Despite living in Japan for nearly seven years (at the time of writing this post), it has taken me a surprisingly long time to start investigating the world of Japanese cooking. I suppose this is due to a fear/intimidation of the unknown and a lack of nostalgic connection between my upbringing and the ingredients I am surrounded with here. When out at restaurants with friends and coworkers, of course, I’d enjoy Japanese dishes and appreciate the differences between the stuff prepared by kitchen staff, but I’d never felt inclined to make it at home. Then, one day, at the beginning of the year in 2016, a coworker gifted me with the above-pictured udon noodles.
For reference, there is a culture in Japan of gift-giving after traveling somewhere. In English, the closest approximation is “souvenir,” but this carries with it the nuance of something cheap and hokey, like a penny pressed with the image of the Space Needle or a crappy snowglobe from Miami. The word in Japanese is omiyage (pronounced oh-mee-yah-gay), and it’s something I’ve actually come to appreciate. These “souvenirs” are almost always small food items from the place visited; usually a cookie or confectionary product. It should, wherever possible, be an item difficult or impossible to otherwise get for the person you are gifting the gift to.
In this case, my coworker, whose hometown is Kagawa prefecture, brought udon noodles for all the staff as his omiyage. I was somewhat dumbfounded by this, but after a little time and research, I decided I’d give it a go and try some Japanese cooking in my own house. A little bit of research on the popular Japanese recipe site Cookpad yielded an overwhelming number of udon recipes. Further googling led me to narrow down my choices a bit. One of the recipes I tried was this recipe for Japanese curry udon (site in Japanese only). I was endeared to this particular choice because the title is “EASY! DELICIOUS! CURRY UDON!” and to my total-beginner eyes it seemed like exactly the right choice.
The recipe called for a curry roux. I, being very finicky and hating to use food from boxes (as would be very easy here, where cubes of curry roux are very cheaply available in local supermarkets), refused to simply purchase my roux, and opted to make my own instead, as an exercise. A quick google led me to this recipe for Japanese curry roux (site in English), and I whipped up a batch at home. I was very pleased with the recipe. It was simple, and I already had all of the ingredients in my house.
The roux took about 20 minutes to prepare. With that complete, I moved on to the new and exciting part of the recipe; the one with all the new-to-me ingredients and cooking methods.
The udon noodles are cooked separately from the broth (just as one would cook pasta), and the broth and other toppings are prepared separately. Pictured here are hon-dashi (a sort of pellet that forms a broth base; think of it kind of like a slightly fishy granule-form bouillon cube), tsuyu (it looks like soy sauce, but it’s actually a dipping sauce composed of soy sauce, mirin, and dashi). This recipe utilized pork, sliced onion, and some green onion for topping (in addition to the roux I prepared, which is the far left corner of the picture. At the top right is potato starch mixed with water, which acts as thickening agent at the final step of the recipe.
I was really, really pleased with the final outcome, especially considering this was one of my first forays into the world of Japanese curry udon. I have since come to understand that the noodles my coworker gifted me were of very good quality, and I’ve sought to use that type of noodle ever since. The dish is hearty, spicy (you can control the degree of heat by adjusting your roux recipe), and thick (also controllable in the final step of the recipe, depending on the amount of potato starch and water added. Loved this one and was shocked by how easy (and cheap!) it was. Here is a rough translation of the original recipe from cookpad.
2 portions udon noodles
50 ml tsuyu
600 ml water
1 tsp hon-dashi
2 portions curry roux
150 g pork (bite-sizeish slices)
1/2 medium onion, thinly sliced
1/2 leek, sliced diagonally
1 tbsp potato starch
1. Boil the udon noodles in a separate pot according to package instructions/desired doneness
2. Bring the tsuyu and the water to a boil (I used a heavy bottom saucepan) and add the hon-dashi.
3. Add the desired amount of meat and onion to the pot with the tsuyu, water, and hon-dashi and bring to a boil. Remove any scum which floats to the surface.
4. When the meat and onion are cooked, add the leek and curry roux.
5. When the curry roux has melted, add 1 tbsp of water to the potato starch, mix well, and add slowly to the mixture until desired consistency is achieved.
6. Place the cooked udon in a bowel, and cover with the contents of step 5. Add a bit of sliced green onion as a topping. Serve immediately.