‘Udon pref.’ dreams of local wheat production

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Bukkake udon served at Yasobaan udon restaurant

OSAKA — There is growing momentum behind the reevaluation of locally produced food in Kagawa Prefecture, which is known as the udon prefecture, as food prices around the world soar because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The efforts of those in the prefecture aiming for more stable udon production by pursuing local, high-quality wheat and soy sauce — which are essential for the prefecture’s specialty Sanuki udon — are likely to cause a stir as the nation’s awareness of a possible food crisis grows.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Yoshio Igawa makes udon noodles at Yasobaan udon restaurant in Sanuki, Kagawa Prefecture.

New variety

Yoshio Igawa, 71, owner of Yasobaan udon shop in Sanuki, Kagawa Prefecture, has an early start. At 6 a.m. on a recent day he was already mixing locally produced flour with natural salt and spring water from the mountains behind his shop in front of Okuboji temple — the last of the temples along the famed Shikoku 88-temple pilgrimage. As he kneaded the dough, the wheat’s sweet aroma spread through the air.

“I want people to eat something delicious at the end of their long pilgrimage,” said Igawa who took over the business from his father 45 years ago.

There are many theories about the origins of udon, but locals believe that the production method was introduced by Kobo Daishi, one of the most famous Buddhist monks in Japan, from China or the Tang Dynasty during the Heian period (794-late 12th century). Sanuki province (present-day Kagawa Prefecture) was then a major production area of wheat and salt, both of which are used to make udon, as well as soy sauce for the broth.

However, in the 1960s, wheat imports from Australia and other countries surged, devastating farmers. Wheat production in the prefecture dropped 98% in about 10 years.

Responding to rising calls from consumers and noodle makers for udon made with local wheat, the prefecture began researching new wheat varieties that could compete with imports. In 2000, a new variety was developed and named Sanuki no Yume (Sanuki’s dream).

Russia’s invasion slows exports

The price of imported wheat is normally less than that of locally produced wheat. But in April, the average price of imported wheat soared to about ¥73,000 per ton, while that of Sanuki no Yume was about ¥54,000.

The distribution of wheat from Russia and Ukraine, which accounted for a total of 30% of the world’s wheat exports, slowed, and other wheat-producing countries also began to reduce their exports.

“The price of imported wheat will rise even higher in the future partly due to the weak yen. But the demand for locally produced wheat is not growing,” said Keizo Kinoshita, 65, president of Kinoshita Flour Milling Inc. in Sakaide in the prefecture. “And there are reasons for that.”

At first, Sanuki no Yume did not have a good reputation among udon shops. They said the dough was not firm enough and did not hold together.

It was also difficult to handle Sanuki no Yume since the udon recipe using the wheat was different from that using imported wheat.

Sanuki no Yume is used at only 10% of about 550 udon shops in the prefecture.

The prefecture continued to improve the variety and developed the second-generation Sanuki no Yume in 2009. The third-generation Sanuki no Yume is nearing completion. Those involved in the development have said udon made with the third-generation variety is the best so far regarding the flavor and firm texture.

Quality key to success

In the Meiji era (1868-1912), there were about 400 soy sauce producers on Shodoshima island in the prefecture. Today, the number has dwindled to about a dozen, but some of them are expanding their sales channels by promoting their products’ high quality.

Yamaguchi Shoyu Co., which has been in the soy sauce business for more than 100 years, uses domestically produced soybeans and ages them in wooden barrels for more than a year. The company’s soy sauce is priced three times higher than that of major soy sauce producers, but it has increased its customers through mail order. It also exports its products to Taiwan.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Left:Moromi, a fermented mixture of soybeans and salt water, is matured in wooden barrels at Yamaguchi Shoyu Co. on Shodoshima island, Kagawa Prefecture. Right:Salt is dried in the sun in the traditional way in Utazu, Kagawa Prefecture.

The wholesale price of imported soybeans has risen 20% since last year. “Small suppliers like us cannot survive if we reduce the quality to keep costs down,” said Kazuhisa Yamaguchi, 53, senior managing director of the company.

The western part of the prefecture used to be home to the nation’s largest salt fields. They disappeared in 1972 because of certain regulations, but were restored 16 years later by the town of Utazu. Although production is small, orders for the salt come from high-end sushi restaurants listed in the Michelin Guide, among others.

Kagawa Prefecture is the smallest of all Japan’s prefectures, but Masatoshi Segawa, 74, director of Agrinet Fudebaku, an agricultural producers’ cooperative corporation that produces wheat in Zentsuji in the prefecture, said, “We want to do our best to be able to compete with foreign rivals.”

The efforts of those involved in the production of Sanuki udon are likely to have a lasting effect on the goal of bringing about high-quality products.

Promotion through Asia

Shigeki Omine, chairman of the Takamatsu-based Honba Sanuki Udon Cooperative for udon restaurants, said the organization plans to boost its promotion of udon in other parts of Asia.

“Udon is popular overseas, especially in other Asian countries with noodle-eating cultures. We even organized an event in Taiwan to compare Sanuki udon with local noodle dishes before the pandemic. This summer, we are going to hold an udon promotion event in Mongolia.

“As the arrival of foreign visitors to Japan is becoming more conspicuous, Kagawa Prefecture should see a return of foreign tourists. We will do our best to let them know about our history and culture through our food, and make them want to come back to Kagawa,” he said.