My trip to Japan resulted in a lot of personal firsts. First 14-hour flight, first brush with illiteracy as an adult, first ride on a car where the driver sat on the right and drove on the left side of the road (hard to get used to).
Among those, the one that sticks out most is my first udon. For those of you not yet acquainted with fabulous dish, it’s pretty basic: thick, chewy noodles swimming around in a salty, super-umi broth topped with thinly sliced scallions.
The word “udon” swam around in my subconscious but never attached itself to my epicurean desires, so it never occurred to me to try it until I had come off a long flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo, desperate to fill my irate stomach before being shoved back onto a plane for the third leg of the trip.
At a big airport like Narita, you’d think the food option would abound, but I seriously don’t remember seeing much until I spotted a small store seemingly hiding in a corner. The store was overflowing with cheesy gifts and strange-looking packaged foods and treats, but there was also a café complete with a small food counter, where travelers hunched over bowls and slurped their last-minute meals.
I approached the counter nervously, pointing to the udon noodles and mentioning tofu, and miraculously got my message across. When the bowl came out, steam billowed from the top, and I carefully made my way over to join the other diners, trying not to let soup spill over the side of the bowl.
Thanks goodness they were there. Otherwise, I would have had no idea how to eat the dish. Here’s a hint: Unlike the soup I’m used to, udon requires chopsticks to pick up and eat the noodles. Then you can just sip the remaining broth from the bowl. (This brings to mind a visit to a Japanese restaurant once where I ordered Udon but wasn’t able to figure out how to eat the noodles with just the broth spoon they gave me, so—completely embarrassed—I gave up on the food altogether.)
There’s nothing complicated about the dish, but it is so satisfying. An extra surprise were the two strips of fermented tofu floating on the top. Somewhat sweet and chewy, the taste complemented the broth flavor and gave me the bit of protein I was craving.
You can get udon in plenty of places—sushi restaurants, Asian groceries stores—but actually going to Japan to experience it is a treat, and one of my treasured moments from that trip.