The other day we lined up for standing-room tickets to see the grand sumo tournament here in Osaka. It must have been 10 years since I had attended a tournament — it only comes to Osaka once a year.
Back in the days when I first became a sumo watcher, I had neither a television nor a bath in my very affordable 4 1/2-mat room tucked behind the souvenir stalls in front of Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion, at the northern head of the riverside Philosophers Walk in Kyoto. A student at the time, I was an ardent early follower of the now retired yokozuna (and fellow American) Akebono.
So in order to catch each one of the 15 days of a tournament, friends and I would assemble at the neighborhood bath, where we would sit in various stages of undress with our eyes glued to the TV hanging suspended from the changing-room ceiling. Every day, from 4 until 6 o’clock, we made gentlemen’s bets as to who would win the tournament and commented on our favorite wrestler of the day.
The soft-spoken grandmother who took our bath tickets with a lilting “oide yasu” kept an eye on us from her perch that looked down on both the women’s and men’s changing rooms. After getting used to conversing with this lady while completely naked and dripping wet, I soon felt part of the community she watched over. She treated us all like family. On sumo days she would even bring in hand-formed onigiri rice balls, filled with sansho pepper-seasoned little jako fish for the starving students. She taught us that sumo is really just another excuse to get together with friends and eat.
At the Osaka gymnasium last week, I was reminded of that fact. Standing-room tickets actually afford a good view of the wrestlers — and, equally important, a bird’s-eye view of the fans. For the tournament, the gymnasium seats are covered with elaborate scaffolding that gives every ticketholder an on-the-floor seat in a semiprivate space. When good-natured Japanese get together for any occasion seated on the floor, the atmosphere can quickly shift into enkai-jotai party mode — and grand sumo is no exception.
I had forgotten how much food people bring to the tournament. The small feasts seem to explode somewhere between raucous cherry-blossom-viewing hanami picnics and the refined eating of “between the curtain” maku-no-uchi bento at a kabuki performance. Halftime at the sumo tournament is called naka-iri, and by this point die-hard fans have been sitting in their seats for hours. This is just the opportunity to break out the last of the fixings and wash them down with one more cold beer.
The disadvantage of standing-room seats is the inability to go into this festive binge mode. So by the end of the day, after yokozuna Asashoryu had won, we headed out and boarded the train at Namba with one thing in mind: filling our stomachs.
The weather outside was right in between a crisp, early spring day and a winter that just won’t say goodbye. We decided that a hot bowl of noodles would be the logical opener. Since we were in a patriotic wa mood, all pumped up by the sumo, we decided to forgo Chinese/Korean-style ramen and eat something more native. While I adore soba, and as a resident of Kansai have a sworn allegiance to udon, I was really in the mood for somen. There was too much of a chill in the air for cold somen noodles, so we opted for the underrated hot alternative, nyumen.
Nyumen, written with the characters for “simmered noodles,” is the hot cousin of the ubiquitous chilled summer somen. While there are restaurants in Japan dedicated to hot and cold soba and udon, there are very few with cold somen as the star of the menu, and even fewer, if any, featuring just hot nyumen. The dish is more likely to pop up as the final course in place of a rice dish.
I am a huge somen fan — I break down and eat cold somen at least once every winter, and make ripping, hot nyumen for lunch all through the cold months. Nyumen broth should be a simple katsuo-konbu dashi, seasoned with light soy sauce and mirin. The thin, white-flour noodles are complemented by a piece of chicken and some shiitake added to the soup. Other green leafy vegetables, like spinach or mizuna may be added to round out the dish.
The somen noodles should be cooked the same way as for cold consumption. Add the dry noodles all at once to a good amount of rapidly boiling water. When the water returns to the boil a minute or so later, half a cup of water — called bikkuri mizu or surprise water — is added to stop the boil. When the water boils again, after just a minute or two, the noodles are quickly drained and rinsed in cold water to remove excess starch. It is very easy to overcook somen noodles, so take care.
The broth is made in a ratio of 12:1:1 (dashi: usukuchi shoyu:mirin). Chicken thigh (avoid less-flavorful breast meat) should be boned, but with the skin left on. Even if you don’t eat the skin, the flavor it imparts to the soup is wonderful, adding very few calories. Like other hot Japanese noodle dishes, nyumen should be served with ground ichimi (a chili powder somewhere between cayenne and paprika) or shichimi seven spice. I have an 180cc ladle and a 30cc ladle that make measuring this recipe a cinch.
360 cc dashi (ichiban or katsuo-konbu or a light chicken stock)
30 cc usukuchi shoyu (light soy sauce)
30 cc mirin
50 grams chicken thigh, boneless and with skin
1 shiitake mushroom
1 handful baby spinach leaves
2 bundles dry somen noodles
1) Heat the dashi and add the shoyu and mirin.
2) Cut the chicken and shiitake into bite-size pieces and add to the broth.
3) When chicken is cooked through (in about one or two minutes) set broth aside.
4) Wash spinach and set aside.
5) Cook noodles as described above, rinsing quickly, but not cooling when cooked. Drain noodles and place in serving bowl.
6) Add the spinach to the broth and heat until just about to boil. Pour the hot broth over the noodles and serve.
7) Garnish with shichimi. Serves one.
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