Crazy About Sanuki Udon Noodles! – 1
KAGAWA – Food for sick people in Japan is usually rice porridge, since it is gentle on the stomach. But, I choose udon noodles when I am worn out or sick in bed. It has be udon for me because I am originally from Kagawa Prefecture, known as the “Udon Prefecture.”
Until I graduated from high school, I used to eat udon two or three times a day. Even my Japanese friends would be surprised by this. All through my teen years, my day went: udon for breakfast, udon for lunch at a school canteen, and udon as a snack on my way home from school. This eating habit wasn’t unusual in 1980s in my hometown. A bowl of udon noodles on the journey home was about 80 JPY (less than 1 USD), equivalent to an ice cream or a hot dog for an afternoon snack.
Several years ago, Kagawa Prefecture garnered much attention by announcing that it would officially change its name into “Udon Prefecture”. This is like Wisconsin proclaiming that it will change its name to “Cheese State”. It turned out to be a successful media strategy. In 2006, a film titled “Udon” was released. The movie described how people in Kagawa live on udon noodles, attracting movie goers from across the nation. Everybody knows about these udon. But to find any worthwhile information about these noodles, you will have to know their official name, which is “Sanuki udon,” coming from Kagawa’s historical name. Here in Kagawa, or Sanuki, udon used to be served at any regular café.
Kagawa produces a massive 60,000 tons of udon a year, more than any prefecture in Japan and more than twice that of the next most productive prefecture, which produces 25,000 tons a year.*1 The average Kagawan consumes about 33.2kg annually, whereas those from the number 2 spot, Akita, eat only about 22kg.*2 Residents of Kagawa spend about 12,600 JPY on udon each per year – that’s double the national average of 6,000 JPY!*3 The number of udon restaurants per 100,000 people in Kawaga is the highest in the country at 65.*4
Take a look at this map. The small red area is Kagawa Prefecture. The population is less than one tenth of Tokyo. How is such a huge consumption rate possible in such a small prefecture? How has the udon culture been built here? One theory is that the place is frequently draughty. Kagawa’s precipitation level is quite low, raking 42nd out of 47 prefectures. The rainfall is 500mm lower than the national average.*5
Because of this, people had to figure out how to creatively manage their off-season food, which was wheat. The geographical conditions contributed to high quality wheat, and subsequently skills for hand kneading noodles also developed. In that way, Sanuki udon noodles became a staple food in this region. Another prefecture with high udon consumption is Akita, home of the famous Inaniwa udon noodles. But that is the subject of another story.
Among the more defining characteristics of Sanuki udon are its relative toughness and chewiness. Traditionally, the udon craftsman would step on wrapped udon dough again and again, fortifying the viscosity. Recently, machines instead of human feet do this job. When the dough is ready to be rolled, the craftsman would use a long rolling pin and flattens the dough repeatedly. This work has also been replaced by machines.
Another characteristic of this noodle is its thickness. Sanuki udon is very thick and hard. It won’t be boiled long. The noodles are always cooked “al dente.” The orthodox process is to thoroughly rinse the freshly boiled noodles in cold water, put the shiny white noodles into a bowl, add drops of pure soy sauce to them and then eat without much need for chewing. Some people used to say they never chewed udon but just swallowed.
If you want to place a piece of tempura or two over the noodles that’s OK, but not more. Recently, udon has become flashy, and restaurants recommend that customers indulge in more toppings. This is a challenge for orthodox udon lovers like myself.