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.
- 500g low gluten bao flour (we like Purple Orchid brand); you could use plain flour or cake flour if you can’t get bao flour
- 200ml lukewarm water
- 10g salt
- Dissolve the salt in the water, place the flour in a large bowl and add the salt water to it. Mix the water into the flour with your fingertips; at first the mixture will seem like dry breadcrumbs- and depending on the brand of flour, you may need to add a little more liquid- but as you work the water in, it should become a stiff but pliable dough.
- Knead the dough by hand until smooth, then fold in half and transfer to a thick plastic bag. Wrap the bag of dough in a folded towel to protect it, then place on the floor and continue to knead the dough by stepping on it with your feet (bare feet or just in socks, if you’re wearing shoes the pressure on the dough won’t be even enough and you could puncture the plastic bag). Tread the dough until it has flattened out to about three or four centimetres thick, take it out of the bag, fold it into thirds, replace it in the bag and repeat the kneading process. Keep doing this until the dough is extremely smooth and elastic- perhaps as long as twenty minutes. Allow the dough to rest at room temperature for at least two hours or overnight in the refrigerator.
- Cut the dough into three equal portions, then dust with flour and pass each piece through the thickest setting of a pasta roller (ours rolls to around 4mm thick). Dust the sheets of noodle dough with more flour and cut into lengths of approximately 30-40cm. Roll up each piece of dough from its short side and then using a very sharp knife, slice the sausage of dough into 5mm wide disks. Unravel each of these coiled discs to reveal your udon, then dust your noodles lightly with flour to stop them sticking together.
- Bring a large pan of water to the boil, then add the noodles and cook over a medium heat for thirty minutes, topping the pan up with water if required. After half an hour of boiling, the noodles will be cooked but still fairly firm, which is the way we prefer to eat them; if you’d like your noodles to be a little softer, continue cooking for another five minutes or so (if you’ve made your noodles a different thickness to ours, the cooking times will alter accordingly).
- When the noodles are cooked, drain the hot water off them, then fill a large bowl with fresh cold water and add the udon. Rub the noodles gently with your hands, and stir them around in the water to wash off excess starch from the surface of the udon. Drain them one last time then they’re ready for use in your recipe.
Makes enough noodles for 6 servings.