Owing its heritage to char siu- the bright red, five-spice seasoned barbecued pork served in Cantonese restaurants, chāshū has become perhaps the world’s favourite ramen topping. This is of course for good reason, meltingly tender succulent meat, braised at a low temperature for hours until the tough connective tissues and collagen have turned into silky soft gelatin, yielding to the slightest pressure from a chopstick. The sweet, juicy layers of fat and moist, savoury meat are enhanced further by leaving them in a soy and sake seasoned broth overnight before being thinly sliced and seared in a hot pan to reawaken the glistening fats and juices hiding within the pork.
Chāshū isn’t only enjoyed with soup and noodles however, and one of our favourite ways to eat it is on top of a big bowl of rice as a chāshūdon. Combined with other noodle toppings such as boiled eggs, pink pickled ginger and spicy Korean radish kimchi, you have a dish that gives you the same satisfaction as a deep bowl of brothy noodles but with a lot less effort.
Grain milling technology is said to have entered Japan during the thirteenth century when a Buddhist monk, Enni Ben’en, returned with it after studying meditation in China. Along with that mechanical knowledge, he brought with him the idea that would eventually lead to the thick, white, toothsome, wheat flour noodle that we know today as udon. Easily our favourite type of noodle, udon has enough character to be the main focal point of a dish, whether it’s a meal of chilled noodles with dipping sauce in the heat of the Summer, a plate of fried yaki-udon bought from a yatai at a festival or sunken deep in a bowl of smoky pork broth, topped with slow braised meat and a boiled egg. There are some fantastic udon available to buy from supermarkets, even here in the UK, and they’re the ones we use day-to-day, but when we want something that little bit special, when you want the noodle to break free from its supporting role and be the star of the dish, nothing beats making them yourself.
Making noodles at home is a simple affair, requiring very few ingredients and not taking much time at all; kneading the dough is perhaps the only labour-intensive part of the process and that is made a lot easier by letting your feet do the work rather than wearing out your arm muscles. The beauty of making udon yourself rather than buying them really lies in the ability to make them whatever size and shape you like- from the almost paper thin Himokawa noodles of Gunma Prefecture, to the finger-thick “Two Noodle” udon of Kyoto’s Tawaraya restaurant and everything inbetween. Our preference lies somewhere towards the Ise udon end of the spectrum- larger and thicker than commercially available noodles, but not so fat that they take a whole hour to boil them.
Originally created as a calcium rich dietary supplement to combat malnutrition in the working classes and the soldiers of the First World War, furikake rice topping has since become a store-cupboard staple found in nearly every Japanese household. First marketed by pharmacists during the 1910s, it went by many names including ‘Kore Wa Umai’ or ‘This is Good’ before it was christened furikake in the late 1950s. Since then the make-up of the seasoning has evolved down multiple pathways creating an almost endless variety of flavours, nearly all of them based around the standard elements of seaweed, sesame seeds, salt and dried fish products.
The first step of many Japanese recipes is making dashi, a mellow broth of kombu and katsuobushi that forms a solid foundation upon which you base the rest of your dish. Once the stock has been drained and used, the seaweed and bonito flakes are normally discarded, but they contain far too much flavour to simply throw away, so we like to recycle these unwanted ingredients into our own homemade furikake. When combined with toasted sesame seeds, soy sauce and mirin the result is a deeply savoury condiment with a hint of smoky nuttiness that’s perfect for topping a bowl of hot steamed rice, mixing into an onigiri or even scattering over a fresh batch of popcorn.