Udon noodles from the Sanuki region of Japan are famous for their thick, bouncy texture. Try making them yourself with this recipe from Koya’s head chef, Shuko Oda.
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There are lots of types of udon used throughout Japan, from flat noodles to thin strands, but the udon from Japan’s Sanuki region on Shikoku Island is famous for being lusciously thick with a plump rectangle shape.
“It’s been eaten in the Sanuki region for many years,” says Shuko Oda, the chef behind Japanese udon-ya bar Koyo in London, which specialises in the noodles.
Sanuki udon is known for its ‘koshi’ texture, a word that describes its distinctive bite, which is a bit like al dente pasta with more of a bounce. “It’s also a word you can use to describe people who have a bite or bounce to them,” says Shuko. “It’s how we advertised for staff when we first opened.” The noodle also has an unusual method for kneading the dough, which involves standing on it to flatten it out.
Sanuki udon became a big trend in Japan 20 years ago. “There were films made about it showing how people would eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks,” says Shuko. “It is a bit like that; every corner in the region has a noodle shop.”
Shuko began cooking when she was just nine years old. “I grew up moving to different countries almost every three years, so I really missed Japanese food and culture,” she says. “My mum taught me how to make miso soup and rice bowls and I’d analyse and research the recipes to make them perfect.”
Shuko spent months perfecting her udon noodle recipe, experimenting with different ratios of flour, water and salt. Here, she shares it with The Curiosity Academy, along with her tips and tricks for making the noodles and how to serve them.
Classic udon noodle recipe
Ingredients (serves four)
- 540g strong or plain flour (or a combination)
- 60g tapioca flour (easily found in Asian supermarkets and online)
- 300g water
- 38g salt
- Extra plain flour or cornstarch for stretching
1. Combine the water and salt and mix until completely dissolved.
2. Place the flour, or a combination of flours, in a big bowl. Hold your fingers down separately as if imitating chopsticks and mix the flour for a couple of minutes by swirling your finger ‘chopsticks’ around.
3. Gradually pour in a thin line of water (a quarter of the total amount) as you keep mixing in the same way with your fingers. The flour should get moist as you do this, but shouldn’t stick together or form a ‘dough’.
4. Repeat with another quarter of the water
5. Gradually add 100ml water at a time, making sure the flour is mixed throughout and is maintaining a damp sandy look and feel, rather than a lumpy dough. If an area of the flour sticks together, try to loosen it by mixing that particular bit with your finger ‘chopsticks’ before adding more water.
6. Press the dough together and fold in (not kneading at this point) to form a ball, making sure you pick up any dough that may have stuck on the bowl as well.
7. Place this ball in a large, airtight plastic bag. Put the bag on the floor and place one foot on it, making sure you press with even weight and step until the dough is big enough for both your feet
8. Keep stepping back and forth, changing the angle from time to time for five minutes
9. Take the dough out of the plastic and roll it from one end to the other into a cylinder. Then place it back into the plastic and rest the dough for 30 minutes.
10. Making sure that the seam of the rolled dough is on the bottom, step on it again to naturally form an oval shape. Continue stepping for five minutes.
11. Take the dough out of plastic and roll it lengthways into a cylinder again. Place it back in the plastic and rest for a further 30 minutes.
12. Repeat steps 10 and 11.
13. Repeat step 10 to make an oval shape. Then take the dough out of the plastic and place on a clean work surface.
14. Fold the edge of the dough into the centre and continue to knead the dough in this way to form a ball with a concentrated fold at the centre, like a belly button.
15. Roughly seal the belly button with your fingers. Then place in the plastic with the smooth side up and rest for about an hour in warmer months and a couple of hours in colder months.
16. Step on the dough again until it is about 1cm thick.
17. Lightly flour a clean surface and roll the dough diagonally using a rolling pin, a few times in each direction.
18. Wrap the dough around the rolling pin and apply pressure to roll even further in each direction until the dough is about 2-3mm thick.
19. Scatter a generous amount of flour on the flattened dough and fold the top a third down, and the bottom a third up.
20. Scatter more flour and cut the dough into 3mm thick strips, your noodles.
21. Grab the middle of the noodles and shake them to loosen up any strings that have stuck together.
22. Cook the noodles in a big pot (as big as you have) for 10 to 15 minutes. Make sure you have a jug of cold water next to the pot as the water will overflow, so you will need to keep adding water.
23. Once cooked, drain into a colander and place back into the pot with cold water to wash the noodles. Repeat this a few times until the noodles are completely cold.
24. If serving cold, serve immediately. If serving hot, blanch the noodles in boiling water for a minute, and drain.
Shuko’s expert advice for making perfect udon noodles
Choose the right flour
“Getting the right flour is the most important thing,” says Shuko. “You need to look at the gluten content very carefully.”
The flour you use should have a high gluten content to give the noodles the desired ‘koshi’ consistency. Strong flour usually has a higher gluten content. If you’re using normal plain flour, it’s a good idea to blend in a small amount of tapioca flour, which you can buy online or at health food shops. At Koya, Shuko usually adds around 12% tapioca flour to the strong flour.
“It’s worth experimenting with a few different high gluten flours to see which one has a better result,” advises Shuko.
Experiment with water and salt ratios
“Play around with the water and salt content to see what you like,” says Shuko, adding that the kitchen environment will also make a difference to these ratios.
“Another little tip to remember is the amount of salt,” says Shuko. “You can experiment with it. Salt makes the dough tougher to work with so it’s a good idea to increase salt in the summer and less in winter.”
Rest, rest and rest again
“Resting is essential,” says Shuko. Leaving the dough to rest in a plastic bag helps it to mature, giving it more bounce and chew, as well as softness and elasticity.
“Not only will it make the noodles taste better, but it’ll also make your life easier,” adds Shuko.
Mix it correctly
Mixing the dough for udon noodles is a very different process from making other types of dough, like bread doughs.
“You don’t mix or knead the dough, instead you use your hands like chopsticks and stir the flour and water together,” says Shuko. “After that, the kneading is mainly done with your feet if you’re making it at home. The more you step on the dough, the harder it becomes.”
Don’t hold back on the flour
When you’re cutting your noodles, it’s very easy for them to fold on top of each other and end up sticking together.
“Even if you think there’s too much flour, always go overboard to avoid any disappointment,” says Shuko. “It’s also important to shake off that flour after cutting the noodles so you don’t get any flour in the water when you cook them.”
How to serve udon noodles
“Udon goes with so many different flavours,” says Shoku. “It’s almost like rice, you can eat it every day and never get bored because it matches with so many different flavours.”
Traditionally, Sanuki udon is eaten with a clear broth, or dashi, which is made using iriko (tiny dried anchovy) or bonito (dried tuna flakes). “This gives the dashi a big, punchy umami flavour,” says Shuko. “You can taste it as soon as you put it in your mouth.”
If you’re making a hot broth, Shuko suggests using cold noodles. “In Japan, we’re used to eating piping hot noodles in piping hot broth by slurping it up which helps to cool it down. If you’re not used to slurping, you don’t want to burn your tongue and your lips.
“When I make noodles at home I like to add a raw egg,” says Shuko. “I take the noodles straight from the boiling pan, put them into a bowl with the egg and, like carbonara, the egg gets cooked in the bowl when you mix it. Then you eat with a bit of soy and some garnish.”
“One of my favourite dishes at the restaurant is our mixed seaweed udon, which uses four types of seaweed cooked in different ways – I have it at least once a week!”
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Shuko Oda, chef at Koya
Shuko Oda worked as a chef in kitchens such as Hotel Claska in Tokyo and Kunitoraya in Paris, before setting up Koya in 2010. Koya has two outposts in Soho and The City. The restaurants combine Japanese cooking and seasonal British ingredients with a focus on udon and dashi.