I have been exploring the world of Japanese cuisine recently with the help of a fabulous cookbook called Japanese Soul Cooking by Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat. Far beyond sushi and teriyaki, the book covers everything from Soba to tempura, and delivers a rich account of Japanese food history in between. One of my favorite tidbits is about Japanese curry, which is profoundly different from Indian or Southeast Asian curries. It tends to be far less spicy, and has an easy, comforting quality to it that is much more approachable for home cooking, at least in my opinion. The funny thing about it though is that it is considered a British food, since it was British sailors from India that first brought curry powder to the shores of Japan in the 1800s. Try it for yourself with this udon (thick, chewy wheat noodles. Mmmmm so good) recipe, and you will see why this culinary mutt is a staple in Japanese kitchens (and mine).
4 bricks fresh-frozen udon Saucy Note: It may be that you can only find dried udon, which will do in a pinch, but the fresh frozen noodles are incredibly delicious and very cheap if you can get your hands on them. Try a specialty Asian grocer, though you might get lucky at a standard grocery store if you live in a larger metropolitan area-I don’t even live in the city and I can get fresh yakisoba noodles in my produce section. Yay!!
1 lb. pork belly, sliced very thin Saucy Note: The cookbook calls for pork belly, but Shake and Salty do not enjoy the texture. I used it for flavoring, so I made large thin slices that could easily be avoided when serving. If you like to eat the pork belly, slice it thin and then cut it into bite-sized pieces.
1 lb. steak Saucy Note: I made tenderloin bites marinated in kaeshi (see below) and topped the soup with them, but you can also slice skirt or flat iron steak very thin and add it to the hot soup right before serving.
3-5oz. beef trimmings (optional) Saucy Note: Whenever I trim beef, I freeze all the little fatty bits for later use. Then I can use them in recipes like this to add delicious beef flavor.
1 sweet onion, sliced thin
1 tbsp. sesame oil
3 tbsp. curry powder
1½ tbsp. potato starch, dissolved in 1½ tbsp. water
2 scallions, sliced thin on the bias for serving
Saucy Note: The base for this soup is called tsuyu. Tsuyu is a mixture of dashi and kaeshi. Dashi is a very simple broth that is the base for like, everything in Japanese food, and is made of kombu (a type of edible kelp) and dried bonito flakes (dried, fermented, smoked fish) both of which are easily found online if you don’t have access to them otherwise. You can also buy premade powdered dashi, which is what I used this time around because I had it and not kombu, not to mention its much quicker than making your own stock. It comes in little sticks-use two sticks in 6 cups of water. If you’d like to make your own dashi though, the recipe is at the end of this paragraph. Kaeshi, the other component of the broth, is a mixture of mirin, soy sauce, and sugar, and is an excellent condiment to keep on hand (it keeps for a month). The cookbook recommends letting kaeshi sit for at least 3 days to let the flavors deepen, but I made it at the same time as the soup and it was still delicious.
8 cups water
2 six inch pieces of kombu
3 packed cups bonito flakes
Put the water and kombu in a large stockpot and let steep for 30 minutes without heating. Bring to a boil over medium heat, and then remove the kombu. Add 2 tbsp. of cold water to bring the temp down, and then add the bonito, stirring once before bringing back to a boil. Reduce to a simmer for 5 minutes, skimming any scum off the top. Let the liquid steep off heat for another 15 minutes, then strain through a cheesecloth. Discard the bonito.
2 cups soy sauce
½ cup mirin
3 tablespoons sugar
Bring all three ingredients to a boil over high heat. Reduce to a simmer and cover for 8 minutes. Remove from heat and let come to room temperature. The curry udon calls for a little over half a cup, so use the extra for the beef marinade or dipping sauce, and store the rest in the fridge.
6 cups dashi
½ cup plus 2 tbsp. kaeshi
6 tbsp. mirin
Combine dashi, kaeshi, and mirin. This is the main soup broth.
Start heating a large pot of water to prepare the udon. Thaw the beef in the microwave if necessary-it doesn’t need to be completely unfrozen, just enough to break the pieces apart.
Heat the sesame oil in a large, deep skillet over medium high heat (a dutch oven or similar style pot will also work well). When water flicked on the surface sizzles immediately, add the beef trimmings in a single layer and cook on each side for 2-3 minutes, so the beef develops a deep brown sear. Remove the beef to a small plate or bowl with tongs, leaving the beef fat in the pan.
Add the pork belly and stir constantly until the meat turns white. Turn heat down to medium and add the onions, stirring frequently until the onions are translucent and softened. Add the curry powder while stirring and toast for about 10 seconds, being careful not to burn the curry. Add the broth and return the beef to pan, along with any juices accumulated on the plate. Stir occasionally for a few minutes until the liquid is simmering, and then add the potato starch mixture. Stir constantly for 30 seconds, reducing heat to low once the liquid thickens. The soup is now ready to serve, but it can be kept warm like this for 30-40 minutes. The noodles cook in about 30 seconds in boiling water, so this is a great recipe if you need some time flexibility (like if you have a husband who works on messy projects that aren’t always pause-able).
Prepare the beef just before serving. If making a steak bite style topping, marinate bite sized pieces in just enough liquid to cover them for five minutes, and then broil on high for 90 seconds on one side and 60 seconds on the other. If you prefer sliced beef, freeze the steak for about 10 minutes before you cut it, and then slice it as thin as possible. Add to soup and simmer until desired doneness-it will cook quickly, and continue to cook in the bowl, so be sure to serve it a skosh underdone. If you’re feeling fancy, shaved ribeye is excellent in soups like this-it cooks so quickly you can just add it to the bowl when serving, and it will cook in the heat of the soup. If you’ve ever had beef pho, you know what I’m talking about.
When ready to serve, boil the frozen udon noodles until they soften and break apart. The noodles are already cooked, so you’re just thawing them. Divide them evenly among four bowls, and top with soup. Salty and Shake don’t like onions or pork belly, but they’re easy to avoid with a large ladle, so if you have any picky eaters help’em out. Top with steak, or make sure all the steak is out of the pan. Garnish with scallions and enjoy with chopsticks, a large spoon, and plenty of slurping. Itadakimasu!!