Cooking has never been my strong point, especially when it comes to making foods from scratch by following a recipe. But, when presented with the chance to learn the art of making Sanuki udon — the scrumptious soul food of Kagawa Prefecture — I couldn’t pass it up.
Sanuki udon are named after the previous moniker for Kagawa, Sanuki Province, and they are the most popular type of udon noodle in Japan’s Shikoku region. Hundreds of udon restaurants in this area now specialize solely in Sanuki udon, and can usually be identified by the text “Sanuki” printed in hiragana (さぬき) somewhere on the shop front. Regular udon noodles (the round, soft, thick kind) are cylindrical in shape, but Sanuki udon are slightly different, characterized by their rectangular shape, flat edges, and chewier texture.
I’m only a few steps inside the Nakano Udon School in Kotohira, before I meet our instructor for the day, Ma-chan, a bubbly woman with infectious enthusiasm, she proudly explains that this school has been open for 103 years! Now I really feel like I’m in the hands of experts. After a quick roll call of students, we proceed to the classroom kitchen to wash hands, tie up hair, and don our chef’s aprons.
Feeling slightly apprehensive about my ability to follow directions from a Japanese-speaking instructor, my mind is immediately put to ease by Ma-chan who slaps a set of written English instructions down in front of me and my Australian noodle-making-buddy, Felicity. “Are you ready to have fun?” she beams jovially at us with a huge anticipatory smile. Indeed we were.
“Place 500 grams of flour into the bowl” — the class begins as expected. Working on one dough recipe between two people, we are instructed to gradually add salt water to the flour and blend them gently with our fingers in a step called “the mix.”
Then comes “the knead.” Fold, push, fold, push, switch partners — I thought we were doing a pretty good job. Not so. “Harder!” Ma-chan bellows. We put our backs into it, glancing at our English instructions. “The dough has to be as hard as an earlobe,” it says. Then, something rather unexpected happens. One person from each pair is instructed to leave their table and grab a tambourine from the back of the room. Yes, a tambourine. Puzzled, Felicity obliges while I continue beating our dough against the table.
Suddenly, the barely five-feet-tall Ma-chan, tambourine in hand, orders everybody to stand. She throws her fists in the air and starts beating the tambourine against her palm, “ONE-two-three-four. ONE-two-three-four,” gesturing for all partners with tambourines to follow her lead. Then, a strikingly familiar tune fills the air, emanating from a CD player at the front of the room; the melody of the most famous Korean-pop song of all time — Gangnam Style . Everyone looks sideways at each other, wondering what the heck is happening. The idea, we realize, is for us to knead the dough to the 4/4 time signature of the boppy Gangnam Style ! It’s to encourage us to really put some elbow grease into it. Unfortunately, I think the whole situation is having the opposite effect on me and my slab of dough, as I struggle to knead at all while wiping away the tears of laughter rolling down my cheeks. “Heeeey — sexy lady, OH OH OH OH, oppa Gangnam style!” Ma-chan is really getting into it, reveling in the chaos of eleven tambourines jangling loudly over the Gangnam Style bass line. She pulls an unsuspecting class member up for a dance — “fun” is this lady’s middle name.
Before long, it’s time for the next unexpected step — “the tread.” Apparently, it isn’t enough to pound the udon dough into the table to the beat of the catchiest K-pop tune in history! No — the dough must be subsequently trampled on vigorously! We are instructed to put the dough into a thick plastic bag as the song track changes to the Village People’s YMCA . We throw our bags of dough onto mats on the floor and proceed to jump and stomp on them, pressing into them with the heels of our shoeless feet. “Y-M-C-A!” Ma-chan is outdoing the lot of us. She’s been dancing on udon dough for years, and she’s not afraid to show it!
Three more songs’ worth of jumping and stomping pass before we’re finally allowed to return to our tables, take the flattened dough out of the plastic bag, and form it into a lump ready for cooling. I’s at this point that we discover why we need to do such a good job of mixing and kneading our dough. So the class doesn’t have to take a two-hour hiatus while the dough is setting, we use the dough that the previous class made. The class after ours will use our lovingly stomped-on pieces after they’ve had their time in the refrigerator.
It’s time for the next step with the previously cooled balls of dough — “the roll.” We roll out the ball of dough, placing the rolling pin in the center and pushing away from our bodies. We press and stretch the dough out to the far edge. Turning it 90 degrees, we do the same again until we end up with a square sheet of dough about three to four centimeters thick. We roll the entire sheet around the rolling pin and then, holding both ends of the pin, we unroll the sheet onto the table creating even layers by folding it on top of itself — ready for “the cut.”
Kitchen knives in hand, we cut off strips of dough about three to four millimeters from the edge. Once all dough is cut into long, flat noodles, we get a large pot full of boiling water and scatter the noodles in. Quickly boiling the udon over high heat for 8 to 10 minutes, we stir with long chopsticks until the noodles float up to the surface. Once done, we drain them into a colander. At the end of this hilariously entertaining class, not only have you had your morning workout, but you get to eat the udon you made with your classmates in the school kitchen. We enjoy our homemade Sanuki udon lunch over a vegetable hotpot with all the trimmings.
So, on your trip to Shikoku, if you get a chance to take an udon-making class — don’t be a wet noodle. Get ready to shake your booty!
Photographs by Jason Haidar & Text by Celia Polkinghorne