FOOD ARTICLES: Japanese Noodles

My life in Japan has been filled with cultural and culinary discoveries. Among fond recollections from my first summer many years ago in Kanonji, a coastal township on the island of Shikoku, was a lesson in making udon noodles under the guidance of Kiyoko Andoh, the diminutive but energetic woman who, several years later, would become my mother-in-law.

Born Kiyoko Shinohara in 1907, my mother-in-law was the eldest daughter of a prominent landowner in Niihama, a coastal farming community on the Inland Sea. At the age of 20, she had an arranged marriage to Hisao Andoh, a businessman in nearby Kanonji. She bore him nine children — the second youngest, Atsunori, became my husband.

My mother-in-law died in 1998, but her skills live on every time I make udon — not by hand, but by foot. The dense, stiff dough, a combination of high-gluten wheat flour and salt water, requires tremendous strength to knead — especially in hot weather, when additional salt must be added. Stomping power is far more effective, and certainly more fun, than pressing or squeezing with your hands.

The basic technique involves sandwiching dough between sheets of heavy-duty plastic and placing it on the floor (which, ideally, should be covered with a Japanese-style tatami mat for cushioning). One then stomps and turns, stopping occasionally to refold the dough, until it is smooth and elastic. It can then be rolled out and cut into long strands.

This process can easily become a social occasion. Years ago, when my daughter Rena was a toddler in Tokyo, we would often invite her park playmates to join us for a noodle-stomping session. We kept a special kit ready in our pantry, with a tin of high-gluten wheat flour, a small bag of good sea salt, a bottle of mineral water, a wide sheet of plastic cloth, and several pairs of freshly laundered socks in various sizes — for the kids, and their mothers, too. When the weather was bad, making udon became a terrific rainy-day playdate — with lunch included.