For true taste of Japan, try 'udon,' foodie says
BY YOKO KAKUTANI STAFF WRITER
Ayao Okumura (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
A Japanese culinary expert is adamant that thick "udon" noodles so beloved in Japan originated in this country, not China.
Ayao Okumura, a food expert specializing in traditional Japanese cuisine, recently released "Nihon Menshoku Bunka no Sensanbyakunen" (The 1,300 years of noodle-eating culture in Japan) from the Rural Culture Association Japan.
The 552-page book covers the history of the role noodles play in Japanese culinary culture. In researching the book, the 73-year-old Okumura crossed Japan for inspiration and knowledge.
The book explains the origin of udon, which is made from wheat, as well as regional specialties of the dish and ways of preparing and eating the food.
Okumura sat down with The Asahi Shimbun to discuss noodles. Excerpts from the interview follow:
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Question: What's the truth about the origin of udon?
Answer: According to one theory, the Buddhist priest Kukai (774-835) brought it back from China during the Heian Period (794-1185). But I believe udon originated in Japan. When Kukai went to China to study, it was not a common practice under Tang Dynasty to cut noodles with a cooking knife.
Besides, I found a record that shows that "kirimugi," a type of noodle that came from China, or "hiyamugi" as we call it now, was eaten in Kyoto in the early 1200s. It can be assumed that udon derived from kirimugi. The word udon first appeared in a document dated 1351 that is kept at Horyuji temple, so it seems that the Japanese were eating udon noodles in the early 1300s.
Q: I didn't know that hiyamugi was the forerunner of udon.
A: An entry in a diary written by a Kyoto aristocrat during the Sengoku (warring states) Period from the mid-1400s to the mid-1500s introduces "yu-somen," a type of thin noodle served in a bowl filled with hot water and accompanied by a dipping sauce. It is the equivalent of today's "kamaage udon." It is a unique way of eating noodles that only is found in Japan.
However, somen and kirimugi noodles, which are thicker than somen, get soggy when they are left too long in hot water. So, a very thick noodle meant to be served in hot water was introduced, and it was called udon.
You can enjoy the flavor and aroma of the noodle itself, or, more specifically, wheat, when you dip it in sauce. The sauce is only supplementary; it makes the taste of the ingredients even better.
In my opinion, the basic philosophy behind Japanese food culture is to appreciate the taste of ingredients and to take full advantage of their flavor with the help of "dashi" soup stock without relying on fat and oil.
Q: It is said that udon tastes better in Osaka, and soba, in Tokyo.
A: I think it has something to do with water quality. There are no entries that refer to udon menus in Tokyo in books and documents written in and after the middle of the Edo Period (1603-1867). Either "zaru" or "mori" chilled soba was mainly served in Tokyo. They served soba in Osaka, too, but Osaka soba was unpopular among people in and around Tokyo.
Canal transportation developed in Osaka during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1603). Water was merely a way of distribution, and its quality came second. Writer Takizawa Bakin (1767-1848) wrote that the "water in Osaka is no good." So, Osakans had to boil their noodles and serve the dish in hot soup. Thin soba noodle turn soggy when heated, so udon, which is thick, became popular.
But the Togugawa Shogunate focused on ensuring water for domestic use when it built the city of Edo, the forerunner of Tokyo, and it constructed the Kanda Josui and Tamagawa Josui aqueducts. So the water quality was good.
It had been considered cool in Edo to eat chilled zaru or mori soba by dipping the noodles into a sauce. It was possible because of the good water quality when rinsing noodles. Besides, Edo was in and close to good soba-producing areas such as the Kanto region and Shinshu.
You could knead soba dough and immediately roll it flat and cut it into thin slices, and prepare noodles in a short boiling time. That went well with the mentality of the Edokko (people born and bred in Edo). So soba became popular.
Q: What did you learn from your noodle-eating tour?
A: I interviewed, took notes and did a lot of research during the two years I went around Japan. When I read a collection of books and documents written during the Kamakura Period (1192-1333), I learned that entries about kirimugi and somen noodles appeared earlier than previously perceived.
Japan is blessed with various climatic conditions, and each area has particular specialties. Thus, they developed food culture based on their traditions.
The same thing can be said about the noodle-eating culture. Homemade noodle cuisine must meet all the requirements: It must be easy, quick and cheap to prepare, and be tasty and nutritious at the same time.
But it is important for noodle dishes served in restaurants to look nice. For example, Sarashina soba, which is made from refined buckwheat, is white in color and very smooth. But it doesn't include the bran that contains nutrient components such as rutin and GABA. So, as far as nutrition is concerned, homemade noodles are higher in value.
Q: There are many ways to eat noodles.
A: Areas that have many kinds of noodle cuisine are not appropriate for rice cultivation. That is because those areas can only produce wheat and buckwheat.
But they offer a wide variety of cuisine using the two. People may have fewer options for food, but they have made an effort to create menus that are rich in variety so they wouldn't grow tired of their daily meals. I'd say, "They are free because they are restrained."
Recently, dietary habits in farming and fishing communities have begun to match those in the cities. With their food cultures homogenized, they have fewer opportunities to prepare traditional noodle cuisine.
But homemade noodle dishes are very nutritious, and have nurtured the body and the mind of those who eat them. I'd like to shed light on the value of the noodle culture again.
Udon is usually served hot as noodle soup in a mildly flavoured broth, in its simplest form as kake udon, served in kakejiru made of dashi, soy sauce (shōyu), and mirin. It is usually topped with thinly chopped scallions. Other common toppings include tempura, often prawn or kakiage (a type of mixed tempura fritter), or abura age, a type of deep-fried tofu pockets seasoned with sugar, mirin, and soy sauce. A thin slice of kamaboko, a halfmoon-shaped fish cake, is often added. Shichimi can be added to taste.
The flavor of broth and topping vary from region to region. Usually, dark brown broth, made from dark soy sauce (koikuchi shōyu) is used in eastern Japan, and light brown broth, made from light soy sauce (usukuchi shōyu) is used in western Japan. This is even noticeable in packaged instant noodles, which are often sold in two different versions for east and west.
In China, similar thick wheat flour noodles are called cū miàn (粗麵). This original udon was 2 to 3 cm in diameter, a flat pancake-shaped "noodle" added to miso-based soup. The Japanese character 饂飩 is easily confused with and different from the modern Chinese characters 餛飩, which refers to wonton dumplings, not noodles. In Chinese, udon is called 烏冬 wūdōng or 烏冬麵 wūdōngmiàn, sometimes 烏龍麵 wūlóngmiàn. (Note that this is unrelated to Oolong tea, 烏龍茶 wūlóngchá.)
The origin of udon in Japan is credited to Buddhist priests who traveled to China: local areas specifically attribute Kūkai or Enni. Kūkai, a Buddhist priest, traveled to China around the beginning of the 9th century to study Buddhism. Sanuki Province claimed to have been the first to adopt udon from Kūkai. Enni, a Rinzai Zen monk, went to China in the 13th century; Hakata claimed to have produced udon based on Enni's recipe.
Common udon dishes
Like many Japanese noodles, udon noodles are served chilled in the summer and hot in the winter. Toppings are chosen to reflect the seasons and to balance with other ingredients. Most toppings are added without much cooking, although some are deep-fried. Many of these dishes may also be prepared with soba.
- Kake udon (in Kantō) or Su udon (in Kansai): Hot udon in broth topped with thinly sliced green onions, and perhaps a slice of kamaboko.
- Kitsune udon: "Fox udon". Topped with Aburaage (sweetened deep-fried tofu pockets). A favorite in the Kansai region, particularly Osaka.
- Tempura udon : Topped with tempura, especially prawn, or kakiage, a type of mixed tempura fritter.
- Tanuki udon ("Raccoon-dog udon") (in Kantō) or Haikara udon (in Kansai): Topped with tenkasu (deep-fried tempura batter).
- Tsukimi udon: "Moon-viewing udon". Topped with raw egg, which poaches in the hot soup.
- Wakame udon: Topped with wakame, a dark green sea vegetable.
- Karē udon: "Curry udon". Udon in a soup made of Japanese curry. May also include meat or vegetables.
- Chikara udon: "Power udon". Topped with toasted mochi rice cakes. A hearty dish.
- Stamina (sutamina) udon: "Stamina udon". Udon with various hearty ingredients, usually including meat, a raw egg, and vegetables.
- Nabeyaki udon: A sort of udon hot-pot, with seafood and vegetables cooked in a nabe, or metal pot. The most common ingredients are tempura shrimp with mushrooms and an egg cracked on top.
- Kamaage udon: Served in a communal hot-pot with hot water, and accompanied by a hot dipping sauce of dashi and soy sauce.
- Udon-suki: Udon cooked in the manner of sukiyaki.
- Yaki udon: Stir-fried udon in soy-based sauce, prepared in a similar manner to yakisoba. This originated in Kitakyushu of Fukuoka Prefecture. (Note that while yakiudon is made with udon, yakisoba is not made from buckwheat soba, but with steamed Chinese-style ramen.)
- Misonikomi udon: Hard udon noodles simmered in red miso soup. The soup generally contains chicken, a floating cracked raw egg that is stirred in by the eater, kamaboko, vegetables and tubers. The noodles are extremely firm in order to stand up to the prolonged simmering in the soup; additionally, the noodles do not contain salt, so as to avoid over-salting from the salt in the miso.
- Houtou udon: a local dish of Yamanashi Prefecture, a type of miso soup with udon and plenty of vegetables.
- Ninja udon: a local dish of Iga-Ueno in the Mie Prefecture. Udon in soup, with a selection of meats (usually beef, tempura and aburaage) "hidden" in the noodles, like ninja.