Just before 6pm on an early weekday, the queue for White Clothes Udon in Sham Shui Po is already 20 people deep—a relatively low number for this new noodle destination. Many of those waiting are fully masked and fanning themselves in the oppressive Hong Kong summer heat and a crushing humidity that has not quite abated in the hour before dusk. Their quest is a deceptively simple spread of flat sheet noodles, a curiously unusual variety known as himokawa udon that is unlike any other you can find in Hong Kong. This distinctive noodle and Hong Kong’s latest culinary arriviste is the speciality of Kiryu in Gunma Prefecture, two hours north-west of Tokyo, a city known for its textile industry and, in particular, its silk.
Inside White Clothes Udon, patrons hunch over tables, carefully navigating their chopsticks to lift what could be mistaken for creamy-hued white silk handkerchiefs, dipping the squares into bowls of richly coloured bonito stock. “If you grab it in the wrong spot, it’s easy for it to slip,” says Meter Chen, the noodle enthusiast and founder of Kintaro, the parent company behind White Clothes Udon. “I’d go in from the middle and have it drape over the chopsticks.” It’s much easier said than done, with diners laughing as they grapple with the slippery noodles. Even after you have the sheet secured between your chopsticks, it’s another challenge to get the noodle from the bowl to your mouth.
The sheer novelty and scarcity of the dish (and its highly Instagrammable qualities) have already turned it into a cult classic, especially among what Chen describes as a legion of loyal noodle lovers that have followed him since his first foray into running a Japanese noodle bar more than ten years ago, when he opened Butao Ramen with then business partner Chandler Tang.
Today, the Butao brand has more than ten branches located around Hong Kong, Macau and Shenzhen after establishing itself as one of the original Hakata-style ramen restaurants to sweep the city. As a self-professed noodle nerd who had studied and worked in Japan for more than a decade (he has also written several guides to noodle bars in Tokyo), Chen realised that he had cultivated a passion for bringing the culinary culture of the country to Hong Kong.
It also helped that by the mid-2000s, Japanese soft power had gripped Hong Kong as the city became obsessed with everything from J-pop to J-dramas and, of course, its food culture. While living in Tokyo, Chen became a bridge between Hong Kong and Japan, helping television production companies and publications as their man with his ear to the ground, feeding them the latest cultural trends, a lot of them food-related.
“But not everything Japanese is good,” Chen asserts. “You have to find the good stuff, and then tell people about it. I was interviewing chefs and restaurant owners and doing a lot of research. It was already all in my brain, but I never thought about opening my own ramen restaurant. I was always doing a lot of writing and researching, and at some point it wasn’t satisfying enough. I wanted something tangible that I could bring to Hong Kong. When I released my first noodle guide, I really wanted to bring the flavours of those 50 ramen bars to the city.”