Over Spring Break I learned how to make homemade Udon noodle soup from my friend Erika, who is Japanese American. My family visited with Erika's family in the San Francisco Bay Area, and we enjoyed an authentic Japanese home-cooked meal together. I joined Erika in the kitchen and learned that this soup is easy to make. While we were cooking in the kitchen, our kids were playing a make-believe game of cooking school. I wonder where they got that idea?
Erika showed me how udon noodle soup is made in stages. First you start with dashi stock, a traditional Japanese fish stock that is the foundation for many Japanese recipes. Erika makes hers with water and instant granules, similar to bouillon cubes. Then the dashi is seasoned to complete the udon broth. Next, chicken, vegetables and egg are cooked directly in the broth. Cooked spinach, cooked noodles and scallions are added to complete the soup. This dish is the kind of meal that home cooks whip together by feel and usually don't use exact measurements. Luckily, I followed Erika around the kitchen so I was able to get approximate measurements and to write down the directions.
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Erika's soup was hearty and delicious, and here it is (this is my kid's version without scallions and mushrooms):
My kids love udon soup and clamoured for me to make it at home. Since many instant dashi granules are made with MSG, I decided to research alternatives online. Rachael of La Fuji Mama and Maki of Just Hungry show how making dashi stock from scratch is quick and easy. All it takes is 3 natural ingredients and a little soaking and boiling. Water is flavored by kombu(dried leathery seaweed) and katsuobushi(dried bonito fish flakes). These ingredients supply the umami flavor to the soup. There's even a vegan option that uses dried shitake mushrooms instead.
I decided I was game for making dashi from scratch. So, I headed out to the Japanese market. Don't let any unfamiliar ingredients stop you from trying this recipe because it's very simple to make. Kombu and bonito flakes are available in Asian markets, some health food stores, and online at Amazon.com and Asian Food Grocer. I found everything I needed at Nijiya Market, a Japanese market in Los Angeles.
I have two pieces of advice for navigating an ethnic market:
1. Ask for help and ask questions. I found a helpful worker there who guided me to the right aisles. She was so kind and kept checking back with me to make sure I found what I needed.
2. Read the labels. Even though most packages are in Japanese, they are required to have a list of ingredients in English if sold in the US. The Japanese market was a mine field of preservatives and artificial ingredients. I had to work to find products with all natural ingredients, and I did.
In addition to bonito flakes and kombu, other ethnic ingredients to buy are mirin rice wineand udon noodles. I found additive-free udon noodles in the freezer section. The ones in the refrigerator case at my market had preservatives; a refrigerator shelf life of over a year was my first clue. If you're purchasing online, then go with the dried udon noodles. Also the mirin cooking wine is a good purchase because it's great in Asian stir-fries and marinades.
So, my market adventure was fun, and next time my shop will go quickly because I'll know exactly what to buy. With ingredients in hand, I went back to my kitchen to make dinner. Here's an overview of how I made the dashi stock:
What I love about udon noodle soup is that it is a meal by itself. Erika served hers with a green salad. I was about to do the same, but at the market I saw some beautiful asparagus and decided to serve it with miso sesame dressing.
|Making the Dashi Soup Stock
- 4-⅓ cups cold filtered water
- About 15 grams of dried Kombu (seaweed kelp), about 20 square inches of a sheet
- 1 handful of Bonito Flakes, about 6 grams or 2 packets. (Or substitute dried shitake mushrooms)
- Soak the kombu (seaweed) in the water in a medium-sized pot for 20 minutes. Then turn the flame on to medium. Heat the water to just before a boil, about 10 minutes. There will be tiny bubbles forming on the bottom and sides. Do not let the kombu come to a full boil, or the stock can turn bitter. Remove the kombu.
- Sprinkle the bonito flakes on the top. Let water come to a full boil. Turn off the heat and let the bonito steep for 5-6 minutes. The flakes will fall to the bottom.
- Strain the broth in a strainer lined with a coffee filter. Squeeze the flakes in the filter to get out all the flavored broth.
- The dashi broth is now complete and is ready to use in many different Japanese dishes like udon noodle soup and miso soup.
|Kid-Friendly Udon Noodle Soup
- 1 bunch of spinach leaves, washed and trimmed
- 4 individual-sized packages of fresh Udon noodles, refrigerated or frozen
- 4 cups dashi broth (see recipe above)
- 2 tablespoons mirin (Japanese rice wine)
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 4 chicken thighs, about 1 pound, cut into chunks, seasoned lightly with salt and pepper (or substitute firm tofu)
- 2 carrots, thinly sliced
- 4 shitake mushrooms, sliced
- 2 scallions, sliced
- In a medium-sized pot boil salted water, and cook spinach for about 3 minutes until just tender. Drain and set aside.
- In a medium-sized pot boil salted water and cook Udon noodles for 7 minutes or follow package instructions. Drain and run under hot water to rinse away excess starch. Divide the noodles and spinach into 4 bowls and set aside.
- Pour dashi broth into a medium-sized pot. Add mirin and soy sauce, and stir. Bring to a boil.
- Add the raw chicken and reduce to a simmer. Set a timer for 10 minutes. Skim any foam off the top. Add the carrots and mushrooms and cook for 10 minutes more.
- Check that everything in the soup pot is cook through and warm. Divide the soup pot contents into the 4 bowls and pour over the noodles. Sprinkle the scallions on top. Serve immediately.
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