Japanese Home Cooking: Udon

Dear Readers,

After a lengthy dry-spell in blogging I have been more active and focused on the blog lately and decided to try a new series on simple Japanese home cooking. This is not the first post on home-cooking, but I hope to make a series out of it. My wife is a resourceful cook and I have picked up a number of simple, but delicious recipes from her.

However, this is also something I wanted to do for a long time. I noticed that many Westerners interested in cooking Japanese food use recipes thay are too traditional and impractical for everyday eating. Housewives in Japan often use much simpler recipes for home-cooking, so I wanted to show such recipes rather than the high-end gourmet recipes.

Today’s recipe is udon. Udon noodle soup is very popular in Japan and great for people who are ill or recovering from stomach flu.The recipe is pretty easy to memorize too:

  • 1 package of udon noodles, frozen
  • Soy sauce, regular or reduced-sodium.
  • Mirin, or sweetened rice wine
  • Dashi, or powdered fish broth
  • Optional: one egg
  • Optional: chopped green onions
  • Optional: tōgarashi (唐辛子) spice. This is a spicy seasoning you can sprinkle on. It’s a bit hard to find, and certainly spicy, but really good with udon.

Let’s talk about the ingredients a bit:

Udon Noodles

You can find these at your local Asian supermarket pretty easily. Usually they are sold in frozen packs of four or five. Get the ones actually made in Japan if possible, because of the quality.  The best ones are so-called “sanuki udon” (讃岐うどん), where Sanuki Province is an old province of Japan.  Sanuki-Style udon noodles actually aren’t hard to find because they’re so popular, but make sure you avoid Western-knockoffs.  They just don’t taste very good.

Mirin

Japanese cooking frequently uses rice wine, just as European cooking uses wine. However there are two general kinds: sweetened and regular

Mirin (みりん) is the sweetened kind and the easiest to find at your local Asian supermarket. You can use regular rice-wine (料理酒, ryōrishū) but then you have to add sugar anyway. Plus it’s a bit less common.

Long story short: just stick with mirin.

Soy Sauce

Again, easy to find. Note that soy sauce flavor varies more than you think between countries, so for this recipe stick with a Japanese brand if you can find it.

Reduced-sodium (減塩, gen’en) options exist for people who want to cut back. We often buy those and they turn out fine.

Dashi

This is the hardest one. A good fish broth makes a huge difference in the outcome of your Japanese cooking. A cheap one might just ruin your dish.

There are common mistakes here:

  • People buy the cheap, common brands like Ajinomoto. They’re ok but use MSG and otherwise aren’t that great.
  • People try to make their own using konbu seaweed. This can work but takes lots of practice. If you cook too long or too hot, the flavor quickly turns bitter. Cook too short and your soup has no flavor.

So try to follow some simple rules when shopping for dashi:

  • Stick with powdered dashi because it’s easier and good brands do exist. Preferably buy a brand that comes in little teabag-like pouches. Usually one “bag” per meal is enough. 
  • Look for either katsuo (bonito fish) or ago-dashi (flying fish) flavors. The latter is our personal favorite but the former is more popular and accessible.
  • Try to find nicer, organic brands or at least without MSG.  If there are no such options, dont worry too much. 
  • Try a couple brands to see what works.

Even then you may still find a brand you dont like as much, but it should suffice.

Preparation

Thankfully this is the easy part. First, start with the udon soup:

  1. Boil a sauce pan of water. How much simply depends on how much soup to make.
  2. Add a pouch of dashi or a teaspoonful. After it cooks a bit, taste it. If it is too thin, add a little more. If too strong, add a little water. The broth should be just slightly cloudy and have a rich taste without being too heavy. You will know what’s best. 
  3. Once you have a good broth, add some soy sauce and mirin in roughly equal measure. The broth should be fairly dark but not black. Try adding only a modest amount of each, let cook, taste, add more as requires.
  4. Let the soup cook for medium heat for a few minutes to help the flavors blend.
  5. Now you can crack and egg and drop in the yolk. Give it a few minutes to cook under medium-low heat. Other options include:
    • Chicken
    • Carrots
    • Tempura
    • Fried Tofu
    • Japanese curry
    • Fish cakes –  these are darn good in udon.
    • Wakamé seaweed
  6. Finally, add chopped green onions. The trick is to let them cook a bit so they are not raw, but not overcooked and mushy. 

Once the broth is done, boil the udon noodles in a separate pot until they are al dente, drain the water and then put the noodles in the bowl you want to eat from. Add the soup to your bowl and you are ready to serve!  If you have access to tōgarashi (唐辛子) powder, which is a bit like a spicy pepper spice, sprinkle some of that on too for some zest.

Enjoy!

P.S. Thanks to reader “Hangtown” for helpful feedback. 

1 In early November I had a really bad stomach flu for 10+ days. i lost a lot of weight and depended a lot on udon toward the end just to keep going. Finally, one day I woke up and it was just gone. It was the sickest I have ever been.

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Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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