Thursday, 8 January 2009

The Wonders of Udon

Udon is a funny sort of pasta. I think it has to grow on you. Don't think of it like you would other pastas, just think of it in the general noodle category. When I first tried it, I thought it was too soft and thick and generally gross. I can now safely say after 4 and a half years I am officially converted and now choose udon over soda in the soba udon debate.*

Udon (and soba for that matter) are always vegan and since there is always a soba or udon shop anywhere you'll go, udon is indeed the wonder food for vegans in Japan. Now the broth is a slightly trickier issue. There are various ways that udon is served and you never really know unless you ask.

Even different areas of Japan have their own way of serving udon. However, if you find yourself at a chain shop, you are most likely to find bonito stock (カツオだし)used in the soup. But seriously, just ask, you'd be suprised. But my advice is to pick up a small bottle of soy sauce, ponzu (check it's vegan), or vinegar, or all of them and carry it in your bag or car. I find this most helpful for the chain ones or when I'm too scared to ask. Also, be wary of soy sauce dashi because it is soy sauce mixed with fish stock.

You can easily make a very filling meal out of just a simple bowl of udon. Udon shops usually offer grated daikon, sesame seeds, kitsune (a fried piece of tofu, the same one used for making inari-zushi) and green onions for topping the noodles.
So this long explanation is to tell you about my recent roadtrip to the Udon capital of Japan: Kagawa Prefucture on the Island of Shikoku.

Kagawa is famous for their udon. There's even a movie about it. Many of the shops are run by families that have been doing it for years. Luckily, traditionally udon in this area is vegan (still, as always, double check). They serve the noodles simply with soy sauce and vinegar to 'allow us to more thoroughly appreciate the taste of the freshly made noodles'.

During our tasting tour of Kagawa we visited two udon shops (both of which happen to appear in that movie, we learned later). Be warned most of the udon shops in Kagawa, especially the great family owned ones are only open a few hours for lunch.

The first was 谷川米穀店 (Tanigawa Beikoku Shop). This was the first place we went. We heard of it through a guidebook and chose this one because they specifically don't use any broth, ever.  We arrived about 1:30, so the main rush was over. They are only open from 11-2 each day, but after 1 they usually stop making the noodles. The noodles were made right there behind the counter in this small restaurant. They owners were very friendly, telling us that they've been making udon for about 40 years. They also promised that if we come back in the morning when the noodles are freshest, they will be even better. So we took them up on the offer arriving at exactly 11. The place was packed and there were at least 10 people waiting in line in front of us. Luckily, udon is the kind of food you just slurp down and move on, so the line moved fast. They were right about the noodles, the udon was definitely even better made fresh. It was great to see the whole operation at work. The father and grown son took turns rolling out the dough and adding the noodles to the boiling pot. The mother, grandmother, and staff filled the bowls, set them on the counter, and collected the money. I forgot to mention! Udon is dirt cheap. A big size bowl was 240 yen (less than $3). It was quite the experience and I highly recommend you get to this shop, if you are in Kagawa.

The second shop we went to, 小縣家 (Ogataya) is also from the guidebook. This one isn't a family style establishment, in fact it looks like they are in the middle of constructing a big addition. And the udon was all of uniform size, implying it wasn't hand made right in the shop. But it still tasted good and they gave us our own daikon radish to grate! Their udon is served with just a slightly thinned out soy sauce. You can also buy the udon their to take home for all your jealous friends and family. We also really enjoyed this place. Plus it's always fun to grate your own daikon! Also, this is also one of the few shops that operates for dinner, one of the reasons we chose to go there. They are open 9-6.

(We went back the next morning to get more udon to take home.)I highly recommend a trip to Kagawa, if only for the udon. We hope to make a trip back when it's warmer and visit some of the neighboring prefectures to do some swimming.

*If you've spent any length of time in Japan, you have most likely been asked 'do you like soba or udon better.' And most foreigners choose soba, probably because it's more similar to 'pasta' that we think of from Italian dishes.