Thursday, February 19, 2015

Authentic Sanuki Udon Handmade at Takumi

Freshly cut sanuki udon noodles at Takumi

Udon noodles are sensitive things. On no two days is a batch of homemade udon exactly the same. They are like a barometer, changing with the passing sun, the falling rain, and the blowing wind. To the novice hand these subtleties are hard to tell. But after a decade of crafting these eminently Japanese noodles, it is said that one can note their changing character.

This is one of the many things that Jo Hyeong-chan (조형찬), 47, learned while studying the art of making noodles on the Japanese island of Shikoku. He has been making udon for three years now at Takumi (타쿠미), his little noodle shop in Pyeongtaek. But already he can feel the differences that his old noodle sensei told him about, and it shows in his food.

A bowl of Takumi Udon

Hyeong-chan doesn't make just any udon, though. He makes sanuki udon. 
Sanuki udon is not the udon most Westerner's initially think of when they think of udon. This is not the side dish commonly found with your tempura or sushi at many Japanese restaurants. At Takumi sanuki udon is a whole meal, a meal that originated in Kagawa Prefecture, on the island of Shikoku in Japan. The name comes from the prefecture's old name of Sanuki. Of the main islands, Shikoku may be Japan's smallest, but its udon is one of the country's most popular.   
According to a hand-written note on the wall of the restaurant, Sanuki udon is different from other udon in its emphasis. Standard udon emphasizes the broth, called dashi in Japanese. However, sanuki udon emphasizes the noodles. The result is a long, thick, square noodle of remarkable flavor and texture. This is not to say the broth is flavorless, though. At Takumi, a lot of effort goes into the broth which is a complex mix of kelp, anchovies and other ingredients. But in their udon the broth doesn't overpower the noodles but supports them.

Jo Hyeong-Chan with his noodles
Hyeong-chan, a friendly man with mirthful eyes, is very particular about his udon. While we spoke he lamented the general state of Korean noodles which can contain lots of food additives. His noodles, though, are surprisingly simple for something so delicious. They are made of flour, water and salt — nothing more. He prepares the dough fresh every morning before opening. As needed, he rolls them out with long poles on a floured, wooden counter behind the cash register, taking his time like an expert potter as he feels for the proper thickness. In fact, this pottery degree holder, says making udon really does feel like making pottery. You can even see some of his inedible work, tiny cups and bowls, on display on the wall opposite the register.

Like restaurants on the other side of the East Sea, Takumi is long and narrow, squeezing at most 15 people and a clay bowl of koi into the cozy space. Every day from 11:30 am to 9:00 at night, except Mondays when the restaurant is closed, lunchtime brings crowds of hungry Koreans into the small space. Though cramped, few elbows are rubbed as patrons huddle over their bowls, completely immersed in their meals, breaking the quiet only while on their way out as they wish the cook, "Jal meok'eo ssumnida" (
잘먹었습니다) — a complement expressing that they really enjoyed the meal.

The interior of Takumi was designed
 and built by Hyeong-chan.
The restaurant is divided by a handmade bar crafted by Hyeong-chan himself, who left a successful career in construction to make udon. The bar separates the kitchen from the dining area, allowing noodle slurping patrons the opportunity to witness Hyeong-chan at his craft: steadily turning a pale block of dough into long strands of raw udon noodles that ultimately become a variety of delicious soups that range in price from 5,000 to 8,500 won.

In traditional Japanese style, the main menu hangs in wooden bars on the wall, offering many twists to popular Western expectations of what udon soup is. There is, of course, Kake Udon (가케우동), the standard udon arrangement. But there is also the house special, takumi udon (타쿠미우둥). It is served in a hot bowl with slices of beef, green onions, chives, chili peppers, and shiitake mushrooms. Feeling exceptionally hungry? Get some extra protein with donkas udon (돈까스우동): udon with fried pork cutlet. Other styles include twigim udon (튀김우동) and yubu udon (유부우동): udon with tempura and udon with fried tofu. Every bowl uses only fresh ingredients and, for the most part, only those sourced locally from Korea. An aspirant of complete self-sufficiency, Hyeong-chan said that ideally he would like to grow and mill his own wheat for his udon. However, that not being possible, he has to make due with Australian flour. 

A bowl of donkas udon.
Takumi has only been around for three years, but its story began five years ago with a movie. For years Hyeong-chan dreamed of owning his own restaurant, but it wasn't until he downloaded the Japanese film, Udon, a dramatic comedy centered around the sanuki variety of the dish, that he found his inspiration. Further motivated by the thrill of a new craft, he left his construction job and moved to his aunt's home in Osaka. For a whole year he commuted five hours a day, three days a week to the "Sanuki Udon" school in Kagawa Prefecture and learned the ways of the venerable noodle despite not speaking much Japanese. The language barrier wasn't a problem, he said, because the physical nature of making udon made it easy to learn by watching. After earning his Sanuki Udon certification, which is proudly hung by the door to his restaurant, he returned home to Korea.

Given the level of craftsmanship at Takumi and the unique nature of the food, its location is somewhat of an oddity. The restaurant would not be out of place in the hipper parts of Seoul or Busan, but Takumi isn't located in downtown Pyeongtaek. It isn't even located in the up and coming night-life scene of,  Jo'gae'teo (조개), down from Sosabol Stadium. This authentic udon noodle shop sits across the street from a Highway Mart grocery store, buried in a sleepy commercial area that is hidden from the main street behind aging apartment complexes in Vision-Dong (비전동). 

When asked why of all places he chose that unassuming spot to set up shop, Hyeong-chan said it was for his son. Before moving to Pyeongtaek his family lived in Anseong. There his son, a middle schooler at the time, had trouble with this one bully. To protect his son and keep a close eye on him, he moved the family to Pyeongtaek, and put his son in a new school near the shop. 

Today his son is a high school graduate, eliminating the need for Takumi to be so off the beaten track. Hyeong-chan, however, assured that he has no plans to move his shop or give up the craft. In fact, he feels the opposite. Whatever skill he takes up, be it mechanics, carpentry, or pottery, he pursues it until he masters it. His noodles are exceptional, but he doesn't feel like he has perfected his craft yet. When he has completely mastered the art of sanuki udon, only then, he says, will he consider moving on to something new. 

To visit this hidden gem, take a bus to New Core Outlet from Pyeongtaek Station. The New Core busses will have a board on the bottom left corner of the windshield saying, "New Core" in Korean: "뉴코아." The New Core stop is in front of a Samsung electronics store. Walk down the street to the big intersection. There should be a BYC on your right and a Daiso on the opposite corner. You need to get to that Daiso. When you get there, walk down the tree covered sidewalk. You will pass NewCore Outlet on your left across the street. Take a right at the next intersection you come to, and walk for two blocks until you see a large protestant church. Turn left at the church, then walk straight for a couple more blocks. Takumi will be on your left. 

- Thanks to Park Junsik who contributed to this article as an interpreter. 

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