubt and apathy. This is when a best friend – a real best friend who is an actual person – rides in to save the day. She listens to your off-hand comment about noodle-making and says, simply but with unassailable confidence, “that sounds fun; let’s do it this weekend.”
And that’s how we found ourselves stomping on a bag of dough at 9 am on a Saturday.
Making udon is an art – one whose basics are easy for the beginner to understand but of whom real mastery requires study and repetition. Attaining the perfect degree of plump chewiness and that deep brown, umami-rich broth is a skill worth cultivating not just for the successful production of a delicious meal (in itself a noble goal) but for the pleasure of practicing focus and patience. The process of making udon, we learned, is not difficult. In fact, it’s delightfully easy to prepare good noodles and a flavorful broth. But it’s also one of those projects that invites the home cook to experiment, to obsess, to perfect.
After stocking up at our local Japanese Market, Tokyo Fish, we were ready to get going. Starting with a the simplest set of ingredients – salted water and flour – you mix, knead (yes, with your stockinged feet), and roll out a thick, borderline-rubbery dough. This then gets cut into noodles and boiled until a satisfying chewiness is reached. The broth contains rather more, and resembles a traditional preparation rather less, but it yields a delightful, savory result. We threw a few ingredients into a pot and played with flavors until we got the combination we wanted. Our recipes are below, but as with a lot of good home-cooked food, improvisation often gives rise to the best meals. The rest of the components came together in a similar way, using inspiration from favorite ramen toppings and flavors. Tender shiitake mushrooms and fish cake boiled briefly with the broth to give it the desired depth, and sweet carrots and spinach added a brightness to the soup. The chashu was a last-minute stroke of brilliance embodying the spontaneity with which we approached the project. Pork belly was rolled up and cooked slowly with an approximated mix of sauces for a tender, fatty, salty accompaniment to the soup.
If it is not already evident from the photo above, we were overwhelmed and our senses enchanted by the final result. It was one of those lunches where a quiet blankets the table as everyone forgets about fellow diners, general good manners, and pretty much anything besides the food in front of them. If you don’t have a best friend to make this with, try it anyway!
Homemade Udon Noodles (Recipe from Instructables)
- 4 Cups Wheat Flour (Bread Flour will work or Udon Flour if you can find it – as long as it has a relatively high gluten content)
- 1 Tbsp Coarse Salt
- 1 Cup Water (at room temperature)
- Sprinkle of Potato Starch or Corn Starch for your work-surface
Combine the salt and water and stir until salt is completely dissolved. Sift flour. Add water to flour slowly mixing with your hands. The dough will feel a little hard and/or dry, but as long as it stays together in one piece you’re good to go!
Place the dough in a sealable plastic bag (we used a gallon Ziploc) and now it’s time for the fun part. Place the bag on the ground and gently stomp on it spreading it and making it as thin as you can. Once your dough is flat, take it out of the bag to your work-surface and roll it up. Put your dough roll back into the bag and stomp on it again until spread out and flat. Repeat this 5 to 6 times. Your dough should start to become very smooth and a bit rubbery.
Wait about 10 minutes then roll the dough into a ball (from the corners of the dough, tuck inwards making a ball form). Put the dough ball back into the plastic bag and let it sit from 2-3 hours (you can get away with one hour if it’s a hot day – but if you can spare the time let it rest longer). When it’s close to finished you can start boiling a large pot of water.
Once the resting time has passed, stomp on the dough one last time to get as flat as you can. Dust your work-surface with the potato starch and start rolling out your dough until it’s approximately 3mm thick. Once rolled out, fold the dough over a few times so that you have a few layers.
Now you can start cutting your noodles! Slice noodles approximately 5mm thick. Once the noodles are sliced, throw them in the boiling water and let them cook for 12-15 minutes – spend some time at the beginning making sure the noodles don’t stick to one another! Slurp & enjoy!
Chashu Pork (First We Eat)
This turned out to be a very casual recipe that we winged and luckily turned out quite well.
- 3 Strips of Pork Belly
- 4-5 1″ Chunks of Ginger Root
- 3 Cloves of Garlic
- 3 Green Onion cut into 3″ pieces
- 2 Cups Sake
- 1/4 Cup Ponzu
- 2 Tbsp Mirin
- 2 Tbsp Soy Sauce
Put all ingredients except for the Pork Belly into a saucepan and let simmer allowing the flavors to come together. In the meantime, roll your pieces of pork belly and tie securely with kitchen twine. Place the pork into a crock pot and pour the contents of the saucepan over it. Cook on low for 6 hours. Once it’s done, chill your Chashu in the refrigerator (it’s much easier to slice when cold). Serve with your soup – the broth should warm up the pork.
Japanese Marinated Soft-Boiled Eggs (Serious Eats)
- 1 Cup Water
- 1 Cup Sake
- 1/2 Cup Soy Sauce
- 1/2 Cup Mirin
- 1/2 Cup Sugar
- 6 Eggs
Combine the first 5 ingredients together in a bowl and stir until combined and sugar has dissolved. Poke a hole on the round side of each egg (we used the pointy end of a safety pin). This allows for air to escape during the cooking process leaving you with perfectly shaped eggs. Bring a pot of water to a boil. Once the water is boiling, slowly lower in the eggs and cook for about 6-8 minutes (depending on the level of done-ness you desire). Once the time is up, peel under cold water and place in the marinade. Cover with a paper towel (allowing the paper towel to get saturated a sink a little) so that the eggs are completely submerged. Let sit for a minimum of 4 hours and maximum of 12 hours. Add to your udon bowl and enjoy!
Udon Broth (First We Eat)
- 7 Cups Vegetable Broth
- 1 Cup Memmi Soup Broth
- 1 Tbsp Ponzu
- 3 Tbsp Miso Paste
- 1 Cup Ginger, cut into 1″ chunks
- 1 Cup Carrots, sliced (we sliced and used a cutter to make cute flower shapes, you can get these at a Japanese housewares market)
- 1 Cup Fresh Shitake Mushroom, Sliced
- 1 Cup Sliced Kamaboko (Fish Cake – purchase at Japanese Market)
Bring vegetable broth to a simmer and add the Memmi soup base, Ponzu, Miso, and Ginger. Let simmer (you can do this while the noodles are resting). When the noodles are at the stage that they’re going to be sliced, add the carrots, Shitake, and Kamaboko to the simmering broth and cook until carrots are tender.
Remove all the vegetables and the Kamaboko from the broth with a slotted spoon and sort the ingredients into different bowls for plating.
Easy Spinach Topping (First We Eat)
Bring a small saucepan of water to a boil. Add 1 Tbsp Memmi soup broth and about 3 cups of Spinach. Boil for approx. 30 seconds then remove the Spinach and run under cold water. Squeeze spinach into small rounds and top with sesame seeds. Serve with your udon soup.