Thursday, March 6, 2014

Udon With a Dash(i) of Japanese Folklore

On the recommendation of a Tokyo native, we went on our third noodle adventure to an udon restaurant in Roppongi, called Tsurutontan. (This actually happened a few weeks ago, but I'm just getting around to blogging about it now. Oops!)

For those who haven't explored the diverse world of Japanese noodles, udon is a thick rounded noodle made of wheat flour. It is easily distinguishable from soba, which is much more delicately-sized noodle, made of buckwheat, which gives it a more grainy taste. The taste and texture of udon by comparison, is doughy.

Tsurutontan heart of udon noodles Takumi store in Tokyo and Osaka
Signage for Tsurutontan

As soon as we entered, Tsururontan, I was overcome by the  complex, umami-rich smell of Japanese cooking and braced for my third battle with my vegetarian paranoia. However, thanks to Vince's extremely thoughtful colleague, the battle was but a minor skirmish. Vince's colleague recommended this restaurant specifically because he knew I am a vegetarian. He gave Vince the name of one of Japan's traditional, and vegetarian, udon dishes: Kitsune udon, which literally means fox udon.

Vince mentioned to me in passing that the name of the dish had its roots in Japanese folklore, and I had to investigate: 

The fox, like many animals native to Japan, is a common symbol in Japanese folklore. The fox is considered to be a spiritual entity or "supernatural monster" (yokai in Japanese). The yokai of the fox, aka fox spirit, seems to have positive associations, like with the Shinto deity of rice, as well as more questionable associations. It was long believed to be able to possess people, and I have read lore about such possessions having both beneficial  and malevolent effects. The lore of possession by fox is so widespread that it has its own word: kitsunetsuki, which means literally 'the state of being possessed by a fox.'

And, kitsunetsuki does not just exist in the world of folklore. It has evidently been used as a medical diagnosis for mental diseases dating back to the first century A.D. Remarkably, it seems it continued to be a popular diagnosis for the cause of mental illness until the early 20th century! To check the veracity of my otherwise questionable source material, I did a quick search for academic literature and voila! there it was - one piece of academic literature investigating this diagnosis in rural Japanese mountain villages as recently as the 1990s (abstract) a la The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

How is this legend related to my dish? And is it safe to eat? 

It is commonly thought in Japan (for reasons that I have not been able to identify) that foxes, or possibly just the fox spirits, love fried, sliced tofu (go figure). And, this dish I ordered, kitsune udon, is a bowl of udon noodles in dashi broth topped with a gargantuan slice of fried tofu, hence the name.

Kitsune udon at Tsurutontan, Roppongi

I am happy to report that no possession (that I acknowledge) came to pass. The meal was delicious, and Vince made sure to follow standard Japanese eating etiquette: 

First stop, chopsticks.

Then, the wooden spoon for extra broth or to get those last bits of meat and vegetables that are seemingly impossible to capture with chopsticks. 

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And finally, the whole lacquer bowl, bottom's up to get the remaining dashi. 

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Yes, that bowl is ENORMOUS. More on that later. 

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