Thin Wheat Line: Nabeyaki Udon

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Jonathan Kauffman
Thin Wheat Line is a weekly survey of noodles in Seattle.

Noodle: Nabeyaki udon

Source: Kaname Izakaya and Shochu Bar, 610 S. Jackson, 682-1828.

Price: $8.95

Nabeyaki udon, like bun mang vit or mi with roast duck, is a putterer's dish. You're not allowed to just slurp, oh, no. There are multiple bowls and plates to navigate, things to dip and sprinkle and crunch, an afternoon's craft project.

"Nabeyaki" refers to the iron cooking pot that the udon noodles are cooked in, and it's traditionally a winter dish, sometimes cooked at the table. The traditional elements of the dish are all present in Kaname's version: tempura shrimp (here served on the side, along with a host of other tempura vegetables), plump shiitake mushrooms, pink-and-white fish cake (kamaboko), chunks of chicken thigh, and a raw egg, cracked into the pot just before service, so the yolk is still creamily liquid when you first stab it with your chopsticks and swirl the yellow around into the broth to enrich it.

(If you have six minutes, here's an instructional video on how to make nabeyaki udon, taken from a Japanese show called "Cooking With Dog". The dog's cooking talent appears to consist of sitting still a few inches away from the gas burners.)

Kaname, which opened looking slick and expensive, seems to get a little quirkier, a little more personal, each time I eat there. It's clearly a family-run affair now, with several generations taking on waiting duties and customers walking back into the kitchen, unannounced, to say hello to the cooks. And while I was a moderate fan of Kaname's ramen, I enjoyed the nabeyaki udon much more enthusiastically -- dipping the tempura shrimp into the meaty broth, sprinkling the chopped green onions into my soup spoon to get the sharpest, brightest hit, and sucking up the fat noodles -- and not just because of the DIY elements.

I do have one complaint -- the cooks need to change out their fryer oil more frequently, because nothing spoils the pleasure of crunching through a perfectly fried slice of tempura squash more than the flavor of old oil -- and two pieces of advice:

1. Always remember that the noodles are cooked in the cast-iron pot, which keeps the broth about 5 degrees below boiling throughout the first half-hour of your meal. This is important when taking your first gulp of nabeyaki udon broth and/or leaning your hand up against the pot.

2. Slurp your noodles very carefully. If there were such a thing as chopstick proficiency competitions, udon noodles would be the semifinal challenge (the finals would be snapping live flies out of the air or catching minnows in a moving stream). All the characteristics that make udon such a pleasure to eat -- the way they fiercely wiggle each time they're touched, the slipperiness of their surface, their girth -- make them impossible to maneuver with two slim pieces of wood. Each thrash of the noodles as you suck them up sends droplets of broth flying at your shirt, and when they slip out of your chopsticks, they fall back into the broth with a cannonball splash.

Kaname's nabeyaki udon may have assaulted my dignity, but dignity's a small price to pay for a good meal.

 
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