When we came back from Japan, I didn’t think I’d try to recreate any of the magical, thoughtfully, wonderfully-made food we had while we were there. It all seemed way beyond my ken — a just-so balance of kombu and bonito, a dollop of miso and things I couldn’t even guess at, hand-pulled and long-simmered and much-perfected. That was true most of all for the multi-course kaiseki meal we had in Kyoto. We weren’t even sure if our uncultured palettes could even properly appreciate everything we were served — delicate, softly-cooked beef wrapped in thin slices of eggplant, vegetables cloaked in water jellies, cold soups with scallops and deliberately arranged tiger prawns — and I’m pretty sure a lot of it did go right over our heads.
But then last weekend I was contemplating what to make for an easy lunch, preferably cool and light and not involving the oven, and, of all things, one of my favorite courses from our kaiseki popped into my mind — chilled udon noodles, folded neatly over ice, with a creamy, nutty sesame sauce for dipping that reminded me vaguely of the one I like to make for summer rolls. On its own, it suddenly seemed a little more doable, and in this toasty late summer weather, nothing seemed more appealing. And surprise! Just a little Googling, whisking, and taste-testing later, this likeness emerged.
I have to apologize to any Japanese friends who might be reading, for taking liberties with a dish that I’ve only had the briefest acquaintance with — suffice it to say that this is just inspired by the one we had in Kyoto and not an attempt to mirror it. But it couldn’t be easier, and for the very little time it takes, the refreshing summer lunch that results is now one of our favorites. The udon noodles I just bought frozen at a Japanese supermarket not too far from work — they cook up in less than a minute and then get shocked in some cold water for serving, and that’s it. The sesame dipping sauce I cobbled together from a variety of sources and then whittled down to a simple recipe that tasted the most like what I remembered, and all it takes is a quick pour of everything you need, a vigorous whisk, and some gratuitous tasting. I think you could make it with peanut butter or any other nut butter you have on hand if sesame paste or tahini isn’t feasible. Topped with a little nori for an ocean-breezy saltiness, and served with some tofu and quickly-blanched greens on the side (plus some Studio Ghibli in the background), it made us feel like we were back on vacation. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did!
This is the simplest of cool, light summer lunches. I served it with a side of spinach blanched in the water used for the udon and some quickly pan-seared tofu -- if weather really won't permit standing at the stove any longer, though, cold tofu would be delicious too.
- for the sesame dipping sauce:
- 3 tbsp sesame paste or tahini (or substitute your favorite nut butter)
- 1 tbsp mirin
- 2 tsp soy sauce or tamari
- 2 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp sake
- 1 tsp minced garlic
- 1/4 tsp grated ginger
- 2-3 tbsp dashi or water, or as much as needed to thin
- to serve:
- 1 brick (8.8 oz) udon, cooked and chilled (or soba buckwheat noodles, for a gluten-free option)
- 1/4 cup finely sliced green onions
- shredded nori
- Mix all the sauce ingredients except for the water together in a small bowl. The resulting mixture should be a thick paste and may be a little grainy. Add the dashi stock or water a tablespoon at a time until the sauce thins to your desired consistency. I found that I preferred it a little thinner so that it coats the noodles more evenly. That’s it! Adjust to taste if needed -- a tad more mirin and sugar can correct for bitterness if you find the sesame paste is a bit harsh, and a little more soy sauce will add saltiness, especially if you opt for water instead of dashi to thin. When you’re done, serve with cold udon noodles, green onions, and nori, and enjoy!
I usually think of nori as an optional garnish, but I was surprised by how it added just the right salty touch here -- so I think if you can use it, do. If you're thinning the sauce with a dashi stock that has kombu, though, it'll add the same sea-breeze savoriness that I liked so much in the nori.
Speaking of dashi, you can make your own (see Nami's amazing tutorials for awase dashi and kombu dashi) or you can buy dashi powder from a Japanese supermarket. Either one will work -- and if all you have is water, that's just fine too.
Soba buckwheat noodles would be amazing as a gluten-free (or just plain tasty) alternative for dipping, since they're also delicious cold.
If you don't have mirin or sake on hand, a bit of seasoned rice vinegar will work as a good substitute, though you may need to adjust for sweetness with a little more sugar.
Finally, if you have a surplus of sesame seeds and don't feel like buying sesame paste specifically for this, you can easily make your own sesame paste -- just toast the seeds briefly until browned and fragrant, then whiz in a food processor, adding a few teaspoons of oil at a time, until it reaches a smooth consistency.