Many years ago while I was living in Japan I took a class to learn how to make home made udon at a class that was organized by one of the major Japanese flour companies. All of the attendees were serious women of all different ages. We all donned crisp white aprons and white head covers. Today such classes are filled with male attendees, so the time have certainly changed. After the class I rushed
to the kappabashi, the professional cookware district in the old part of Tokyo, and purchased a long, thick rolling pin (about 32″-length) – a necessary tool to roll out the udon dough into a wide and thin sheet. I practiced making the udon at home until my family and I were fed up – literally – dealing with continuous mounds of noodles. After moving to New York City with my long rolling pin, I began making udon again, but this time I taught the art of home-made udon preparation as one of the core menu items in my one week Japanese Cookign Course at International Culinary Education (ICE) here in New York. My long rolling pin amused my students and worked hard even under the hands of my students. After I left teaching at ICE, my poor roling pin was forgotten - stored away some place deep inside the kitchen closet.
Home-made udon is now back in my kitchen again. I worked on perfecting the noodles and the preparation technique. And, I think I have done it. The reason? I am going to teach this art again at my week-long Japanese Essential Cooking Course at International Culinary Center in New York (formerly the French Culinary Institute) this coming September. Here are some of things I have recently learned about making these deceptively simple-looking noodles.
Among several key points for successful udon making, the choice of right flour is crucial. In Japan we use special udon flour that has medium protein content (about 8 to 9.5%). Not being able to have easy access to this particular flour and supposing that the American all-purpose flour has the similar protein content, I have used this easily available staple to make udon. But, I was not happy with the result. Udon, which I have always known as snow white noodles, presented grayish-tinged color when made with all-purpose American flour.
Along with this color problem I had two more issues to tackle – how to knead the very firm udon dough effectively without wrapping it in a sturdy plastice paper and stomping on it as is done traditionally and professionally, and determining if I can use a pasta machine to roll-out the dough without using the long rolling pin (Udon dough is distinctively elastic and firm, so rolling it out usign a long rolling pin requires strength, effort, practice and patience).
Udon dough is a very different animal from the pasta or bread dough. Ingredients for the noodles are only flour, sea salt (5% of the flour weight) and water (42-43% of the flour weight). The salt plays an important roll, producing a smoother, elastic and more uniform gluten structure in the dough, compared to dough made without salt. Udon dough requires thorough keading to produce the elasticity that leads to its distinctive chewy bite of the noodles. Stomping on the wrapped dough to do the kneading is a perfect method to work on firm dough. Of course this is done under the highest hygine controlled environment and methods in Japan. But for my students I thought developing a knewding method not usign feet would be crucial in this country.
When it comes to my lazy idea of rolling the dough using past machine, after several trial and errot tests, it is working. This is a good news. Anyway who owns a long rolling pin in this country where there is no tradition of making fresh udon. I am so excited that making udon has now become, even for me, such an easy preparation that, I believe, in the very near future many Americans will be enjoy making it in their kitchen.
With two unsolved questions – the color of the dough and an alternate way to knead – I visited a friend , Shuichi Kotani, a professional soba maker at Soba Totto restaurant in New York City (www.sobatotto.com) for a consultation. Shuichi is an accomplished soba maker (here Shuichi is rolling out the soba dough into 1.5 mm thickness and cutting it into VERY thin strips, called Edo-kiri (1.3mm width). Shuichi makes soba every night at 7pm at the restaurant in front of the diners – mixing soba flour and water, kneading the dough, rolling it out and cutting it into precise width. He moves rhysmically, gracefuly and professionally. Watching him is awe and fun experience. Now back to the story..I brought with me American all-purpose flour from Whole Food. Shuichi compared his flour (Japanese udon flour from Japan) and the American flour by touching and squeezing it in his hands. Our conclusion was that Japanese flour had smoother touch and left distinctive clumpy texture when we squeezed and released in our hands. We exchanged flours and I came back home with his Japanese flour.
Today I did my experiment – made the udon with two flours. I also used the no stomping kneading technique that I learned from Shuichi. Here are the results of my comparative udon experiment. The noodles made from Japanese flour is snow white and the one made from all-purpose flour presents grayish color. The texture of both was the same – smooth, slippery and al-dente. An interesting point is that the noodles made from American all-purpose flour had a strong, pleasant “wheat” flavor, while the noodles made from Japanese flour were comparatively without much flavor. Let’s make udon together this September at International Culinary Center in New York City! Visit Shuichi’s home page @ www.worldwide_soba.com.