Translated by Jasmine Nishino
Udon Noodle Guide: Varieties And Where To Eat In Japan
Udon is a popular type of Japanese noodles that can be enjoyed all year round. We introduce the main varieties, some exceptionally delicious local varieties, and information on how to enjoy udon menus.
Written by ニコ
Udon - Delicious Noodles Loved by Everyone
Udon is a type of noodles made with flour that is frequently eaten with soup stock. Depending on the region, the way it is made, as well as the cooking techniques and toppings may vary, but the noodles themselves have a very simple taste to them. The numerous variations of udon available make this dish a very enjoyable one.
Udon can be eaten casually at home but it also features on the menu of family restaurants or udon specialty shops. It is actually one of the most widely eaten foods in Japan. There are many famous udon specialty shops such as Hanamaru Udon and Marugame Seimen that are conveniently located near or in train stations and residential areas. Their menus are easily identifiable by both Japanese and international visitors.
Udon Noodles - A Brief History
Udon noodles are originally from China. When it was first introduced in Japan, udon was believed to have been made in the shape of a dango rice cake that was slightly flattened.
Apparently, the current elongated shape of the udon that is eaten with soy sauce and soup has been invented during the Edo period. During the Edo period many dishes using bonito broth were widely created. After the turmoil during the Sengoku period had come to an end, people had more time to enjoy food during the period that followed.
Despite the regional differences, udon has been widely loved by the people of Japan for ages.
How to Eat Udon Noodles
Udon noodles are boiled in a pot of hot water. Depending on the type of udon, the way it is served is different as well. For instance, kake udon is served in a donburi bowl or a plate, while zaru udon is served in a woven basket to drain the water.
Otherwise, pots and wooden bowls are also commonly used. Eating the noodles while they are hot is just as good as eating them after they have been chilled.
How to Eat Hot Udon
Kake udon is a type of dish where freshly boiled noodles are put into a donburi bowl with hot tsuyu (broth) poured on top. As you scoop the noodles up with your chopsticks, you may lift the bowl to drink the soup, however, a large spoon is provided in many shops, so it is better to use that. To suit your tastes, you may also add spicy chili pepper powder, sesame, ginger, and scallions as condiments too.
Please keep in mind that the noodles turn very soft if you leave them sitting in the hot soup for too long. The sogginess can take away from the delicious firmness and taste of the udon.
How to Eat Zaru Udon
Zaru udon is a dish where boiled noodles are chilled with cold water and served in a flat basket. This udon is normally served cool at room temperature.
In this case, you may eat the noodles by dipping it in a sauce (tsuyu) that comes on the side. First, try eating the noodles after dipping it completely in the sauce. Depending on the store, the flavor of the tsuyu will vary, so for those who find it to be too salty, you should only dip half of the noodles in the sauce to cut down on the saltiness. On the other hand, if you think it tastes a bit weak, then please fully dip the noodles into the tsuyu to get as much flavoring as possible on them.
First, it is best to taste the simple flavors of the tsuyu and noodles. Then, you can add scallions, ginger, or chili peppers to your dish to adjust the taste to the way you like it.
How to Eat Cold Udon
Bukkake is a type of cold udon where udon noodles and toppings are chilled and served with a cold tsuyu. In this case, mix the broth, toppings, and udon well then top it with chili pepper, sesame and other seasonings to adjust it to your liking.
Different types of condiments are used as a topping for udon, but most shops carry scallions, shredded nori seaweed and spicy chili peppers (ichimi type, shichimi type). Depending on the store, ginger, sesame, agedama (fried tempura crumbs) are also provided. When first trying the noodles, you should try them without any toppings, then add the scallions and chili pepper powder until you find a taste that suits you.
Udon is made using flour that has been kneaded, rolled out and cut into the noodle shape. You can typically find udon sold in stores as either dried noodles, like pasta, or as raw noodles that can be cooked instantly.
The noodles are cooked in a pot of boiling water. Raw noodles should be cooked for about 1 to 2 minutes, while dried noodles should be cooked for about 4 to 5. The tsuyu is made from a kelp, bonito flake and fish based stock, to which soy sauce and mirin are added afterwards. Pre-made broths can also be bought in supermarkets, which are very convenient and taste just as good as freshly made. After putting the noodles in a bowl of soup, top them with your favorite toppings and seasonings to complete your own udon dish.
There are even udon sets that come with dried noodles and powdered tsuyu in them, which are great to take back as souvenirs overseas.
Types of Udon Dishes
Udon is a very basic dish that can be arranged in many forms. While the noodles remain the same, the name of the dish changes depending on whether the broth is served hot or cold and what accompanies the noodles. Please refer to the following to differentiate between the various types of udon.
First, we will begin with the warm noodle varieties of udon, which can be enjoyed all year round.
As mentioned earlier, this type of udon is served in a bowl with warm soup and is called kake udon. In the Kanto region including Tokyo, if the udon is served with any toppings aside from condiments (such as scallions), it will not be referred to as kake udon. In western Japan (except Kagawa) this dish is called "su udon" and contains some sort of toppings such as tororo (grated yam) or thinly sliced kamaboko fish cakes.
Any type of udon with tempura (such as shrimp or squid) or kakiage (tempura made with mixed vegetables) is called "tempura udon". Unless stated, most soba noodle shops serve their noodles with a shrimp tempura while standing udon shops serve their noodles with a kakiage tempura. At times, udon served with kakiage on top is referred to as "kakiage udon" as well. At standing noodle shops in the Kansai region, "tempura" with no filling or "kakiage" with mainly vegetables is prepared and you are able to select from the two. There are also certain regions where tempura udon is topped with satsuma-age fish cakes too.
Kamaage udon refers to freshly boiled noodles that are served without running them through cold water, and are eaten by either dipping them in tsuyu or by pouring soy sauce over them.
Kamatama udon is simply kamaage udon with a raw egg on top. After the noodles are drained well, either tsuyu or soy sauce is added to the dish and mixed with the egg before the noodles are eaten. The creamy flavor of the egg matches well with the noodles and is very popular with consumers of all ages.
The definition of tanuki udon varies in many regions, but in the Kanto region and its surrounding areas, udon topped with tenkasu (crumbs made from tempura batter) is called the tanuki udon. While in Kyoto, tanuki udon refers to udon that is topped with thinly sliced aburaage (deep-fried thin tofu) with kudzu sauce and grated ginger. This same dish is called "inari ankake udon" in Kanazawa, however.
Kitsune udon is an udon dish featuring sweet aburaage, and may also be called ‘ketsune’ or ‘shinoda’ depending on the region you are in. Typically in the Kansai region, the word ‘kitsune’ already refers to the udon dish with aburaage on top, so there aren’t many that say ‘kitsune udon’ when speaking of this dish.
When a raw egg is dropped into a bowl of kake udon, the name changes to tsukimi udon. The name, tsukimi (moon gazing) comes from how the egg whites look like the clouds in the sky, while the yolk looks like a full moon. In certain regions, the soup is covered in nori seaweed to represent the evening sky. Why not get creative and arrange it yourself?
Curry udon is a very popular dish in Japan. Made by mixing either curry powder into the hot broth or by pouring pre-made curry over top of the noodles, curry udon comes in numerous forms.
Udon with a mochi rice cake as topping is called chikara udon. This dish is commonly mixed with other toppings and the mochi on top is usually toasted in advance.
Claypot udon or nabe yaki udon contains many ingredients such as tempura, eggs, kamaboko fish cakes, chicken, and vegetables. Many people find this to be the perfect dish to eat during the cold winter days.
When udon is topped with wild fern and enoki mushrooms it is called sansai (mountain vegetable) udon. It is very simple in flavor, but when it is seasoned, you will be able to taste the vegetables of the mountains with the udon.
‘Kenchin jiru’ is a soup that contains daikon radish, carrots, burdock, taro, konjac, and tofu that is fried in sesame oil, cooked in a soup stock and flavored with soy sauce. When udon is added to it, it is called kenchin udon; this dish is also frequently eaten during the winter.
Any udon that is cooked in a frying pan is called yaki udon. It is flavored using a soy sauce based broth or a sauce based broth.
There are many other variations of warm udon too, such as tororo udon, which has grated yam on top of the noodles, or wakame udon, which is topped with fresh seaweed. Depending on the shop and region, you will find plenty of different dishes to choose from, so it is best to check the listing when you enter the store.
Next on the menu comes cold udon, which are udon noodles that have been chilled after being cooked and are served cold. These are recommended for those that want to have a lightly flavored, refreshing meal.
Mentioned previously, boiled udon that is cooled in cold water and served in a basket is called zaru udon. The most standard way of eating is with the dipping sauce tsuyu.
Oroshi Shoyu Udon
The noodles are served as is. This simple dish allows you to truly enjoy the flavor and the texture of the noodles themselves. A special soy sauce is poured over the freshly cooked noodles which are then topped with scallions and grated daikon radish.
On top of cold udon, fresh vegetables, egg, tuna, meat or other ingredients are added and eaten with a salad dressing - by changing the toppings and sauce, you can create various kinds of salad udon that may standardly be found in Japanese, Chinese and Western varieties.
Regional Udon Dishes
With many udon lovers in Japan, there are different ways of eating udon in various areas. Here, we will introduce some of the more famous types of regional udon. Why not try some of these special local variations during your journey in Japan?
Sanuki Udon (Kagawa Prefecture)
Kagawa prefecture boasts the highest udon consumption in Japan. As a way of promoting the area, Kagawa refers to itself as the "udon prefecture". Udon has become a dish that is part of the food culture of Kagawa; sanuki udon is the name of their regional specialty and is known for its slippery and easy to slurp texture, while the toppings and how it is eaten vary by shop.
Inaniwa Udon (Akita Prefecture)
The udon noodles eaten in the southern area of Akita are dried noodles that have been stretched out by hand. It is a famous udon dish that is considered to be one of Japan's top three. Unlike other noodles, it is on the thinner side and easier to eat.
Ise Udon (Mie Prefecture)
The thick and soft udon that originates in Ise city of Mie prefecture is eaten with a rich, dark broth. Unlike the firm noodles of the other areas, the udon from Ise is much softer. However, the noodles are very thick so it makes the dish quite filling. You can enjoy this dish at the Monzen Yokocho street that leads to Ise Shrine. They are also sold in vacuum packed sets to take home.
Mizusawa Udon (Gunma Prefecture)
A specialty udon made in Ikaho, Shibukawa city in Gunma. After kneading the dough, it is left to ferment before rolling it out. With this, the noodles have a strong and chewy texture. It is a popular souvenir and can be purchased in both dried and raw noodle varieties.
Kishimen (Aichi Prefecture)
Kishimen refers to noodles that are thinner and flatter than standard udon. However, if you refer to the regional specialty of Nagoya, Nagoya kishimen, it must meet the production criteria to be called by that name. Most of the time Nagoya kishimen is served in a miso based soup along with a kamaboko fish cake.
Aside from the ones we have mentioned, there are other regional udon noodles such as the Kinchaku Kitsune udon (Nara Prefecture), Tarai Udon (Tokushima Prefecture), Hippari Udon (Yamagata Prefecture) and Himokawa Udon (Gunma Prefecture). Finding a regional noodle dish to try might be a fun activity to add to your journey.
There are other unique udon that looks different and eaten differently from the ones we have introduced. If you are interested, it might be even worth ordering it just to try!
Where to Eat Udon and Prices
Udon and soba noodles are both very popular dishes so you can eat them in places aside from family restaurants, soba noodle shops or udon noodle shops. However, for unique udon or for those who wish to select from a variety of udon, we recommend visiting an udon specialty shop.
There are several points when ordering udon. Depending on the shop, servers may not take your order at the table. There are some shops that require you to take the bowl, line up and bring it to the counter. These types of shops will allow you to select sides while you are in line at the end of which you can order and pay on the spot. At first, it will seem confusing so it may be best to see what the person ahead of you is doing.
There are also shops where you can purchase tickets for your order from a machine. It is also recommended for you to watch other customers ahead of you before selecting what you would like. If you are unsure, it may be best to ask the staff for assistance.
The prices for udon vary on the shop and vary according to the topping you have selected. Low-cost udon chains provide 1 bowl for about 300-600 yen. At udon specialty shops, it can range from 600-1000 yen. For luxury shops, it can even go up to 1000-2000 yen.
Price ranges for standard shops are as follows:
Kake Udon: 300 - 800 yen
Zaru Udon: 300 - 800 yen
Tempura Udon: 500 - 1000 yen
Toppings such as tempura: 70 - 150 yen for 1 piece
Udon Chain Shops
Marugame seimen is a franchise that has shops all over Japan. Every store has a noodle machine and provides freshly made udon from scratch. It is then cooked on the spot and provides "the taste of freshly cooked noodles". The founder of Marugame seimen tasted the difference when visiting the Sanuki udon noodle factory in Kagawa.
The freshly made udon is "slippery and chewy". When visiting the shop, you will be able to see the steam rising from the pot as the noodles get cooked by the energetic workers. The most popular topping is the crispy Kashiwa-ten (chicken tempura).
Official Website: Marugame Seimen (Japanese)
At this shop, you will be able to savor the authentic Sanuki udon from Kagawa prefecture. People of all ages can enjoy this budget-friendly sanuki udon noodles. It is a famous chain that can be found all over the nation, hoping everyone in the world will be able to enjoy their noodles.
During the summer, they provide the unique Caesar salad udon that is known to be very delicious.
Official Website: Hanamaru Udon (Japanese)
Udon Specialty Stores
Udon Shin (Shinjuku)
For those who wish to indulge in the true flavors of udon, Udon Shin is highly recommended for udon enthusiasts. Located only five minutes from JR Shinjuku Station, this shop is tucked in the streets of the busy city.
The chef takes their time to provide udon that is "kneaded on the spot", "cut on the spot", and "cooked on the spot". At times, it may take 10-15 minutes for your meal to be prepared after ordering. The comforting atmosphere and the friendly staff makes this waiting time pass rather quickly. Do take your time to taste the difference of the specially made udon noodles.
For more information about Udon Shin, please read Udon Shin In Shinjuku: Fresh Udon Noodles Make A Perfect Dish.
Address: Tokyo, Shibuya, Yoyogi 2-20-16
Hours: 11:00-23:00 (Last Order 22:00), Fridays and Saturdays 11:00-00:00 (Last Order 23:00)
Closed: Open all year except the end and beginning of the year.
Official website: Udon Shin (Japanese)
Teuchi Udon Kanouya (Asakusa)
Kanouya is a handmade udon specialty store that opened its doors in Asakusa, November 2005. With so many variations on the menu such as bukkake, kamaage, and others, it is very hard to choose. Seats on the second floor offer wonderful spots to see the cherry blossoms of Denbou-in Temple during the spring. The inside of the store has a calming atmosphere, so you can enjoy your meal in comfort.
Address: Tokyo, Taito, Asakusa 1-37-12
Telephone (for reservations): +81-03-3844-6424
Hours: 11:00-20:00 operates for lunch and open Sundays.
Official website: Teuchi Udon Kanouya (Japanese)
Tsurutontan (Ginza, Haneda Airport, Tokyo, Roppongi, Shinjuku)
With a special blend of flour, the noodles are made making the "ton ton" sound and then cut by experienced chefs rhythmically with the "tan tan" sound. The udon shop you can savor these delicious noodles is Tsurutontan. The name "Tsurutontan" comes from the sounds made from the kneading, cutting and the slipperiness of the noodles. Their easily slurped up noodles are very addictive.
While they have many shops, not a single one is the same. Depending on the area the shop is located in and the people who tend to visit, they create a theme to suit that shop specifically. Depending on the shop you eat, it may be fun to see and taste the different noodles at "Tsurutontan".
The shop hours vary by location too, so please check the website or the shop front in advance.
Official website: Tsurutontan (Japanese)
Enjoy Udon Noodles in Japan!
Udon is a budget-friendly and tasty dish that is loved by many people in Japan. As there are many little shops that may seem intimidating to visit at first, it is well worth it to head inside and see what they have on the menu. You are sure to find something very interesting inside!
If you find an udon shop in Japan, why not take a step in to savor the flavors of the noodles that are loved by the locals? Use this article to guide you in your udon noodle experiences.