Sunday, August 29, 2010

Udon: Dancing For My Dinner

Just to set the record straight: udon has never been on my Top 5 Noodle Dishes of All Time list. Yeah, that's right, I got a list. Perhaps I've seen High Fidelity one too many times or maybe I just like to be prepared (you never know when someone is gonna ask you about your Top 5 Noodles) but the fact remains: udon does not make the Top 5.

This is not to say that I haven't eaten buckets of it over the years. When I was a kid I often ordered the noodle soup, topped with shrimp tempura, when my family went out for Japanese food. It's also an easy lunchtime staple so, for years, I toted containers of instant udon to work, gussied up with cubes of tofu and sliced scallions. So, you see, udon is just fine. Udon is nice. But when it comes to food, friends and boyfriends, nice is never enough.

So when I was researching the foods of eastern Shikoku, in anticipation of my summer Obon vacation there, I wasn't too excited to discover that the Kagawa prefecture is famous for its "Sanuki" udon. Apparently there are over 700 udon shops in Japan's smallest prefecture. "Perfect," I thought, immediately resenting Kagawa for it's lack of what-the-hell-daifuku, "700 ways to have a boring lunch."

But further research lead me to an udon making class which lead to the udon making technique: apparently the dough is traditionally kneaded with one's feet. Hmm, not so boring after all. I signed my friend (and travel partner) Tom and I up for an afternoon class at Nakano Udon School in Takamatsu and spent the next 2 weeks perfecting my pedicure.

The class was run by two amazingly peppy old ladies who seemed thrilled to be showing us how to make noodles, even though they've likely done it billions of times. One was clearly the leader (endearingly pushy) and the other the sidekick (likes to be pushed), and I imagine they zip around town on one of those motorcycle-with-sidecar contraptions, a la Wallace and Gromit, and sleep in side-by-side twin beds while wearing matching pajamas.

After being guided through the dough making process, the much anticipated foot kneading could begin. The dough was slid into plastic bags, dropped onto the floor...and then the music started. Yes, the music. Wallace and Gromit wanted us to dance. On top of the udon. To old granny Japanese enka music and what I can only describe as b-side disco 70's pop.

No problem.

Our spastic passionate dance moves proved to be successful, because after inspecting everyone's dough, the Leader Teacher proclaimed ours to be the best in the class. Booya! The next step was to roll out the dough, gently fold it, and cut it into thick noodles.

Finally it was time to taste our handiwork. We were guided into a big dining room and sat at a long table where each noodle making team got their own bubbling pot of water and an array of udon condiments. We dumped our freshly cut noodles into the pot, anxiously poked and prodded them with chopsticks, and stirred up our dipping sauces. Instead of eating a big bowl of noodle soup, we would be pulling the noodles out of the pot and dipping them into a mix of dashi, soy sauce, grated ginger and scallions. We each had a bowl of ice water in case we wanted to eat the noodles cold. We did.

Yum. Seriously yum. Thick and pleasantly chewy, these udon noodles were noticeably different and seriously better than any I have had before. The udon of my past never put up a fight, they were soft and limp and sad, unlike their toothsome Sanuki udon cousins. I also realized how much better they taste cold.

Suddenly Shikoku's food scene was looking up. 700 udon shops? How could we possibly visit them all? We were in love with cold udon and needed our fix. But sometimes love is fickle. After a lifetime of boring encounters I am still weary about adding udon to my Top 5 list. But I'll gladly dedicate the #6 position to the bowl of cold, Sanuki udon I slurped up in Naoshima, pictured at the top of this post.

My (current) Top 5 Favorite Noodles/Noodle Dishes in no particular order:

1. Chinese hand shaven noodles (Seven Stars Pepper in Seattle is my favorite)
2. Pappardelle (handmade are obviously best but Trader Joe's brand are also excellent)
3. Ramen (Let me be a broken record and say I heart Kyushu style ramen best)
4. Pad see ew
5. My lasagna with homemade noodles, pork ragu and bechamel

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