Thursday, May 31, 2007

Udon: Soul Food?

I think one of the reasons why regional kitties continue to catch my fancy is because of their link to the tradition of souvenirs-as-gifts or omiyage. When a traveler returns home or to work, they will bring a small item from their trek, usuallly representing a regional specialty. These regional specialty items are referred to as meibutsu. This way, the traveler is able to share their experience with family, friends and coworkers and pay their respects for those who didn't get to tag a long or didn't get the time off... good Kitty, good manners.

Often times the meibutsu is a specialty food that often times has a story behind it -- like "soul food" in this country. Historically, soul food has a very specific definition, but for those who actually make it and eat it? Its about a connection to the regional agriculture, family/cultural roots and a strong sense of the food having some spiritual connection to the heart (has to be made with love/attention) and soul (intent/purpose).

I saw a food-themed movie from Japan called "Udon" - perhaps my favorite noodle variety. It is the story of a prodigal-like son who returns to his hometown of Sanuki after failing to make it as a comedian in New York City. His homecoming isn't quite what he hoped it to be. His surly father, a seemingly unimaginative udon maker is quick to remind his son of his insults to the family business before he ran off to the States.


Sequence from the movie "Udon" featuring the making of this wonderful noodles

It's hardly an original story to be told, but I loved it. Any story told via the medium of food has my attention. Combine it with a favorite food, I'm ready to give it four stars. Anyways, as the story continues, the lost son takes an unintentional pilgrimage around the region to obstensively report on the various hidden Udon stands and slowly begins to find his way home and back to his family.

The movie boldly states that Udon is the true soul food of Japan -- not sushi! And just how does this movie go about convincing us? Well, let's have Kitty take over on that one...

The Spiritual Roots of Udon:
Kukai, 8th century Buddhist Kahuna and Noodle Dude

Kitty appears as two of Sanuki's most famous treasures - Kukai and a bowl of udon.

Born in the Sanuki region of Shikoku, Kukai came from a well-to-do family. Time had reduced the families influence in Court, so they groomed the young Kukai for a future in Court politics. Despite their best efforts, Kukai showed more of an interest in spiritual matters and eventually abandoned his studies and literally headed for the mountains for meditation and spiritual studies. Eventually, Kukai was able to wrangle a spot in on a government mission to China. It would be here where Kukai would begin his studies in esoteric Buddhism AND learn about the dumpling that would eventually become Sanuki's Udon.

The udon legends say that when Kukai returned from China and was sharing his spiritual revelations, he also shared the recipe for noodle dumplings with local farmers. Perhaps it was Kukai's influence or more likely the climate of the region (little rainfall that makes rice cultivation difficult) that made Sanuki spiritual home of udon. Many in Japan will travel to the region just to taste the "real thing."

There is another soul-food link to the noodle. People will travel to Sanuki and the island of Shikoku is to take the Shikoku Henro. This is a pilgrimage made to the 88 temples and sacred places that encircle the island of Shikoku. It is meant to recreate the steps that Kukai made in his search for truth. Traditionally, this pilgrimage is taken on foot, covering a distance of 1200 kilometers, taking about 30-40 days. This trip is by no means a pleasure hike through the beautiful scenery of the island. It is a long, arduous journey that is meant to break down the body and the barriers of the mind. It is in those moments of being stripped of illusions that many believe healing and enlightenment can be received.

Kitty prepares for the arduous pilgrimage in full ohenro garb. Her bag bears the words "two traveling together", reminding her that Kukai will be with her on this journey.

The pilgrim or ohenro-san is traditionally clad in a white (the "uniform" of the pilgrim), carrying a walking staff (a reminder that Kukai is with them, ready to offer guidance when the pilgrim falters). The traditional garb also let's everyone know that these travelers are here for the pilgrimage and should be treated with respect. Often times locals will offer gifts of aid or osettai - this can be money, food or a place to rest. Not surprisingly, some towns on the route will offer free udon to the weary traveller - yet another reminder that Kukai is always with them. Now how's that for soul food?


Kitty's most recent Nagoya Kishimen Udon mascot

Udon is served in a variety of ways -- a reflection of the region they are prepared in. For instance, Nagoya is famous for their miso and also their Nagoya Cochin breed of chicken so one of the ways that udon is prepared is with miso and chicken stock. The noodles themselves are also wider than most udon and is called "Kishimen."

Here are a couple of examples of regional styles of udon, offered in the wonderful hands of Kitty White. As usual, companies like Gotochi are quick to take advatage of the triple threat of a gift that'll fit the omiyage criteria, tastes good and cute to boot.


Here's an impulse purchase - Nagoya Kishimen noodles with a keepsake ceramic bowl. The noodles were delicious and I always eat udon in that bowl.

Here's an example of another kind of Nagoya Kishimen a la Kitty White.

I was lucky to get a hold a few of these Kitty themed regional food items, but there are so many to chose from - a lot of them packaged with the imaginative artwork of the Gotochi artists. Many items don't have a long shelf life so I will leave that area of Regional Kitty collection to more able hands. Here's a webpage that covers the arena of regional okashi (snacks and candies) and it includes some Gotochi items as well as a section on Regional Kitty Noodles

Are you hungry yet? I hope so because I have grown to appreciate what a real comfort food udon can be in its simple, clean taste and when you stop to think about the history and influences around this noodle. If you're hungry enough and hopefully inspired to try some, consider trying to make your own udon...
If you've only had the premade stuff that comes frozen in your local Asian market, or the dried stuff on supermarket shelves, you owe it to yourself to experience a close brush with udon's true koshi -- the texture and bite of hand-made udon. The recipe is REALLY simple, but it takes some elbow grease and patience.

Maki's "Just Hungry" Blog: Kitsune Udon


Thursday, May 03, 2007

Shine on Harvest Moon

In 2006, the Harvest Moon appeared on October 6th. What a beauty!

Foiled again. Here it is, Spring-time and I am still trying to catch up with my autumnal kitties. Might as well not fight it and keep going with what I had originally intended. At this rate of posting I will eventually catch up with my seasonal efforts

Anyways, the next post that was supposed to follow the Aki no Mikaku kitties was my attempt at celebrating the first full moon of Autumn or Jugoya. This date is said to be the 15th of August on the Lunar Calendar which puts it roughly in September-early October. The practice of moon viewing was introduced to Japan via China during the Heian period. Its hard for me to decipher the early days of these moon viewing parties (o-tsukimi) but from what I can tell is that when it found its way to Japan it was first practiced by the nobility with poetry compositions and music inspired by the light of the full moon. However the rural farming classes soon adopted this event as part of their harvest season celebrations and rites. Today, tsukimi has a mixture of both the aristocratic and agrarian practices. Poetry, music and the drinking of sake are still enjoyed as well as offerings of round mochi (tsukimi dango), seasonal foods and displays of beautiful pampas grass and bush clover. Sadly, it has been noted that the tradition of tsukimi is fading in fading in Japan, but hopefully the younger, more globally-minded generations will give this tradition another resurgence.

Strangely enough, my familiarity with harvest moon celebrations comes from the Chinese tradition than Japanese. My family did not celebrate this event when I was growing up and my first introduction to it came from our extended family. My brother's wife and her family would bring us huge oranges, moon cakes and a tin of White Rabbit candies. When I started taking a closer look at Japanese celebrations I recognized their roots.

Trying to put together a tsukimi party was a chance for me to try out some new recipe ideas, eat lotus seed cakes and, oh yeah, celebrate the first full moon of Autumn. It would be a chance to herald in a season that shows up so subtly in Florida, and perhaps subtly in places and times that have become so far removed from nature and our dependence on what it provides us in terms of sustenance. It would also fuse together my original understanding of the Chinese celebration (the moon as a symbol of reunion of families) and a new found interest in my family roots.

The White Rabbit or Usagi

Kitty appears as the "rabbit in the moon". In the Japanese version of harvest moon celebrations it is said that if you look closely at the dark parts of the moon, you will be able to make out the shape of a rabbit pounding rice cakes. In the Chinese tradition, the rabbit is said to be making a magic elixir for the princess of the moon.

Tsukimi Kitty

Kitty introduces us to the most traditional elements of a proper moon viewing party: she holds the beautiful pampas grass (a symbol of Autumn) in her hands and sits beside an offering of round mochi

A close up of the Kitty's traditional offering of tsukimi-dango on a sanpo

Since I was going through a wagashi phase in the fall I decided to be a little more adventurous with my tsukimi-dango. I used a gyuhi mochi wrapped around a sesame seed infused bean jam. They looked better than they tasted. Back to the drawing board

I didn't have any sanpos so I improvised with some bamboo trays that are meant for sushi. Rather than try to find the specific food offerings that would have been made in Japan, I opted to display the foods that I associated with autumn and with my memories of the Chinese version. One small lotus seed moon cake represents that piece of the puzzle. It was very tastey too!

Kitty makes a "subtle, yet profound" appearance as the egg-as-moon in our harvest moon festivities - I made tsukimi udon (the presence of an egg is all I need to call it that). I will cover the joys of regional udon in the next post.

Princess of the Moon

Again, the Japanese and the Chinese legends concerning the harvest moon intertwine. In China there are a few versions of how a princess named Chang'e swallows a pill of immortality and flies to the moon. In Japan, the story turns to a special princess that is found in a shining stalk of bamboo by a poor bamboo cutter. She brings great joy and wealth to her adoptive parents, creates romantic havoc for many arrogant suitors and eventually breaks the hearts of all when she must return to her true home, the moon.

I have yet to purchase the battery, but this cute little version of Kaguyahime will light up at the push of this button. Its just as the story tells!