Just out of the East Gate of Yokata Air Base, there is a noodle place that everyone calls The Truck Stop. Like almost all of my food memories of that time, the smell of chlorine saturates every thing. Being a competitive swimmer and growing girl allowed me to eat a lot of food. It was like I had three stomachs. And the bowls of udon there were huge, as were the sides of gyoza. It was my favorite place to eat.
There was a pit surrounded by a bar where people would sit and slurp loudly (this is actually a polite way to eat udon). Inside the pit, everyone wore rain boots. They sprayed the dishes down with high-powered hoses. There were cockroaches and green mold/moss hanging down from the ventilation system. I only know this because I noticed it once in a, “wow that’s kind of gross” thought that disappeared as soon as the food was in front of me.
Searching for that Udon flavor of memory is like searching for a needle in a haystack…
I know The Truck Stop is a chain now but that’s about it. And it doesn’t really matter because it is the standard that I used in my search for Japanese food in America. Food is sometimes never the same after living or traveling in a foreign country. You can spend years hoping the big fancy restaurant will be able to get the taste of gyoza right or that the random hole in the wall joint will have the udon flavor you can’t describe. Some of this is probably a combination of nostalgia, food snobbery, and faulty memories. But not all of it.
The biggest reason we spend so much time searching for a needle in a haystack is lack of knowledge. Because of language and cultural barriers, the important information is lost and you are left with only the consumption. You eat it, appreciate it, but have no knowledge of the steps, process, techniques, tradition, and innovation that put that bowl of steaming delicious udon in front of you.
I think that’s why it took me so long to try and make Japanese food. I only had the memories of a young girl. Back then I had no interest in cooking and I didn’t read or speak Japanese (I still don’t). But I sure liked to slurp up a bowl of udon as fast as possible.
There were huge gaps of knowledge that made searching for that needle an impossible task. Enter the Internet. During this past month, I’ve learned a lot. I discovered the stories behind the foods, the artistry, and the tradition as well as innovation. And I found that needle.
The Components of Udon: Noodles and Dashi (Fish Broth)
When talking about udon I guess you first start with the noodles. Udon are wheat noodles that are sold fresh, frozen, or dried:
- Fresh udon is fat, bouncy, and more delicate and takes 3 minutes to cook
- Frozen udon has a soft and chewy texture and is pretty close to fresh udon noodles. It is also already cooked so it doesn’t have to be boiled separately first. You can just add the frozen noodles to the simmering broth mixture for 3 to 5 minutes.
- Dried udon is flatter and closer to linguine in style and texture. It is not as good as frozen or fresh and takes around 8 to 10 minutes to cook.
While the noodles are important, the most crucial part of udon is the dashi, or fish broth. It is the cornerstone of Japanese cooking and contributes umami flavor. It is usually made from a combination of ingredients including kombu (dried kelp), katsuobushi (dried smoked bonito [tuna] flakes), dried shiitake mushrooms, and iriko (dried baby anchovies/sardines).
I chose to do a dashi with both kombu (dried kelp) and katsuobushi (dried smoked bonito [tuna] flakes). The second time I made this I did a chicken broth version for my mom because she can’t handle smoked meat. And the katsuobushi is definitely a major factor in creating that udon flavor I was missing all these years. Even when you use the same seasonings, the chicken broth version just didn’t get the flavor right. It wasn’t udon. So in my opinion, the dashi is the most important component in making proper udon.
Once you get past all the unfamiliar ingredients, making udon is extremely easy. Udon is sometimes classified by what the toppings are but I didn’t allow myself to get too caught up in specifics. I remember eating udon without any toppings but I wanted to experiment a little and decided to top mine with a halved boiled egg, seasoned fried tofu pouches, green onions, and some fried onions (nothing fancy-just French’s French Fried Onions). Feel free to put whatever you want on top though.
Oh and eat your udon as soon as it’s ready. I had such a hard time taking these pictures and almost didn’t because I knew I was compromising the taste and texture by letting it sit there.
Blogs I learned a lot from:
Nami from Just One Cookbook breaks down how to make four different types of dashi here. Her site is extremely useful for newbies to Japanese cooking because she has extensive ingredient, product, and video resources that help you get familiar with all you need to know.
Noriko and Yuko of Japanese Cooking 101 provide short and easy breakdowns of Japanese cooking. I got the seasoning ratios for the udon from them here.
Reads that helped me:
This breakdown of all the different types of udon in Japan
I get overwhelmed with all the noodles in Asian markets and until recently, I didn’t cook with them that often. So this Serious Eats Guide to Shopping for Asian Noodles helped me a lot.
These cooking tips from Hiroko Shimbo, the “Martha Stewart” of Japanese cooking
Articles about cooking I loved:
I came across this read in Saveur about making soba noodles and fell in love with how the author talks about “performing” cooking as opposed to cooking for pleasure and meditation.
- 4 cups water
- 2 4x5 inch sheets of kombu cut into strips dried kelp
- 3 cups dried bonito flakes katsuobushi
- 2.5 to 3 cups Dashi Broth
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 3 tablespoons mirin
- 2 tablespoon sake
- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 packages frozen udon (I used Shirakiku Brand Sanukiya Udon, which comes with 5 single serving packages of udon)
Imari Age (seasoned fried tofu pouches) Topping-Optional
- 4 squares Agé (I used House Foods Oagesan Agé)
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon sake
- 1 tablespoon mirin
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- sliced green onions
- bean sprouts
- shichimi togarashi common Japanese spice mixture containing seven ingredients
- soft boiled eggs halved
- narutomaki or naruto (a type of cured fish)
- fried onions
- Before you go to bed, place the sheet of kombu in 4 cups of cold water. Cover and put in the refrigerator. Or you can heat the water to almost boiling, add the kombu, and let it steep for 1 hour. Or you can soak the kombu in water for at least 30 minutes and then heat it on medium heat until just before boiling (you will see little bubbles on the edge of the pot). All methods produce a good broth, so just use the one that fits with your schedule.
- Whenever you're ready to make the dashi, remove the kombu by straining it out.
- Heat the kombu broth to just before boiling. Turn off the heat and add 3 cups of dried bonito flakes. Let steep for 5 minutes. Strain out the soggy dried bonito flakes in a fine mesh strainer lined with a paper towel. Squeeze the soggy bonito flakes, trying to get all the excess broth. Set aside the finished dashi. You should have around 2.5 to 3 cups.
Imari Age (seasoned fried tofu pouches)-You can make this before hand
- Put the tofu pouches in a strainer and pour boiling water over them.
- Combine all the ingredients in a frying pan on medium heat. Add the prepared tofu pouches and cook until all the liquid is gone, flipping occasionally. Set aside or store in an airtight container in the fridge.
- Add the dashi, soy sauce, mirin, and sake to a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Taste and add salt.
- Add the udon and cook 3 to 5 minutes. Turn the heat off, divide the noodles and soup into bowls, and top with your desired toppings.