The Udon That Changed My Life

Swirling, slurping, and sliding into noodle-fueled ecstasy on a family pilgrimage to Tokyo.

udon noodles
Photo: Hetty McKinnon

Any visit to Tokyo necessitates a huge appetite and an openness to eating noodles at every hour of the day. From the rise of the sun, you will find locals standing shoulder to shoulder slurping noodles, often soba, served either hot or cold, sometimes topped with tempura, grilled fish cakes, or onsen tamago (soft-cooked egg). Noodles are ubiquitous in Tokyo; the variations are staggering, with an infinite ability to satisfy cravings.

On a hurriedly planned family vacation long before COVID-19 paralyzed international travel, my family and I arrived with only very basic knowledge of this iconic city, but with a firm recommendation from a friend to visit Udon Shin. Upon arriving by train to Shinjuku Station, one of the world's busiest railway hubs, a blur of dizzying lights and arcades—a formidable mix of modern and traditional—took over. We tripped down Memory Lane (Omoide Yokocho), a narrow alleyway dotted with tiny storefronts and restaurants that have barely changed since the late 1940s. My kids cheekily slipped into an arcade to spend a few minutes gaming. Wandering on, we turned onto a quieter street, where people were gathered outside a compact, dimly lit storefront: Udon Shin.

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As we waited, we pressed our faces against the steamy windows, a portal into a quintessential micro-scale Tokyo kitchen. Through the partial veil of billowing steam, we were entranced by the rhythm of the udon-making process—the noodle master rolls the dough, kneading and cutting with measured hustle and utmost precision. As orders roll in, noodles are dropped into a huge vat of boiling water and then quickly cooled in an ice bath to halt cooking. Here, every bowl of noodles is made to order. Our enchantment was broken by the server, who handed us the menu—orders were taken outside, presumably so the food could be prepared while we waited. This was the efficiency and generous hospitality that we would come to love about Japan.

The menu featured several zaru udon—cold noodles served with a dipping sauce—but I opted for the hot soy sauce udon with butter, pepper, and a soft-boiled egg, and I encouraged my meat-eating son to order the signature carbonara-inspired dish with pepper, Parmesan cheese, and a slab of bacon tempura. Many of the dishes at Udon Shin are not traditional but perfectly encapsulate the skillful and inventive way the Japanese reinterpret flavors from other cultures through their own delicious lens.

Inside, the atmosphere was intimate. There were five or six seats by the counter, where my daughter and I were seated, while my husband and boys were squished around a small table against the wall behind us. When the bowl of noodles was placed before me, the thick strands cradled a jiggly soft-boiled egg and were purposefully twisted into a bath of hot soy sauce. A bundle of finely sliced scallions brought color to the plate, and everything was topped with a heavy layer of black pepper.

The wheat-based noodles were chewy and toothsome, their freshness simply bewildering. The wobbly egg melted into the noodles and coalesced joyfully with the hot soy, butter, and piquant pepper, clinging lovingly to every strand of udon. Inside, I was all aflutter, bubbling with excitement, astonishment, and sheer joy at the bowl of food before me. From the first mouthful, I recognized this to be a seminal food moment. This experience would be forever embedded into my culinary consciousness.

I grew up devouring noodles, cooked lovingly at home by my mother, so this bowl of udon felt familiar yet intoxicatingly new. The wonder of travel and roaming is finding that sense of belonging wherever one is in the world, and in this diminutive restaurant in Shinjuku, I found home in a bowl of noodles. Now, whenever I am yearning to relive the magical, life-changing experience of Tokyo, I know what to do: prepare a bowl of soy-laced, peppery udon topped with a barely set egg, which instantly transports me there from the comfort of my own kitchen.

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