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Seriously Asian: Hooked on Udon

"Finally, these were the noodles of my dreams, noodles with the kind of the flexible yet creamy strands that I had only ever tasted with homemade Italian pasta."

Note: Every week, SE intern Chichi Wang will be discussing some aspect of Asian cookery, with an emphasis on the traditional, underappreciated, or misunderstood elements thereof.

Recently, I had an epiphany on the noodle-making front. For years I'd been successfully rolling out tagliatelle or cutting papardelle by hand; every week, I'd rub my palms to the rhythm of trofie. Yet deep down, I was ashamed. I was ashamed because I'd never had success with a batch of homemade Asian noodles, the ones using only water and flour. My problem? Without the addition of eggs, the doughy strands were never quite chewy enough. Meal after meal, I would slurp down my homemade noodles floating limply in a bowl of broth with the nagging feeling that somehow, I could do better.

I wondered if it were possible to make truly fine Asian noodles at home. I wanted to find a recipe that would yield limber and slightly chewy strands, with the kind of dexterity evident upon first bite. I'd tasted such strands from relatively expensive packages of thin Korean noodles, but even those lacked the freshness that I had come to appreciate with my own Italian pasta.

Looking at episodes of No Reservations didn't boost my prospects. As I watched Anthony Bourdain visiting master noodle makers in Asia, I started to wonder if the only way I could produce a nearly perfect noodle was to take up the craft wholeheartedly, perhaps with a giant wooden dowel that would thump the dough like an overbearing masseuse.

Lacking such physical prowess, I instead tried different proportions of flour-to-water-to-salt and, after that stage, another period in which different resting times and kneading techniques were attempted. One year, I became convinced that a type of powder the Chinese call "kansui," an alkaline-related ingredient that imparts a certain aroma to the noodles in China, was my missing ingredient. I even had my eighty-six-year-old grandfather in Shanghai inquire about the matter of kansui and obtain a bag for my own use, but one taste of the powder-laden noodles left my tongue numb for well over an hour.

Just when I had set aside my dreams of making Asian noodles at home, the noodles found me. While revisiting the Dengaku technique in Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, a recipe for udon noodles fell open onto my lap. The recipe looked similar to any other I'd seen for flour-and-water noodles, yet there in the list of ingredients, Tsuji had included egg yolks as an optional element in the dough. In that moment, I felt the force of noodle enlightenment enveloping me, and I knew that I had found my recipe.

In the past, I'd added yolk after yolk into a decadent agnolotti recipe from The French Laundry Cookbook, but I hadn't considered adding yolks to my Asian noodles. Call me parochial or just plain silly, but now, I'm kicking myself for never before plopping an egg yolk into my previous flour mounds. This time around, doing so made all the difference.

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The udon noodles were slick and supple, possessing a bouncy chew that came apart in my mouth with just the right amount of resistance. Finally, these were the noodles of my dreams, noodles with the kind of the flexible yet creamy strands that I had only ever tasted with homemade Italian pasta. An egg yolk they contained, but eggy they were not. The overwhelming taste of the strands was that of the water-and-flour noodle, yet the addition of just two yolks, with their all-important fat, added a critical litheness to the chew of each stand.

Kneading the noodles was another revelation. In the book, Tsuji advises that the dough be kneaded until it is firm yet supple like the earlobe. At first I chuckled but eventually the incredible wisdom of this statement became evident as I continued to knead the dough. As I passed the ten-minute marker, I began to realize that the dough was becoming stronger yet slightly yielding. And, well, it felt uncannily like earlobe.

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I served the noodles in a basic Japanese broth consisting of dashi, soy sauce, and mirin. The slippery strands, like eels swimming in a limpid pool, were so satisfying that few, if any, embellishments were needed. As I happened to have on hand a bag of fresh baby bok choy, I wilted a few pieces into the broth. Verdant and barely cooked through, the bok choy completed the sparse yet elegant canvas that so frequently defines Japanese cookery.

It was really difficult to do, but I waited for about two hours to try the noodles in a pork bone soup and found that they were just as delicious in the meaty broth as they had been in the dashi-based soup. As such, I am officially dubbing these udon noodles my homemade Asian noodles of choice.

Homemade Udon in Japanese Noodle Broth

Adapted from Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji.

About the author: Chichi Wang took her degree in philosophy, but decided that writing about food would be much more fun than writing about Plato. She firmly believes in all things offal, the importance of reading great books, and the necessity of three-hour meals. If she were ever to get a tattoo, it would say "Fat is flavor." Visit her blog, My Chalkboard Fridge.

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