Thirty-five Years of Long Life and Good Fortune
Jodie Chiemi Ching
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
For many Japanese, noodles are a must-have at New Year’s. Toshikoshi Soba are buckwheat noodles traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve to help you “leap from the old year into the new year.” Noodles in general are also said to symbolize long life.
So, Sun Noodle was destined for a long life and good fortune from the day Hidehito Uki left his hometown of Tochigi in the Kantö area of Japan and arrived in Hawai‘i in 1981. At 19, he could barely speak English. So, he let his noodles do his talking for him by going door-to-door, delivering samples to prospective customers. Each time they gave him some feedback, he returned to his factory, revised his recipe and took it back to the restaurants until he had made them just the way they liked it. Each restaurant had its own preference: One wanted thick noodles, another wanted them thin, still another wavy, another chewy. Uki never said “no” — and that is how he makes noodles even today, more than 45 years after making his first batch of fresh noodles in Hawai‘i: custom-made to his customers’ preference so they can pair it with the right broth.
In time, Uki met and married his wife Keiko, who owned a restaurant near his noodle factory in Kalihi. After marrying, they became a team. He made noodles in the morning and delivered orders in the afternoon while she balanced the books and managed their small staff. Sun Noodle and the Uki family continued to grow.
By the early 1990s, Sun Noodle started shipping its noodles to the West Coast and to Vancouver, Canada. They now had three children: Jamie, Hisae and Kenshiro, who, from a young age, began taste-testing samples, packaging noodles and learning to cook Japanese food.
One opportunity after another presented itself for Sun Noodle. In 2004, the year Kenshiro left for college, the company opened a factory in California. As it turned out, Uki’s timing was perfect. The company began producing noodles for ramen restaurants that were opening up all over the country. The ramen boom was on in big cities like Los Angeles and New York. Another golden opportunity arose for Sun Noodle in Hawai‘i: the chance to purchase S&S Saimin, the popular instant saimin producer.
Today, Sun Noodle has a huge presence on the East Coast, making noodles in a 46,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art factory in New Jersey. With factories in Hawai‘i, California and New Jersey, the company is keeping up with the global demand for fresh noodles, producing more than 230,000 servings of noodles a day. That equates to roughly 88,000 pounds of noodles per day. And, from a two-person operation, the company has grown substantially, currently employing 211 workers — 85 in Hawai‘i, 58 in California and 68 at its New Jersey plant.
Sun Noodle makes a variety of products, including ramen noodles, precooked yakisoba, udon, Okinawa soba, saimin, Japanese soba, wakana (green) soba, and gyoza and wonton wrappers — all to accommodate Hawai‘i’s multiethnic tastes. Beyond the shores of Hawai‘i and North America, Sun Noodle products can be found in South America and Europe.
In 2014, Sun Noodle opened the innovative Ramen Lab in the Nolita neighborhood of New York City. Its pop-up concept invites guest chefs from around the world to use their imagination to create and share their ramen creations. Ramen Lab was run by Shigetoshi Nakamura — aka “Chef Naka” — until he opened his own ramen shop named “Nakamura” in NYC in 2016. At age 22, Chef Naka has been described as one of Japan’s four “ramen gods.” He previously owned ramen shops in Tökyö and Hollywood.
While ramen’s popularity continues to grow on the U.S. mainland, Hawai‘i remains fiercely loyal to its noodle of choice, saimin, traditionally garnished with char siu pork, green onion and kamaboko (fishcake). Like many third-generation locals, Edwin “Rocky” Hiraki, a Hawaiian Electric Company retiree, says he prefers “good, old-fashioned saimin.” “I love those curly noodles with hibachi-cooked barbecue on bamboo sticks,” Hiraki says.
Saimin noodle production accounts for about 40 percent of Sun Noodle’s business. Saimin noodles contain more eggs and are saltier than ramen. Saimin also has a higher ash content than ramen, according to company president Ahmad Yu, a food scientist with over 30 years of experience in the food industry. “This happens because the mineral content of wheat is concentrated in its aleurone — the layer between the bran and the endosperm. If the miller does a good job of separating the wheat, the resulting flour would contain less bran and aleurone, and, therefore, fewer minerals and a lower ash count,” Yu explained.
“Low ash levels give flour users (e.g. bakers, noodle makers) an indication that they are buying a more refined, or ‘purer,’ flour. Ash content is an important attribute for us to consider in making noodles. It affects the character of the flour and, therefore, the end product,” he explained.
Yu loves talking noodles.
“The noodles are all made with four ingredients: wheat flour; purified water; salt and ‘kansui,’ a combination of sodium and potassium carbonate,” he explained.
Each step of the ramen noodle-making process is carried out with care. The first step is the preparation. The wheat flour is tempered, meaning it is placed in a temperature-controlled room, and the salt and kansui are dissolved in purified water, ensuring a consistent starting point. Second, the ingredients are gently mixed in small batches to create “soboro,” small dough balls. Third, the dough is set aside to rest — the gluten is formed during this time. This is what gives ramen its springy texture and pleasant chewiness. Next, the sheets are sprinkled with uchiko, or dusting flour, and cut to their specified lengths and widths. The noodles are then rolled into single-serving balls, packaged, tempered and aged in a refrigerator. Finally, some of the noodles are delivered fresh to their local destinations. Other orders are frozen and shipped to restaurants, grocery stores and Asian markets around the world.
According to Yu, freezing noodles does not affect its quality as long as the noodles were tempered and cared for properly.
Sun Noodle had the following suggestions for preparing your noodles:
1) Prepare your broth and garnishes first. After boiling and straining the noodles — don’t rinse them — place them into the broth immediately. The longer you leave them in the open air, the stickier they will get.
2) Do not boil the noodles in the broth or use the water you boiled the noodles in to make the broth. The starch released by the noodles will ruin the taste of the broth.
3) Do not add salt when boiling the noodles. Ramen noodles already contain salt.
4) The noodles can be frozen, but be sure to thaw them slowly in the refrigerator overnight to avoid a sudden temperature change. Yu says Sun Noodle brand noodles will keep for up to six months in the freezer, or 10 to 14 days in the refrigerator.
Agu Ramen owner/chef Hisashi “Teddy” Uehara has been using Sun Noodle products since 2013. After graduating from St. Louis School, Uehara moved to Los Angeles for college. At the age of 19, while still in college, he apprenticed under an old-school chef from Japan, peeling onions and slicing negi (green onions) until he proved himself. Uehara was finally promoted and granted access to the secrets to making ramen, sushi, tempura, kaiseki and other traditional Japanese dishes.
Uehara trusts Sun Noodle products completely. “I have known Mr. Uki for over ten years. He takes pride in taking care to cater [to] everyone in the company. He understands exactly what we want. There are no compromises for quality.”
Agu Ramen now has restaurants on O‘ahu and in Texas. Although the business will start making its own noodles this year, he values his long relationship with Uki and Sun Noodle. “We are thankful for all that Mr. Uki and Sun Noodle have done to support Agu (Ramen). We will always be friends.”
Ezogiku, Sun Noodle’s longest-running customer, specializes in Sapporo-style ramen. Co-owners Kenichiro Mitsui and Tomoji Onishi opened their first Ezogiku restaurant, a small space with only eight counter seats, in the Waseda University district of Tökyö. Mitsui and Onishi opened their first overseas location in Hawai‘i in 1974. In 1990, Ezogiku became the first specialized ramen shop in Vancouver.
Mitsui’s son, Masa, who is Ezogiku’s vice president, recalled the company’s long friendship with Sun Noodle. “At the beginning, Mr. Uki used to come by Ezogiku often to bring noodle samples and talked to our late general manager, Mr. Sugino.” He said Uki treats Ezogiku and himself like his own family. “We’re ordering from Sun Noodle because of not only its products, but also its people and their warmth.”
Both noodle businesses continue to thrive in Hawai‘i, with Ezogiku serving up approximately 700 bowls or plates of noodles a day at its three O‘ahu locations.
So, if noodles were on your New Year’s buffet table, they were probably made in Sun Noodle’s plant in Kalihi, where noodles are made with all of Hawai‘i’s people in mind.
Jodie Ching is a freelance writer and blogger who also works for her family’s accounting firm in Kaimukï. She has a bachelor’s degree in Japanese from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa and is a past recipient of the Okinawa Prefectural Government Foundation scholarship.