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Cooking classes can dish out plenty of culture bites

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What’s the best thing about exploring Japan with kids? For us, it may be the eating. With two kids born in Tokyo, I can say without doubt that one of our favorite things to do together is cook, eat and talk about Japanese food. One of our children’s favorite Japanese meals is also one of the simplest: udon. If you’ve ever dug into a bowl of these thick and hearty wheat noodles, then you’ll know why it has its fans.

But can you make them yourself? We recently did, and it made for a fantastic afternoon. At Iricosky (pronounced “Irikosuki”), families learn how to make udon noodles in a small apartment near downtown Osaka. The class is very hands-on. In fact, it’s also “feet-on,” but we’ll get to that in a minute. Here we made udon from scratch, transforming raw ingredients into the delectable noodles kids love so much.

All the ingredients are included in the class; however, there are a few suggested items to bring along, such as an apron and containers to carry your noodles home. If you prefer, you can also eat your creation right then and there for an additional fee of ¥540 per person.

Iricosky is run by Ryo Yamashita, a native of Kagawa Prefecture, which is famous for its exceptional udon. The class began with Yamashita explaining his origins and his love for udon. He also explained his reasoning for naming the school Iricosky, which was quite simple. “Iriko” is the Japanese word for the “anchovies.” He likes anchovies very much, and so therefore, the school is named “Iriko suki,” or “I like anchovies” in English.

After these introductions, everyone washed their hands and prepared to make noodles. Our instructor handed out the recipe and the kids were then presented with the ingredients. Udon uses the basics only: flour, salt and water. The ingredient list is not complicated, but the process has many steps — and some of those steps are literal.

After everything was blended thoroughly, the children kneaded the dough with their hands. This is a labor-intensive task, so the younger kids took turns with my teen and other adults.

After the instructor judged our dough to be ready, we placed the entire mass into plastic bag and put it on the floor. The next step was to step on it — again and again, in small clockwise movements. Everyone brought an extra pair of clean socks, which they put on before they took turns walking over the dough. Remember, it’s wrapped in plastic, so don’t worry about feet coming into direct contact with your dinner.

Once everyone had a good stomp, we took the dough out of the plastic and brought it back to the workstation. Then the teacher showed us how to flatten it with a roller and fold it into a tight rectangle.

Now it was time to cut the noodles. Using a specialized blade, the kids used their weight to lean into the noodles and slice them into long strips. The thickness of udon makes a difference to the texture and cooking time. Too thick, and they may not cook as well. Too thin, and they disintegrate in boiling water.

With this final step, the lesson was complete — for some of the class, anyway. We placed some of our noodles into Tupperware to take home, and then cooked the rest on site.

After the lesson, each participant gets a small certificate. Conveniently, this card is also a discount coupon for an additional course.

Yamashita offers three classes a day at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. Each lesson is two hours long and for up to four people per group. Our class involved seven people (Grandma and a few cousins came along, too), so we were split into two groups. Even if you don’t participate, you are still counted as part of the four. Up to one child under the age of 3 is exempt from this.

The fee is ¥4,860 per group, and when you consider that each group is given enough ingredients for five servings, it’s a steal.

Iricosky’s class is entirely in Japanese. That said, the instructions are simple enough that a family with no Japanese language skills could pull it off without a problem. There are, however, other classes in town with English-language instruction, some of which combine udon making with other Japanese foods like yakitori and okonomiyaki (savory pancakes). That said, none we’ve found are as reasonably priced as this.

Learning about the food can help give you a deeper understanding of a country and its people. My kids have taken cooking lessons and food tours in many countries, but there’s nothing quite like cooking in Japan. Making udon is a great place to start.

For more information about Iricosky, visit iricosky.com.