THERE IS NOTHING MORE RESTORATIVE in summer than a slurp of cold somen, Japan’s thinnest noodle, made from wheat. As a hot dish, somen is known as nyumen; cold, it’s called hiya-somen or hiya-mugi, and is traditionally eaten from early July to mid-August.
The word “somen” is derived from the Chinese sakumen, meaning “cable noodles” – most forms of noodles came to Japan from China. Somen are traditionally made the Chinese way, by pulling the dough rather than cutting it.
Little is known of the origins of somen in Japan. In the Nara era (710-93), wheat was already being grown in Miwa, Nara Prefecture; the people of Miwa made a dough of wheat flour and salt water similar to somen dough, but we don’t know whether somen was made.
The first written mention of somen appears in Engikishi, a tenth-century record of royal ceremonies. By 1205, it was being eaten in Kyoto by monks who had travelled in China. It didn’t become widely popular, however, until the Edo period (1603-1867), as wheat was initially reserved for nobles and priests.
Somen is best made in winter, dried slowly, and eaten after the June-July rainy season. Unlike rice, it improves with age and can be kept for a year or so in a dry, cool place. These days, most somen is machine-made, but Miwa hand-made somen is still available, and said to be the tastiest in Japan.
SOMEN TIME: When the Slurpin’ Is Easy
- 7 oz. dried somen 4 bundles
- Dipping sauce:
- 1 ½ cups dashi fish stock use 1 teaspoon of granules
- 2 ½ tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon sake
- 2 tablespoons mirin sweet sake
- Somen garnishes:
- 1 ½ small unwaxed cucumbers semi-peeled and cut diagonally into thin slices
- 1 ½ medium tomatoes peeled and cut into thick slices
- A bunch of kaiware radish sprouts, stemmed and cut in half
- Seasonal fruits such as peaches cherries, or apples, peeled and cut into slices
- Cook the somen according to instructions on the package. Drain immediately and wash with your hands in cold water to cool completely and get rid of starch. Keep in cold water until ready to eat.
- Make the dipping sauce by combining the dashi stock, soy sauce, sake, and mirin in a small saucepan over a low heat. Taste and adjust seasonings: for a saltier sauce, add more soy sauce, for a sweeter one, more mirin. Chill before using; if made in advance, refrigerate until ready to use.
- To serve, place cubed ice in a large glass bowl or individual ones. Drain the somen and place it on the ice. Arrange the garnishes on top. Pour the dipping sauce into four small glass bowls and arrange mounds of condiments on a large dish or several small ones so that guests can mix whichever condiments they like into their sauce and use it as a dip for mouthfuls of somen, vegetables, and fruit
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