Thursday, May 31, 2007

Udon: Soul Food?

I think one of the reasons why regional kitties continue to catch my fancy is because of their link to the tradition of souvenirs-as-gifts or omiyage. When a traveler returns home or to work, they will bring a small item from their trek, usuallly representing a regional specialty. These regional specialty items are referred to as meibutsu. This way, the traveler is able to share their experience with family, friends and coworkers and pay their respects for those who didn't get to tag a long or didn't get the time off... good Kitty, good manners.

Often times the meibutsu is a specialty food that often times has a story behind it -- like "soul food" in this country. Historically, soul food has a very specific definition, but for those who actually make it and eat it? Its about a connection to the regional agriculture, family/cultural roots and a strong sense of the food having some spiritual connection to the heart (has to be made with love/attention) and soul (intent/purpose).

I saw a food-themed movie from Japan called "Udon" - perhaps my favorite noodle variety. It is the story of a prodigal-like son who returns to his hometown of Sanuki after failing to make it as a comedian in New York City. His homecoming isn't quite what he hoped it to be. His surly father, a seemingly unimaginative udon maker is quick to remind his son of his insults to the family business before he ran off to the States.


Sequence from the movie "Udon" featuring the making of this wonderful noodles

It's hardly an original story to be told, but I loved it. Any story told via the medium of food has my attention. Combine it with a favorite food, I'm ready to give it four stars. Anyways, as the story continues, the lost son takes an unintentional pilgrimage around the region to obstensively report on the various hidden Udon stands and slowly begins to find his way home and back to his family.

The movie boldly states that Udon is the true soul food of Japan -- not sushi! And just how does this movie go about convincing us? Well, let's have Kitty take over on that one...

The Spiritual Roots of Udon:
Kukai, 8th century Buddhist Kahuna and Noodle Dude

Kitty appears as two of Sanuki's most famous treasures - Kukai and a bowl of udon.

Born in the Sanuki region of Shikoku, Kukai came from a well-to-do family. Time had reduced the families influence in Court, so they groomed the young Kukai for a future in Court politics. Despite their best efforts, Kukai showed more of an interest in spiritual matters and eventually abandoned his studies and literally headed for the mountains for meditation and spiritual studies. Eventually, Kukai was able to wrangle a spot in on a government mission to China. It would be here where Kukai would begin his studies in esoteric Buddhism AND learn about the dumpling that would eventually become Sanuki's Udon.

The udon legends say that when Kukai returned from China and was sharing his spiritual revelations, he also shared the recipe for noodle dumplings with local farmers. Perhaps it was Kukai's influence or more likely the climate of the region (little rainfall that makes rice cultivation difficult) that made Sanuki spiritual home of udon. Many in Japan will travel to the region just to taste the "real thing."

There is another soul-food link to the noodle. People will travel to Sanuki and the island of Shikoku is to take the Shikoku Henro. This is a pilgrimage made to the 88 temples and sacred places that encircle the island of Shikoku. It is meant to recreate the steps that Kukai made in his search for truth. Traditionally, this pilgrimage is taken on foot, covering a distance of 1200 kilometers, taking about 30-40 days. This trip is by no means a pleasure hike through the beautiful scenery of the island. It is a long, arduous journey that is meant to break down the body and the barriers of the mind. It is in those moments of being stripped of illusions that many believe healing and enlightenment can be received.

Kitty prepares for the arduous pilgrimage in full ohenro garb. Her bag bears the words "two traveling together", reminding her that Kukai will be with her on this journey.

The pilgrim or ohenro-san is traditionally clad in a white (the "uniform" of the pilgrim), carrying a walking staff (a reminder that Kukai is with them, ready to offer guidance when the pilgrim falters). The traditional garb also let's everyone know that these travelers are here for the pilgrimage and should be treated with respect. Often times locals will offer gifts of aid or osettai - this can be money, food or a place to rest. Not surprisingly, some towns on the route will offer free udon to the weary traveller - yet another reminder that Kukai is always with them. Now how's that for soul food?


Kitty's most recent Nagoya Kishimen Udon mascot

Udon is served in a variety of ways -- a reflection of the region they are prepared in. For instance, Nagoya is famous for their miso and also their Nagoya Cochin breed of chicken so one of the ways that udon is prepared is with miso and chicken stock. The noodles themselves are also wider than most udon and is called "Kishimen."

Here are a couple of examples of regional styles of udon, offered in the wonderful hands of Kitty White. As usual, companies like Gotochi are quick to take advatage of the triple threat of a gift that'll fit the omiyage criteria, tastes good and cute to boot.


Here's an impulse purchase - Nagoya Kishimen noodles with a keepsake ceramic bowl. The noodles were delicious and I always eat udon in that bowl.

Here's an example of another kind of Nagoya Kishimen a la Kitty White.

I was lucky to get a hold a few of these Kitty themed regional food items, but there are so many to chose from - a lot of them packaged with the imaginative artwork of the Gotochi artists. Many items don't have a long shelf life so I will leave that area of Regional Kitty collection to more able hands. Here's a webpage that covers the arena of regional okashi (snacks and candies) and it includes some Gotochi items as well as a section on Regional Kitty Noodles

Are you hungry yet? I hope so because I have grown to appreciate what a real comfort food udon can be in its simple, clean taste and when you stop to think about the history and influences around this noodle. If you're hungry enough and hopefully inspired to try some, consider trying to make your own udon...
If you've only had the premade stuff that comes frozen in your local Asian market, or the dried stuff on supermarket shelves, you owe it to yourself to experience a close brush with udon's true koshi -- the texture and bite of hand-made udon. The recipe is REALLY simple, but it takes some elbow grease and patience.

Maki's "Just Hungry" Blog: Kitsune Udon



Blogger prisca_h28 said...

Hi, I noticed in your previous blog that you made Nama Yatsuhashi. Can you share the recipe?

I would much appreciate it!!

Thanks, Prisca

9:49 PM  
Blogger cheeko-san said...

I worked off of this recipe - except I didn't add the kinako into the mochi dough. I just sprinkled it on the top.

I ended up tinkering with the steaming times and amounts of water before getting the right consistency. A lot will depend on where and when you're making it. Most of all, enjoy making it, and keep the batches small :-)

11:42 AM  

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