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?'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) 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.]

Filed under:  japanese offbeat

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thank you for this. i was recently trying to teach a chef friend how to make a dough and i couldn't explain the elasticity i wanted; the closest thing i could think of was a (ehem) breast, but i immediately followed it with "don't even try it!" earlobes, so much easier!

to get that slippery chewy texture, you might try adding potato starch. you can replace up to 1/4 of the flour with starch. :) I haven't tried this myself, but I've seen it on many recipes for ramen noodles.

Weell the thing is, ramen noodles != udon noodles...they are about as similar as say, semolina pasta to...I don't noodles? Just 'cos they are Asian does not mean they should be lumped together, imo.

As far as i know is using cold water to cool your fingers after burning them not a good way to treat it.
I've been told that cold water makes the pores close which is a bad thing if you are trying to get rid of heat. Using lukewarm water works a lot better for me :)

I am a doctor, and the correct treatment is cold running tap water for 15-20 min depending on the extent of the burn. Ice-cold is not good. Then go get assessed by a doctor to see what type of burn it is and whether it needs to be dressed, you need a tetanus shot and/or antibiotics, again depending on site and extent of the burn. It's got nothing to do with pores but with the blood vessels constricting too much to trap heat if the temperature drops too much.

thanks for correcting me :)
not going to burn me for testing that out right now but i suppose that works. Allthough i don't understand why you would treat it with antibiotics. That sounds rather careless considering that they are already overused.

thanks for correcting me :)
not going to burn me for testing that out right now but i suppose that works. Allthough i don't understand why you would treat it with antibiotics. That sounds rather careless considering that they are already overused.

Whenever I burn myself in the kitchen I drop everything (if it's safe and won't destroy the meal) and get the burnt bit under cold running water for a few minutes. Seconds matter here - if I can get it under the water within a second or two of the incident, then the next day I won't even know I burnt myself. It's about removing as much of the heat as quickly as possible.

Hmm, the earlobe technique sounds very useful; I want to make my own udon again soon so I will bear that in mind (I refuse to buy udon since making them fresh - there's no contest!) That said, all this talk of earlobes is making me want to read some Haruki Murakami... :)

My immigrant (to USA) mom has always done the earlobe burn thing. I thought she was I know it's in my genes. Hee hee. Fun post. Thanks!

This is great! It's an analogy that many can understand. I do a lot of bread baking, and one of the questions I'm often asked is "How do I know when the dough is kneaded enough?" The analogy that I have heard used in that circumstance is that the dough should "feel like you are patting a baby's bottom!"

glad you agree with udon = no egg!
It just sounds... wrong.
I had a great success with the recipe from the video I linked to SeriousEats.

and the earlobe texture thing reminds me of making Shiratama as a kid :-)

What a welcome web site! I cannot tell you how grateful I am to have found you. I am a sansei (third generation japanese american) whose grandparents arrived some 100 years ago to the land of opportunity, u.s.a., however my maternal grandmother didn't know how to cook! My mother learned most of her japanese cooking from a Budhist church cook book down the street from our house, bits from neighbors and family members. She's an excellent cook but would choose the short cuts to accomodate her working schedule while we were growing up. Such how to make mugicha without a tea bag, how to make zarusoba broth from stratch, were missing from my cooking reportoire... Thank you and keep sharing. :D!

Atma Kaur, Los Angeles

When I learnt how to make bread (and some other doughs) I was taught to knead until the dough feels like your earlobe.

I think the burn thing has something to do with changing your mind's focus away from the pain of the burn. And to dissipate a little bit of heat too :)