On a hot summer day nothing refreshes like cold, wet noodles. Japan eats a rice-based diet most of the year, but in the summertime, to lighten the hot-weather menu and relieve pressure on dwindling rice storage from the previous fall, the population turns to cold noodles.

The three representative noodles in Japan are somen, udon and soba. Somen, and its stepchild, the slightly thicker hiya mugi, are perhaps the most refreshing during the dog days of summer, as they are both served immersed in ice water. Somen makes for a cooling yet filling lunch scooped out one mouthful at a time and enjoyed with a chilled dipping sauce. To make it into a more complete meal, serve somen with one or two boiled shrimp or some grilled shiitake mushrooms. It is also often seen in restaurants paired with sushi or broiled eel over rice (unagi donburi).

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Hiyashi somen (Cold somen)

A common chugen (summer gift), somen may be found displayed for sale in supermarkets and department stores in attractive wooden boxes. As a side dish to a meal, generally one portion per person will suffice; as a main dish, use two or three bundles per person.

8-12 bundles somen
2 cups (360 cc) dipping sauce (tsuke jiru)
1 bunch scallions (ao negi)
finely chopped and rinsed ginger, grated sesame seeds, toasted and ground laver (nori seaweed), toasted and cut into fine strips

1) Boil a good amount of water — about a 950 cc for every 2-3 bundles — and add bundles one at a time, unwrapping and scattering noodles in the boiling water. Stir noodles to separate and prevent clumping. Adding the noodles will bring the temperature of the water down for a moment, but it should return to a boil shortly.

2) When water returns to the boil, add 200-300 cc cold water to reduce heat. When the water boils once again, the noodles will be done.

3) Strain and rinse with cool water and immediately immerse in large bowl of ice water.

4) Serve as is, with one-half cup of dipping sauce in an individual dish per person — scallions, ginger, sesame seeds and nori garnishing the sauce. Serves four.

Tsuku jiru (dipping sauce)

Hot noodles are presented in a hot broth (kake jiru), but when eating cold somen noodles you will need a dipping sauce (tsuke jiru), served on the side. Tsuke jiru, also called somen dashi, or sometimes somen tsuyu, may be labeled in a store with any one of these terms. While store-bought dipping sauces are quick and convenient, nothing can reproduce the taste of a tsuke jiru made at home with dashi that you have just prepared.

Somen dashi is made with an easy ratio referred to in a professional kitchen as an “usukuchi 3:1:1.” Most sauces and cooking broths are described with similar ratios. The word at the beginning tells you the type of shoyu (soy sauce), in this case light soy sauce (usukuchi shoyu). The numbers refer to ratio of katsuo dashi to mirin to shoyu: for every three parts katsuo dashi, one part mirin and one part (usukuchi) shoyu. Sometimes you will hear one additional number, for example, koikuchi 4:2:1:1. This last number refers to sake. So, four parts dashi, two parts mirin and one part each koikuchi shoyu and sake.

Unlike store-bought sauces made with preservatives that keep almost indefinitely, this tsuke jiru made with fresh katsuo dashi must be refrigerated and will keep a week to 10 days.

3 cups (540 cc) katsuo dashi (see
The Japan Times, April 22, 2001
1 cup (180 cc) mirin
1 cup (180 cc) usukuchi shoyu

1) Combine ingredients in a cooking pot and bring just to a boil.

2) Remove from heat and cool in an ice bath.

3) Store refrigerated in a bottle for up to 10 days.

A note on the garnishes: Scallions finely chopped, rinsed to remove the sulfuric taste and drained to remove all water are called arai negi (washed scallions) or sarashi negi (rinsed scallions). Peel ginger and grate on an oroshigane grater. Grind toasted sesame seeds (goma) in a mortar (suribachi) or buy pre-ground seeds (kiri goma). Nori may be purchased toasted (yaki nori) or toasted at home over a very low flame, turning quickly from a shade of green to a deeper brownish color. It is best cut at home with a pair of sharp scissors but may also be bought — most conveniently — already roasted and cut very fine, as hari nori (needle laver).

Next week big fat cold noodles: zaru udon.

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