Locally Sourced Ingredients is Foundation of Traditional Tokyo Dish

The Yomiuri Shimbun
An employee serves nikujiru tsuke udon, a dish with noodles meant to be dipped in meat broth, and kate, or a mixture of boiled vegetables, at “Enosan” in Musashimurayama, Tokyo.

Walking around Musashimurayama in western Tokyo and strolling past the many restaurants, the words “kate udon” kept popping up. It got me thinking, “What are kate udon noodles?” Through my research, I realized this local dish is filled with the wisdom of our ancestors.

One day, I decided to eat at “Enosan,” a restaurant that serves udon made with handmade noodles. Out front, it had a banner that read, “Murayama kate udon.” Inside, however, there were no signs or menu items that referred to kate udon. I started thinking it was a type of udon rather than a name of a dish, so I ordered the restaurant’s most popular dish, nikujiru tsuke udon, a dish with noodles that are meant to be dipped in a meat broth.

After about a 15-minute wait, I was served chilled udon noodles, a warm dipping sauce that contained stewed pork and deep-fried tofu, and a side dish of sardine tempura with a garnish of sliced green onions.

I felt really good as I ate my noodles, which had the perfect chewy texture and went down smoothly. I was slightly thrown off because the word “kate” implies something that is firm, so I assumed the noodles would be on the firmer side.

“The word ‘kate’ refers to the vegetables that are added to the udon,” said Masahide Enomoto, the owner of the restaurant. “The custom of eating locally sourced vegetables with udon from locally grown wheat is said to be a tradition handed down from the olden days.”

Enomoto is now in charge of making the noodles and running the restaurant, which has been in his family for three generations.

Vegetables, such as Japanese mustard spinach, cabbage, carrots, bean sprouts and burdock, were placed next to the noodles. Enomoto said that most of the vegetables were locally grown, and “kate,” which means food or provisions, refers to these ingredients. As a result, this particular udon dish came to be known as kate udon.

■ Quick, simple meal for busy farmers

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Nikujiru zaru udon, noodles served in a zaru bamboo basket and with mixed tempura-fried vegetables and other simmered foods, at “Aoyagi” in Musashimurayama, Tokyo

Udon-making has thrived for many years in the Tama district in western Tokyo and Saitama Prefecture. This is said to be because of the Musashino Plateau, which covers most of western Tokyo and southern Saitama Prefecture. The area has a lot of hills but not a lot of water, which is why the main agricultural product of the area is wheat rather than rice.

The “Sashida Nikki,” or the Sashida diary, contains a record of the daily life and culture of the residents of Musashimurayama, then called Nakato Village, during the late Edo period and early Meiji era. The author of the diary wrote that he offered udon to his guest.

How long has kate udon existed?

Hisashi Hasumi, the owner of “Kotobuki-An,” a restaurant that serves handmade udon noodles in Saitama City, is also an udon researcher and has written books on the subject.

“Boiling udon made from locally sourced flour, together with vegetables from a local farm, was probably a very simple, everyday dish for busy farming households back then,” Hasumi said. “[Kate udon] could have already existed during the Edo period when more and more people started eating udon.”

“Eating seasonal vegetables with udon, [kate udon] was a good way to supplement one’s nutrition,” Hasumi said.

The name kate udon might not have changed in certain regions, such as in Musashimurayama and Kodaira in western Tokyo, but the dish itself has changed with the times. The standard kate udon of today is meant to be eaten as a substantial meal, such as with a meat-based dipping sauce.

Nikujiru zaru udon, noodles served in a zaru bamboo basket and tsuyu dipping sauce, is a signature dish at “Aoyagi,” a restaurant that serves handmade udon noodles in Musashimurayama. Besides using locally grown vegetables to make it a kate udon dish, various tempura-fried vegetables and other simmered foods are also added.

■ Preserving food culture

To revive local economies using kate udon, the Murayama Udon Meeting, an association of local corporate managers and farmers, was established in 2006.

The association not only grows wheat on local farms but also supplies udon noodles to its member restaurants and also holds lessons on how to make handmade noodles. The group also discusses which seasonal vegetables would be good to add to the udon, such as making tempura with certain plants and vegetables, boiled eggplant and boiled mushrooms with a soy sauce dressing.

The Murayama Udon Meeting also tries to appeal to children through lessons given at local elementary and junior high schools about how to make handmade noodles.

“I want our children to be able to enthusiastically tell others about the charms of their hometown if they leave for college or find jobs elsewhere,” said Yumiko Fujimoto, a deputy head of the association.

Musashimurayama does not have a single train station, so it is a long-held dream of its residents to see the Tama Monorail, which runs through the next town over, extend into its community. I hope that their dream is realized so that the rich food culture that has been passed down through generations will be known by people far and wide.