One or two good shakes. This gesture seems so easy when you look at it from behind the counter while waiting for your udon noodles but requires a lot of practice. White, thick and slightly chewy, though not as popular as ramen noodles, udon noodles are the Japanese noodles I like best because of their texture. Like pasta the ingredients to make those noodles are pretty basic: wheat flour, water and salt.
The variety of udon dishes is very wide throughout Japan. Depending on the region where it is made, the thickness and shape, type of flour and even water, flavor, broth, toppings, and so on, will be different. Udon can be served hot or cold. Hot, you can have them in hot soup or fried (yaki udon). Depending on the region the broth will vary: it is usually dark (made of dark soy sauce) in eastern Japan and lighter in color (made of light soy sauce) in western Japan. You can even notice those differences by looking at the packaging of instant noodles! As for the toppings, they are usually chosen to reflect the seasons. To eat the hot udon served in a soup use your chopsticks to lead the noodles into your mouth while…making a slurping sound! As surprising as it might be, the slurping enhances the flavors and helps cool down the hot noodles as they enter your mouth. Drinking directly the broth from the bowl is OK and not considered as bad manners.
Chilled udon noodles (zaru udon) are popular during the summer (but not only). They are served with a dipping sauce (mentsuyu) which is soy sauce flavored dashi soup. To eat, take a few strands of noodles and dip them into the sauce before eating them. In this case the topping for those noodles can be grated fresh ginger, nori (dried seaweed), chopped green onion, wasabi, sesame seeds, small bits of deep fried tempura batter (tenkasu), and so on.
If you live in Japan, finding a place to eat udon is not a difficult challenge at all. You can find them at specialized restaurants called “Udon-ya”, izakayas (Japanese tapas bar) and eateries around tourist sites and low-cost restaurant chains. Some big train stations can also offer standing up option offering the possibility of having a quick meal in between two trains. In this case, to order efficiently, all you have to do is buy a meal ticket from a vending machine, give it to the staff and slurp your noodles on the counter. The price of a regular udon dish can vary between 3 to 11 €. If you don’t have any udon restaurant nearby, you can also find them at supermarkets: dried, instant or pre-cooked fresh to stir fry.
Photo: Emilie Mounsaveng