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I love you, I knead you

Making udon the old-fashioned way

by Rick Lapointe

Lounging in a cool tatami room with a gentle breeze carrying the billows of mosquito incense and dreaming of downing several plates of freshly handmade udon noodles, one could easily waste away the sixth and seventh moons of summer. The Japanese east of Nagoya have their soba (buckwheat noodles), but those of us in western Japan enjoy nothing better than our plump, energy-giving udon (and the udon variation from Nagoya, kishi-men).

There is only one thing as satisfying as finding that elusive, amazingly cheap little udon shop in Kyoto — rolling up your shirt sleeves and pant legs and kneading up your own batch of these wonderful wheat noodles. Try it once and then play with the recipe.

In the summer you might want to add 2-3 grams more salt, and, in the winter, when eating udon with hot broth, you might want to cut back the salt by several grams. If the stomping part seems to be holding you back, why not have some friends over and play udon Twister?

Handmade udon noodles (Te-uchi udon)

If you’ve made pasta, then udon should pose no problem for you. You must knead udon more vigorously than Western noodles, but the basics remain the same. Professionals use a medium-gluten flour (churiki-ko) that all-purpose flour would approximate. Some stores in Japan only stock high-gluten bread flour (kyoriki-ko) and low-gluten cake flour (hakuriki-ko). In that case a 40:60 blend will work fine.

Just three simple ingredients are used to make udon, the quality of which will determine the final product. For best results, use water you have filtered (avoid bottled mineral waters with salts and extra minerals added), low-processed unbleached or organic flour and natural sea salt. To really develop the gluten for a fine result, traditionally udon is trodden upon with bare feet. I use a zip-lock bag and clean socks and get just as good a final product.

500 grams all-purpose flour (or 300 grams high-gluten and 200 grams low-gluten flour)
225 cc water
15 grams salt

1) Sift flour into large bowl.

2) Dissolve salt in water and incorporate into flour slowly in 3-4 parts.

3) Bring together dough into a ball and knead for 10-15 minutes until gluten begins to develop.

4) Place dough ball in a plastic bag and carefully work the gluten with your feet, kneading the dough for 10-15 more minutes. Best results come from flattening the dough completely and then reshaping it into a ball to flatten again.

5) The dough is ready to roll out when it is soft like your earlobe and doesn’t bounce back when an indentation is made with your finger.

6) On a floured surface, roll out the dough to a uniform 2 mm.

7) Fold the dough once and once again to make it easier to obtain a uniform cut.

8) With a sharp kitchen knife, cut into 3-mm-wide strips. Insert a chopstick into the middle fold, and shake out the noodles.

9) Immediately cook in boiling, unsalted water until done (5-8 minutes, depending on how well you cut the strips). For cold noodles, strain and rinse then plunge into cool water with a few ice cubes. Using water that is too cold will make the noodles tough. If serving hot, don’t wash, just strain and place in a bowl, pouring hot broth over the udon. Use within 3-5 days or immediately freeze the unused raw noodles in individual portions for use later. Do not cook noodles you intend to freeze for later. Serves about eight.

Zaru udon (Udon noodles served on a bamboo basket)

The best way to partake of fresh, handmade noodles is to eat them cold with a simple dipping sauce (tsuke jiru). Western Japanese make hot noodle broth with light soy sauce (usukuchi shoyu), and eastern Japanese traditionally use dark soy sauce (koikuchi shoyu). For cold noodle dipping sauce, generally dark soy sauce is used nationwide, with a stronger proportion of soy sauce to dashi used in the east. In Osaka, we use a koikuchi 3:1:1 — three parts dashi to one part mirin and one part dark soy sauce. Good-quality noodles may also be purchased fresh or frozen.

400 grams fresh udon noodles
250cc zaru udon tsuke jiru
4 tablespoons nori seaweed, toasted and cut into fine strips
1 bunch small leeks (shira negi or Kyo negi), sliced fine
1 tablespoon fresh wasabi, grated
1 tablespoonsesame seeds, toasted and ground

1) Cook noodles as described above, taking care not to toughen the freshly cooked udon in water that is too cold.

2) Serve on a bamboo basket (zaru) placed on a plate. Sprinkle nori over noodles and add leeks, wasabi and sesame seeds to individual cups of dipping sauce. Serves four.

Zaru udon tsuke jiru

A simple koikuchi 3:1:1. May be made up to one week ahead.

11/2 cup (270 cc)dashi
1/2 cup (90 cc) mirin
1/2 cup (90 cc) koikuchi shoyu

1) Combine ingredients in a saucepan and bring just to a boil.

2) Cool and store in the refrigerator until use. Yields 450 cc.

Next week, the pride of Kanto — buckwheat noodles.