What is Sanuki Udon
In this article we will talk about fundamentals of udon cuisine in general and the uniqueness of Sanuki udon in particular. Through this article you will learn what udon and Sanuki udon are, and how to make superb udon noodles from scratch as well as how to properly cook noodles for Sanuki udon dishes — like the ones you could offer at your restaurant.
Udon: history, evolution, varieties
Below is the evolution tree diagram of Udon which is included in our Udon noodle making textbook. It schematically shows the evolution of noodle types branching out to the present. It is partly the history of how humans continued to develop ways to consume wheat they have started farming since the neolithic age. There was an area in China where wheat was cultivated for human consumption on a large scale. That was where many of wheat consuming methods, especially turning it into noodles were developed. Production method of udon was said to be brought from China to Japan by a famous monk a thousand years ago. Because of that, udon cuisine has spread across Japan mainly from Buddhist temples.
Over the past few hundred years, regular consumers has begun enjoying udon as daily meals, and we ended up having a variety of different types of udon dishes with unique features throughout Japan, that we now know as regional udon varieties. These udon dishes are very different in noodle texture, size, soups, toppings that usually come with the noodles or even how the locals in the region perceive udon. Some see udon as a casual, everyday food, while people in other regions see their udon as something that they may have on special occasions.
What is Udon. What is Sanuki Udon
Though there are many forms of udon dishes, we can think of it as consisting of the following components: noodles, soup or sauce, and toppings. Basically, it is a very simple noodle dish that is usually served in hot soup with toppings.
As for Sanuki udon, it has originated in Kagawa prefecture (taking the name from the old name of Kagawa and surrounding areas), and it features thick noodles that are firm and bouncy with a stock made from dry sardines, kelp, and other dry fish ingredients, soy sauce and other seasonings. The simplest version of Sanuki udon dish is a bowl of hot soup noodles with chopped up scallions for a topping. It is a bowl of noodle soup that immediately reminds Kagawa locals of their homeland. Sanuki udon – a soul food of Kagawa pref.
Not even slurping noodles is not considered impolite, but quite the opposite – this is actually how udon noodles are supposed to be eaten! To Japanese people, eating udon noodles gives a certain sense of peace of mind.
Sanuki Udon became very popular throughout Japan with so many Sanuki Udon specialty shops emerging across the country, making it almost as famous as udon itself. Thus in the minds of many Japanese, udon means Sanuki udon. Several famous chains of udon specialty shops brought it to the overseas markets as well, making this noodle cuisine the world’s most famous udon.
Udon specialty shop
Much udon in Japan is consumed at special restaurants specializing in this particular cuisine.
So, what is great about an udon shop? Well, the ultimate answer to this question may be its simplicity. The quality of what an udon shop offers can be boiled down (pun intended!) to the quality of its noodles — which is ultimately determined by the noodles’ texture and taste. Of course, an udon shop would need to make other components of its offerings great as well, but unless it has great noodles, it would be difficult to make the offerings attractive to its customers. So, in a sense, the performance of an udon shop depends on its ability to consistently produce and serve superb noodles.
In terms of operation of an udon shop, this means having proper equipment and operational flow, which on the basic level is made possible by having an effective floor plan. The picture above shows a sample floor plan for a self-served udon shop – a very popular restaurant type in Japan. This is an udon shop where you can have a bowl of udon noodle hot soup dish for the equivalent of a few dollars. For the lack of better words, this is a ‘low-end’ of udon shops where customers would have to do a bit of work like carrying a tray of food they ordered to their seats, and take their emptied dishes back. This kind of setup makes low pricing possible by eliminating as many serving personnel as possible. The shop staff can focus on other duties inside the kitchen – like making and cooking noodles, preparing broths, making deep-fried foods and other side dishes. Customers come and make an order for noodles and soup, then move along the lane where a variety of freshly fried tempura and other items are available for pickup. And then there is a cashier register at the end of the lane to ring them up. So, the hungrier we are, the riskier it is to end up ordering, paying and eating more than we otherwise would at a full-service restaurant.
Self-served udon shops usually operate in the lower price bracket, but there are other types as well that provide full services with higher price points, and there’s even fancier or higher-end udon shops that command higher average sales per customer. And, what all the successful ones have in common are great noodles. They structure their offerings around their noodles that customers crave for. And typically, restaurants that operate at higher price range function like noodle bars where customers can enjoy a variety of drinks, side dishes, and a great service. They charge 2-3 times higher for a bowl of udon noodles compared to self-served style udon shops. As you can see there are many possibilities in the udon food service industry.
Kagawa - a special place for udon shops
As was mentioned above, Kagawa is the place where Sanuki noodle cuisine originated from. It is actually the smallest prefecture of all 47 in Japan. It is one of the 4 prefectures on Shikoku Island situated in the Southwest of Japan. The total population is little shy of 1 million, and what Kagawa is most famous for?…, you guessed it, udon! There are over 700 udon shops, most of which are mom-and-pop shops, each offering its original menu: noodles, soups, toppings, and side dishes. They are basically primary sources of tourism in this prefecture. There is even a special taxi you can rent for a day that would take you from udon shop to udon shop. And what they call it? – yes, you guessed it right – it is “udon taxi” There are so many other good things in Kagawa, but because of the overwhelming presence of udon, they are far less famous.
So, what you would find at a typical Sanuki udon shop if you had a chance to visit one in Kagawa is, of course, udon noodles + some sort of stock or sauce, toppings, and side dishes. Let us cover all of them in more details.
Udon cuisine and udon restaurants
When ordering at an udon shop, one is presented with the following chooices:
The size of noodles:
Typically small – means one serving of cooked noodles, which vary from shop to shop, but typically 200 grams.
Medium, 2 servings or 1.5 servings.
Large 3 or 2 servings. And there are usually bigger options. One needs to be careful because different shops may have different definitions of “one serving”. There are some shops that start cooking your noodles after picking your serving size, so they ask you this first. Then, you need to choose whether you want the noodles to be served in a hot soup, cold, or “kama-age” style, which is served without washing starch off the noodles (more about this later), or other options.
Some udon shops have options for soup noodles. They can serve you warmed noodles in cold soup or chilled noodles in hot soup. This may sound peculiar, but these types of options are available at some udon shops because some locals are obsessed with the noodle texture. Typically, a Sanuki Udon Specialty shop can offer 3 different noodle textures for the same type of noodles.
One such option is for hot soup udon – this type of noodles is basically cooked, washed, portioned, and warmed on order. The texture is soft and clean because starch gets washed off.
Cold noodles are cooked, washed, and chilled with ice water. This type of noodles is firm and sometimes hard because outer surface of noodles is hardened through a contact with ice water.
Then, there is another type, called “kama-age”, which means “right out of boiling pot”.
“Kama-age” udon noodles are cooked for a shorter time than the other types, picked out for one serving, and served in a bowl. These noodles are soft and give a bit of slimy texture from starch still their surface. Because noodles are still hot, they would keep getting cooked after served to customers.
Traditional soups/sauces are hot soup, cold dipping sauce, “kama-age” dipping sauce, and sauce used for “bukkake” dishes. All of these soups or sauces are based on one stock that is made from a combination of different seafood ingredients. To make udon soup/broth you first need a base stock, called “shiro dashi” or “white dashi”, typically made from kelp, dry sardines (called “niboshi”), dry squid legs by soaking them in water for overnight. Adding “kaeshi” or base sauce (seasoning) to it at different ratios makes different types of soups and sauces. Kaeshi or base sauce is made from soy sauce, sugar, mirin, dry shiitake mushrooms, etc. And the base stock can also be used for broth to cook ingredients for oden and for curry soups.
As for the toppings, Sanuki udon almost inevitably comes with tempura or various ingredients deep-fried in batter. This is because udon noodles, especially when served in hot seafood broth, have rather plain taste. This may be why someone decided Sanuki udon would go well with tempura, which gives a bowl some heaviness. There is usually a variety of tempura items made from different ingredients with popular ones being prawns, squid legs, eggs, and sweet potatoes. Tempura plays a vital role among offerings of a Sanuki Udon Shop. Though an udon shop may charge only a dollar or two for a piece of tempura, it adds up and helps to increase the average receipt figure. And always having freshly fried tempura may be a reason for some customers to keep coming back to the udon shop.
There are side dishes, such as oden, which is a variety of ingredients like fish cakes, daikon radish, eggs, some pieces of beef meat, konyaku, etc. soaked and cooked in dashi. They are usually cooked in the white dashi for some time so that they would soak up a good amount of dashi in them. The main reason why an udon shop offers this is to give customers something to snack on while waiting for their noodles to be cooked, which sometimes takes up 10-15 minutes. Customers eat oden with special miso pasta and/or Japanese mustard. Having an option of oden may be a unique feature of Sanuki udon pecialty shops.
There are other noodle dishes you may come across at a Sanuki udon shop. One of them is called, “bukkake”, which is cooked noodles (with starch washed off) placed in a bowl. It is poured with a special sauce over, then stirred. The dish is refreshing as we can experience the noodle texture more directly, and usually the noodles are very firm, giving us a lot of bite.
Characteristics of wheat flour for udon noodles
In terms of size and hydration, Udon noodles fall into the category of relatively thick noodles with high hydration made from low protein wheat flour. These three parameters are responsible for the unique chewy and bouncy texture of udon noodles.
Creates hardness and strength
1. When water is added, it becomes “gluten”, and forms web-like structures
2. Protein hardens when heated
3. Hardness of noodles is determined by protein content
Plays a role in forming sticky and viscous texture
1. When water is added, it turns into a glue-like and viscous substance
2. Noodles’ gustatory effect is influenced by the dough’s viscocity
Type of starch in wheat flour for good udon noodles
As you can see from the chart above, better udon noodle quality is achieved by using flour with high amylopectin content, as its molecules bond easier with each other.
When combined with water to make dough, and then heated (during cooking), different varieties of proteins and starches contained in wheat flour create the texture of noodles that is both firm and chewy.
Different techniques are used to determine which flour is suited for noodle making. Among them is the one developed by the German company Brabender which gauges flour’s viscosity properties, and measures it in “BU” units.
As a general rule, to make good quality udon noodles it is recommended to use wheat flour which measures at least 750 BU.
Composition of udon noodles
As you can see from the chart above: Udon noodles are made from two main categories of ingredients: solid and liquid.
The main component of solid ingredients for Udon noodles is usually wheat flour (sometimes, additives like green tea or seaweed powder can be used for coloring or flavor as well).
The main component of liquid ingredients for Udon noodles is water. To make good quality udon noodles soft water is more appropriate because it does not contain minerals which can hinder formation of gluten structures in the dough, and make boiling time longer. Salt which is added in relatively large quantities is considered as a liquid ingredient (because it dissolves in water).
In udon noodles salt plays the following roles:
– makes dough more elastic by tightening gluten in flour
– inhibits growth of unwanted bacteria
– improves flavor of noodles
– adds salty taste (though most of the salt is released into cooking water)
– prevents cracks in noodles when they dry
Although standard recipe of Sanuki Udon has more or less defined levels of hydration and salinity depending on the ambient conditions they can be adjusted accordingly.
One of the unique characteristics of Sanuki udon noodles is the use of vinegar.
In udon noodles vinegar performs the following functions:
– it optimizes the resting/aging process
– prevents dough from spoiling
– controls Ph level of cooking water (which helps to reduce noodle loss during cooking)
Udon noodle dough
Production of udon dough can be subdivided into the following 4 stages:
1. weighing of ingredients (precise measurement, and calculation of ingredient ratios are the key for production of good udon noodles)
2. mixing the ingredients utilizing the principle of “granulation through agitation” (1 minute of dry mixing; 4 minutes after adding 2/3 of liquid ingredients; 1 minute after adding the remaining 1/3 of liquid ingredients)
3. 1st resting (for 2 hours at 28 degrees Celsius)
5. 2nd resting (for overnight at 18 degrees Celsius)
Resting/aging of dough is extremely important to make good udon noodles. Benefits of resting/aging include: better hydration, degassing, flavor improvement, dough relaxation. Dough resting/aging also promotes better gluten development, which in its turn has a significant positive effect on udon noodle quality in general.
Another important step for dough gluten formation is pressing, which is done by applying pressure onto a piece of dough to flatten it, folding its ends inwards, and repeating the pressing several times.
Udon noodle making
When the dough is ready, it is thinned down into a flat sheet of desired thickness, and then cut into noodle strands.
Below is a sequence of steps for udon noodle making using “multi-directional kneading” type of noodle making equipment (refer to >this page< for further details)
Special technique to achieve better udon noodle texture
As a general rule udon noodles have square shape, which is not only more aesthetically attractive, but also ensures more homogeneous boiling, as well as allows noodles to carry more soup due to slightly curved dents on their cross-sections which are made possible by noodles having square shape.
To ensure our udon noodles have square shape after cooking, in their raw form they need to have their width bigger than their thickness. This is due to the fact that the width (the rolled side of udon dough sheet) tends to grow bigger (expand) during boiling.
How to cook udon noodles
For cooking udon noodles it is generally advised to use at least 10 times of water to the weight of noodles (i.e. to boil 1 kg of noodles we would need at least 10 liters of water).
After putting noodles in boiling water it is recommended to stir them to prevent them from lumping together, and to maintain a water temperature of at least 98.5 degrees Celsius.
Boiling time and cooking techniques differ depending on the type of dish noodles are prepared for.
For hot “kamaage” style dishes udon noodles are usually boiled for about 5-6 minutes, for hot soup dishes – about 8 minutes, for udon noodles served cold (“zaru udon”) boiling time is approximately 10 minutes.