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The art of making the perfect bowl of udon: Chef Park Sang-hyun is dedicated to crafting unforgettable noodles

Feb 10,2020
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Chef Park Sang-hyun puts cooked noodles in a bowl in the kitchen of his restaurant Hyun Udon in Gangnam District, southern Seoul. [PARK SANG-MOON]
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The best dish at Hyun Udon, according to the chef, is noodles with fried treats, either cold or hot. [PARK SANG-MOON]
Udon is considered by many to be a casual dish that is a quick way to fill up one’s stomach. But for chef Park Sang-hyun of Hyun Udon, udon is his life.

The noodle lover fell in love with how one simple ingredient - flour - could become something so chewy and bouncy. The texture inspired him to focus on making udon noodles for life. He considered making soba and ramen as well but realized that nothing could give him as much joy as when he perfected the texture of the thicker, chewy noodles.

When he was studying in Osaka in Japan, he decided to look for a part-time job at an udon place, with the hopes that he could enjoy his favorite noodle dish as much as he wanted to. He was able to get the chance to work at a branch of the popular udon restaurant Tsurutontan.

“Everything was so different,” he recalled. “I realized that all the udon I had so far wasn’t udon.”

He soon realized that he could bring the udon noodles he was learning about to Korea, as he had never encountered noodles of that qualify back at home. He tried knocking on the doors of some other popular udon places while trying to eat at as many udon places in Japan to see what style suited him best.

Right after his time in Japan, he felt like he was starting over again. In 2014, he started working at Udon Kaden in Seogyo-dong in western Seoul’s Mapo District.

Even though he returned thinking that he knew everything he needed to know to make noodles, the results were not living up to his expectations. Every ingredient felt a little different from what he was used to in Japan. He had to try different methods until he got the texture that he wanted. He even hurt his shoulder from using it too much and too often while making noodles. Park had to take some time off to recover and get the treatment he needed before joining a restaurant on the other side of Seoul in Samjeon-dong, southern Seoul.

Many customers who used to go to Udon Kaden and enjoyed Park’s style of udon felt the subtle difference without Park at the restaurant, and those fans spread the word on how experienced Park was in terms of noodle making. The small restaurant Mita started to have lines of people out the door during lunch and dinner time. The dream of starting his own restaurant never died, and he moved onto start Hyun Udon.

In a alleyway across from Garosu-gil in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, is where he found his udon home. Here he offers both cold and hot udon, and depending on what toppings you want, there are 17 different styles available.

Cold noodles have an even chewier texture than the noodles in soup. When you order two and share with others, Park recommends eating the hot one first. If you do the reverse, you won’t be able to enjoy that consistency of the noodles in the hot soup. That texture is what made him fall in love with udon in the first place.

The soup that the noodles is served in is also very complex. He uses a lot more than just anchovies and katsuobushi (smoked and dried skipjack tuna) to make the broth. He uses flakes of mackerel and smoked and dried horse mackerel, alongside a number of other things to make the flavor deeper. To help diners experience every bit of the subtle taste in the broth, he doesn’t offer kimchi. Park believes that the pungent smell and taste of kimchi keeps one from noticing the subtleties the chef intended for guests to taste.

Park recommends that first-time visitors try their udon with fried extras. Often called tempura, these fried treats are important for Park after other diners gave him their reviews on other udon places they’ve been to. These diners told him, even when they liked the noodles, mediocre quality of fried extras became the reason why they did not go back to some restaurants.

Now he is confident with his own style of noodle making, Park focuses a lot of his attention on what combination of garnishes inside the soup or on top of the noodles works well. Currently he has 17 different options available. One of the styles he wants to develop for the regular menu at Hyun Udon is a soupy udon with large scallions. That particular style is readily available in Kyoto, Japan.

At first he was certain that he only wanted to have one store, but now he imagines many different scenarios; maybe a street-side restaurant or even a shop inside a department store or mall where he could reach out to many different demographics. The possibilities are endless.

BY LEE SUN-MIN [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]