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Slurp Your Way to Happiness: The Joyful World of Udon
Mar 20, 2023
Team TREHA® @trehalose_sensei
Udon noodles evolved independently in Japan and became a staple of Japanese cuisine, gaining worldwide popularity similar to its sibling, ramen.

• What is Udon? A Guide to Japan's Beloved Noodle Dish
• Some Like It Hot, Some Like It Cold: Udon Classification by Cooking and Serving Styles
• The Ultimate Udon Experience: Udon Classification by Toppings
• The Three Great Udon of Japan: Which Will You Try?

In this blog, we touch on diverse topics about Japanese food cultures, practices together with the culinary secret, TREHA®, and its important role in the Japanese food industry. We hope our blog helps you obtain in-depth knowledge of the secrets and science behind Japanese cuisine, shared from our kitchen, to yours.

Udon Uncovered: Defining the Popular Japanese Noodle Dish

The Japanese love noodles. As we introduced in previous blog posts, there are countless specialty shops for ramen and soba in Japan, satisfying Japanese appetites day and night. Today, we will introduce another type of noodle beloved by the entire nation – udon.

Udon noodles (うどん or 饂飩) are thick noodles made from wheat flour, water, and salt. They are typically served in a soup made with dashi stock.

There are various theories about its origins, but it is generally agreed that udon was brought over from China. By the early Edo period (17th century), the modern form of udon had spread throughout Japan and was widely consumed. A few hundred years later, udon crossed the country’s borders and became familiar with non-Japanese in the west. However, are you pronouncing "Udon" correctly? No, not "YOU-DON." Pronouncing it as "WU-DON" is closest to native Japanese pronunciation.

Udon dishes can be classified and named in various ways. There are classifications based on the noodles' manufacturing method and physical state (dry, fresh, frozen, etc.). Today we will introduce Japan's national dish, "udon,” based on its serving styles and toppings.

Steamy and savory: Udon perfection in the making
Steamy and savory: Udon perfection in the making

The Noodle Dish You Can Enjoy Hot or Cold; Anyway You Like It!

Udon can be enjoyed both hot and cold. The most basic style is "kake udon,” prepared by pouring a hot dashi stock over boiled noodles. In Western Japan, this simple udon dish is called "su udon," meaning plain (su) noodles and dashi. This is a great way to enjoy the natural flavor of wheat noodles and dashi. Kake udon is a touchstone of the culinary skill of an udon restaurant.

An excellent option for hot summer is "zaru udon,” cold noodles rinsed in iced water. This refreshing udon dish on a bamboo strainer accompanies a dipping sauce with condiments such as scallions, sesame seeds, and wasabi.

Are you craving a warm, comforting dish to warm up in winter? Try "nikomi udon." This hot-pot dish has noodles simmered in a flavorful broth with chicken, vegetables, and tofu. Udon noodles simmered in a small one-serving clay pot are called "nabe yaki udon." The accumulated heat of the clay pot keeps the noodles warm for a long time.

We talked about “yaki soba (fried soba noodles)” in the previous blog posting. Your guess is correct: a dish with stirred udon noodles is called "yaki udon," containing various vegetables and meat and seasoned with soy sauce with a dashi as extra favoring or a savory sauce used in yaki soba. Kids’ go-to variation is ketchup-flavored yaki udon.

From left to right: Kake-udon or su-udon, Zaru-udon, Nikomi-udon or nabeyaki-udon, and Yaki-udon
From left to right: Kake-udon or su-udon, Zaru-udon, Nikomi-udon or nabeyaki-udon, and Yaki-udon

Be Ready for a Flavor Explosion: Toppings and Condiments to Take Your Udon to the Next Level

In past blog posts, we introduced "Tsukimi Udon," topped with a raw egg to resemble a full moon, and "Tempura Udon," a menu that caused heated debates over the eating order tempura first or noodle first. Please calm down because we explain other popular types classified by their characteristic toppings.

Niku udon (肉うどん): The bowl is topped with beef or pork slices cooked in a sweet and savory soy sauce.

Chikara udon (力うどん): A grilled or toasted mochi (rice cake) is used as a topping. This dish is typically called “chikara udon” instead of “mochi udon” because of the typical Japanese wordplay by pronunciation. Mochi can be translated as “a person with an ownership of something or having ownership of something.” For example, chikara mochi means strong person in Japanese, which partially rhymes with another meaning, rice cake, a sacred food to make you strong based on Japanese food culture.

Two udon dishes to energize and empower you; Niku-udon on the left and Chikara-udon on the right.
Two udon dishes to energize and empower you; Niku-udon on the left and Chikara-udon on the right.

Kitsune udon: As we introduced in a previous blog post, this dish features the topping as sweet and savory braised aburaage (thinly sliced fried tofu), which is said to be a fox’s favorite food.

Tanuki udon: The fox (kitsune) vs. raccoon dog (tanuki) theory related to udon noodles is complicated and deeply associated with cultural backgrounds by region, but we do our best. Please buckle up! Outside the Kansai region, tanuki udon is topped with tenkasu (crunchy bits of deep-fried batter). Despite various theories about the name, "tanuki" is seemingly associated with tenkasu, as the two sound similar in Japanese. In the Kansai region, "tanuki" refers to a soba noodle dish with aburaage on top. A beloved udon noodle dish with the same topping is considered "tanuki" (raccoon dog), which is another trickster animal, kitsune (fox), in Japanese folklore.

Curry udon: Unlike the other types of udon we've mentioned, this dish is characterized by its soup rather than its toppings. The curry soup is typically made by adding curry powder to the dashi stock or diluting curry roux with udon stock, thickened with potato starch.

From left to right: Kitsune-udon, Tanuki-udon, and Curry udon
From left to right: Kitsune-udon, Tanuki-udon, and Curry udon

The Top Two Udon Varieties Confirmed, But the Race for Third Place is Still On

Two of Japan's "Three Great Udon" include Sanuki udon from Kagawa Prefecture and Inaniwa udon from Akita Prefecture.

Sanuki udon has gained popularity in Japan but also internationally. Its most notable feature is its firm and chewy texture, or "koshi," which refers to the noodles' elasticity and stickiness, featuring a texture that is not too hard but a satisfying bite.

Inaniwa udon is a dried udon made by hand-stretch in the Inaniwa region of Yuzawa City, Akita Prefecture. The noodles are thin, around 3 millimeters in width, and flat. The smooth and slippery texture is a distinctive feature, which has a long history dating back to the Edo period (17th century) when it was a favored food of the lord of the Akita domain.

As for the third place, there are differing opinions. Some claim it to be Gotou udon from Nagasaki Prefecture, Mizusawa udon from Gunma Prefecture, or Himi udon from Toyama Prefecture. Locals in each region fiercely assert that their udon is the best, but there is no definitive conclusion. It seems udon lovers bravely stepped into the ongoing argument and gave them a collective name, "Five Great Udon," since all varieties are excellent.

Udon has long been enjoyed in Japan, featuring endless cooking and seasoning varieties. I like to make an udon salad with plenty of vegetables, and a favorite dressing served cold on hot summer days.

Which udon dish would you like to try? What kind of udon dish would you like to make?

There is no doubt that these are the two most popular udon noodles; Sanuki udon on the left and Inaniwa udon on the right.
There is no doubt that these are the two most popular udon noodles; Sanuki udon on the left and Inaniwa udon on the right.

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