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Japanese food is famous for its delicious variety of noodles. One of the most popular is the udon noodle, a wheat-based noodle that is about as thick as your pinky-finger. When cooked properly, udon has a satisfying chewiness that serves as the perfect base for flavorful broths and sauces.
So how is udon eaten in Japan? Whether it’s served in a bowl of soup or on a plate, udon is eaten with chopsticks. Slurping is actually encouraged, because it shows others that you’re enjoying your meal.
Because udon noodles are mild in flavor and easy to cook, there are probably thousands of different dishes that can be prepared with them. There are even entire restaurants in Japan that serve only udon! Each unique style calls for a certain eating method, so read on to learn more about the different styles of udon and how to best enjoy them.
Different Styles of Udon
Kake udon is udon noodles in a hot dashi broth, which contains bonito and soy sauce. It may come with a sprinkling of toppings, such as diced scallions or seaweed. However, the udon noodles and broth make up the bulk of this dish.
The noodles in kake udon should be eaten with chopsticks only. If the dish is served with a spoon on the side, it can be used to sip the broth in between bites of udon. Otherwise, sipping directly from the bowl is acceptable if a spoon isn’t provided.
When kake udon is served with tempura shrimp or vegetables, it’s called tempura udon. This dish can be presented with the tempura pieces on top or on the side. Just like with the noodles, the tempura should also be eaten with chopsticks.
For kamaage udon, the cooked noodles are served in a bowl of hot water with seasonings and sauces on the side. This dish is usually eaten by fishing the noodles out of the water and dipping them into a small bowl of sauce. For a little extra flavor, you can pour soy sauce directly into the water before digging in.
Kamatama udon is the same as kamaage udon with the addition of a raw egg cracked on top. To enjoy this dish, break the yolk with chopsticks and drizzle some soy sauce on top before mixing everything together. The raw egg should thicken slightly from the heat of the noodles and join with the soy sauce to form a creamy, savory sauce.
Zaru udon is udon served cold on a zaru, or flat bamboo mat. Traditionally, the noodles are piled on the zaru with no dressings or condiments. Some restaurants may serve it with a light garnish, such as sesame seeds or seaweed.
This dish is eaten by picking up bite-sized portions of the noodles, dipping them into a bowl of sauce, and leading them to your mouth with chopsticks. Because the dish is cold, it’s normally served during the warmer months of the year.
Curry udon is the marriage of udon and the other beloved Japanese dish, curry. The udon is served in a curry-flavored soup, which is often leftover curry watered-down with broth. Unlike the other dishes on this list, it’s best not to slurp curry udon in public because it tends to get messy!
Kitsune udon has the traditional components of broth and noodles. However, the key ingredient is aburaage, which are sheets of fried tofu that have been boiled in a sweet-savory sauce. This very popular and traditional dish is usually served hot.
Yaki udon is pan-fried udon with vegetables, meat, and seasonings. Soy sauce, pork, ginger, and egg are some common ingredients that are used to make yaki udon. Modern yaki udon can also have a Western flair with non-traditional ingredients, such as cheese, corn, and hot dogs.
This type of udon is served in a nabe, or a hot cast-iron pot. Typical additions include fried chicken, tempura, mushrooms, eggs, and vegetables. Because the nabe keeps the soup hot and steaming long after it comes off the stove, this dish is normally enjoyed only during the wintertime.
Eating Udon in Japan
Due to its popularity, udon is very easy to find in Japan. Restaurants that serve udon can be found in every Japanese town and city, and it should only cost you a handful of U.S. dollars! Your experience will vary depending on the type of restaurant, which are:
Sit-down restaurants in Japan have waiter service, menus, and dining room seating. Restaurants in tourist-heavy areas are more likely to have bilingual menus with pictures. Even if there are no pictures in the menu, most restaurants still have large display cases of very realistic replicas of their food, so you’ll know exactly what you’re ordering.
Self-serve restaurants work a lot like a diner or cafeteria. Customers must place their order at the beginning of the line and grab a tray, loading it with the toppings of their choice as they wait for their noodles to cook. These types of eateries tend to be busy because they’re meant for people in a hurry, so it’s pertinent to order quickly and keep the line moving.
For the hungry diner on-the-go, standing udon restaurants are the perfect place to grab a meal. They are often found near bus and train stations, where commuters can eat their noodles while standing at a counter. Meals are purchased by buying tickets from a vending machine, which are then given to the employee who will prepare the order for you.
Some udon factories will have on-site standing or self-serve restaurants. Factory restaurants stand out because the noodles are straight from the source, so they are the freshest available. There are regional differences in how udon is made, so this is the best way to sample the local specialty.
Making Udon at Home
Not everybody can go all the way to Japan for authentic udon. Fortunately, udon is pretty easy to make at home, so much so that Japanese mothers make it all the time for their kids. In spite of its simplicity, people with Western palates may not be familiar with the cooking methods and ingredients that are common in Japanese food.
Cooking the Noodles
Udon noodles are sold in packages (see Amazon) , either frozen, dried, or refrigerated. In the United States, they’re mostly found in Asian markets and some larger grocery stores. Just like pasta, udon noodles must be cooked first in boiling water.
Unlike pasta, udon must be rinsed in cold water after boiling to stop the cooking process. This prevents the udon from developing a “gummy” texture and gives it the firmness we all love. The only exception would be if the udon will be served kamaage-style, which intentionally skips the cold water process for a softer, chewy texture.
A very basic udon broth starts with bonito and kombu, or fish flakes and dried seaweed. Other ingredients can be added to build depth and body such as rice vinegar, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and anchovies.
Because udon is such a simple dish, it’s incredibly easy to customize it to your liking with all your favorite toppings and seasonings. Sliced vegetables, diced meats, and tempura are usually the go-to options. Some other delicious suggestions include:
- Snow peas
- Broiled salmon
- Pork belly
The following ingredients are typical components of udon. They also happen to be staples in most Japanese households. If you want to try cooking Japanese food at home, these ingredients would make great additions to your pantry as well as your udon:
- Pickled radish
- Fish cake
How is udon different from ramen?
Udon is made from wheat flour and salted water. Ramen is made with something called kansui, an alkaline solution of salt, water, and sodium carbonate. Kansui keeps ramen from becoming soft, which is why it’s the top noodle choice for broth-based dishes.
Chemistry aside, the most obvious difference between udon and ramen is their appearance. Ramen is thin, sometimes curly, and has a yellowish hue, thanks to its kansui content. On the other hand, udon is thicker and paler in color.
Where did udon originate?
Japanese have been eating udon for so long, the answer is hard to pin down. It’s now commonly believed that the udon we know today originated from Kagawa prefecture. However, historians believe that the technology to produce milled flour and the technique of making noodles all came from China.
Is there an easier way to make udon?
If you’re lucky, you may have an Asian supermarket nearby that carries instant udon kits (see Amazon). These kits come with udon, a seasoning or sauce packet, and additional toppings like dried vegetables and condiments, and all you have to do is add water. If you can’t find them locally, you can get instant udon kits online.
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