The earlobe in Japanese cooking

earlobe.jpgDuring a bout of procrastination, I came across this post on Serious Eats about making udon from an translated-to-English Japanese cookbook classic, Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji. You know this is a classic, since the original forward for it was written by M.F.K. Fisher! Anyway, the author of the Serious Eats post gets quite excited about the instructions in the recipe (which apparently calls for egg yolks...more about this later) saying to knead the dough until it's the texture of an earlobe.

Actually, the earlobe (mimitabu 耳たぶ) is used quite commonly in Japanese cooking. What? you say? Well...here's how.

  • As a gauge of texture. Touch your earlobe now. It's soft and yielding, but firm and bouncy, right? (That is unless you have a very bony earlobe...) This is the correct texture for a lot of doughs. So, to see if your dough, whether it's for noodles or buns or mitarashi dango or yatsuhashi. Therefore, many Japanese recipes call for dough to be kneaded until it's mimitabu kurai no katasa (耳たぶくらいの堅さ; about the hardness/texture of an earlobe) or mimitabu kurai no yawarakasa (耳たぶくらいの柔らかさ; about the softness of an earlobe).
  • To cool burnt fingers. The earlobe is supposed to be the coolest part of the human body. So, when Japanese people accidentally touch something hot while cooking, they instinctively touch their earlobe to cool it down fast. To me, it really does work! Give it a try next time you have an ouch! moment in the kitchen. (It doesn't work with knife cuts, of course.) Of course you should correctly cool burnt fingers in cold water, after the earlobe grab.

So...(channelling the original Iron Chef)...next time you're in the kitchen, remember this: Your earlobe is part of your cooking arsenal!

(About the egg yolk in the noodle dough: The only reason why I can think of to add egg yolk is for the lecithin, which can make the noodles a bit more slippery. But to me, that is not real teuchi udon (handmade udon, 手打ちうどん): that's egg noodles, which are...just different. I'm not too unhappy with my current udon recipe and technique, but can't wait to get my aunt, who is the acknowledged master of teuchi udon, to show me how to make proper, slippery, chewy udon when I go to Japan in a few months.)

[earlobe photo by quinn.anya on flickr.]

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