"Kettle noodles" or "cooking pot soup" are how my Japanese-American friends translate the name of this savoury traditional Japanese soup. To those of us familiar with the story of Stone Soup, this soup can be considered approximately the Japanese equivalent of it: it is made with simple ingredients which virtually any household might have on hand year-round, and recipe interpretations can vary and adapt to compensate for missing ingredients or more unusual ingredients which are suddenly available. It's the kind of meal which can be put together in a crock pot at the beginning of the day, allowed to slow-cook throughout the day, and eaten when the family gets home from work or school. The main flavour of the soup is umami (savoury or brothy), but it can be adjusted to be more spicy and hot, or more salty, or even a little bit on the sweet side. It can be prepared as a vegetarian or vegan meal, if you simply leave out the eggs and meats, and it can be gluten-free if you are careful about what brand of soy sauce you use.
I personally encountered udon for the first time when I was still in high school; we took a WYSE competition field trip to University of Illinois at Champaign, and while waiting in line at the food court for lunch, a college student in the next line over asked me if I had ever eaten Japanese food before. I said I had not, and he recommended the beef udon they offered. I loved it and spent my idle moments for the next few years, hunting for udon recipes to try.
Serves 4 people
5 oz. fresh spinach leaves
5 cups dashi (basic Japanese sea stock)
1/4 cup soy sauce
2 tablespoons mirin
1 teaspoon salt
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon finely grated ginger
2 large carrots, peeled and cut thin
2 leeks* cleaned and chopped finely
3/4 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs AND/OR beef chuck or pot roast (or another suitable cut of beef for stew)
20 oz. fresh udon noodles (udon noodles are supposed to be rice-based, but if gluten is a concern, read ingredients carefully!)
3 large eggs
*or 3 or 4 wild onions (common in the US Midwest), but be careful: these things are damn spicy and can overwhelm the savoury aspects of the soup
1. Prepare the chicken / beef the way you would prepare it for a stew or stir-fry, cutting it into bite-sized pieces.
2. Boil water in a large pot and cook the spinach in it for about one minute. Drain the spinach and dunk it in cold water, rinsing it until the spinach is completely cold. Squeeze out the water, then cut the spinach into bite-sized pieces. Set these to the side for now, and keep them cold.
3. Mix the dashi, soy sauce, mirin, and salt together in a saucepan, then stir in the garlic and ginger.
4. Add the sliced carrots and leeks (or wild onions) to the pot, and bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat.
5. Add the chicken / beef and simmer until cooked through, about 4 1/2 to 5 minutes.
6. Add the udon noodles to the pot and place the spinach in 5 small bundles on the top. Add the sauce you mixed in step 3. Simmer for about 3 minutes. (Note: Fresh udon noodles will generally already be soft before they hit the pot, so it may not take very long for them to go mushy. If you want your noodles al dente, use something other than actual udon.)
7. Gently crack the eggs, one at a time, into the soup. You can leave them whole or whisk them into the soup. Cover the pot with a lid, let it all simmer for 3 minutes, and then turn off the heat and let sit to give the eggs time to finish cooking.
This recipe has a lot of room for fiddling with it, like substituting shrimp, pork, and/or tofu for the meat and eggs, or adding cabbage, potato, bok choi, mushroom, and celery. I've even known somebody to add finely diced pears to nabeyaki udon, and it was pretty dang good. You can also buy udon or soba soup base pre-mixed, if you want to quicken the process.
Some online recipes recommend using corn starch to thicken the soup. Don't do that. Seriously. My fiance and I had a very real Noodle Incident relating to the inclusion of corn starch as a thickener in udon. It was not pretty.