Soba, udon and ramen noodles are all well-known outside of Japan, but sōmen — the thin, white wheat noodles that are similar to Italian angel hair pasta — is not as famous. Yet these delicate noodles are very versatile, since they can be served either hot or cold, and since they’re so thin, they cook in no time. Cold sōmen with a chilled mentsuyu (noodle dipping sauce) is especially welcome on sweltering summer days, since they go down so easily — even if you have no appetite.
The first references of thin noodles to appear in documents date from the Nara Period (710-794) and indicate the noodles originated in China. Called sōmochi, they were made of rice flour and were twisted like rope, and eaten at the Imperial Court on special occasions throughout the Nara and Heian (794-1185) periods. Thin noodles made with wheat instead of rice flour started being made during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), and there are accounts of very thin wheat noodles being served regularly as a light meal (known as tenshin) at Buddhist temples during the Muromachi Period (1392-1573). Sōmen noodles gradually spread to the general populace, mainly in areas where wheat was grown, such as western and southern Japan. By the 18th century, during the middle of the Edo Period (1603-1868), sōmen reached Edo (now present-day Tokyo), though it was the region around present-day Hyogo Prefecture that was especially renowned for producing top-quality thin noodles.
Noodle-makers were judged by how thin, smooth and white their sōmen was. To achieve a fine, silky smoothness it is common practice — since the early days — to coat the strands with a little oil. (Most commercially produced sōmen is still made this way, although there are oil-free versions, too.) Sōmen used to be served in long strands rather than the short, cut version that is eaten today.
Eating long noodles was awkward, though, so most people cut them up before eating them. There are rakugo (comic storytelling) routines describing people wrapping uncut sōmen around their necks, draping it over their ears, and even hanging it from an upstairs window to eat it below.
Cut bundles of dried sōmen noodles — the form that’s most common today — have been around since the early days, too, often carefully packaged and given as gifts among the wealthy. Dried sōmen keeps very well; it actually used to be aged for two to three years (sometimes even longer) before it was shipped, to improve the flavor and maintain quality. Boxes of sōmen are still popular chugen (mid-summer gifts).
Sōmen has been associated with both Shinto and Buddhist ceremonies. In particular it has been associated with the annual July 7 Tanabata festival since the Heian Period, when it was believed that eating sōmen on that day would ward off serious illness.
A popular way to serve cold sōmen is nagashi sōmen, where small bundles of the noodles are sent down a stream of cold, clean water to be caught by the chopsticks of diners downstream. This is usually done by sending the noodle bundles down a bamboo flue. There are also electronic nagashi sōmen machines, where the noodles move around in a circulating water bath. I prefer to just serve sōmen on a bed of ice cubes, which keeps the noodles nicely chilled — plus you don’t have to chase your food around with chopsticks.
Recipe: Chilled sōmen noodles with mentsuyu dipping sauce
Preparation time: 30 minutes
Ingredients for mentsuyu (noodle sauce) base. Makes 500ml:
- 150 ml mirin
- 100 ml sake
- 250 ml dark soy sauce
- 1 to 2 tablespoons sugar (optional)
- A 10-cm square piece konbu seaweed
- 30 grams bonito flakes
- 6 bundles sōmen (about 560 grams)
- Cold water
- Ice cubes
- 2 ripe tomatoes, sliced into wedges
- ½ kamaboko fish cake, sliced
- Garnishes: chopped green onion, sliced myōga (Japanese ginger), shredded green shiso leaves.
Put all the mentsuyu ingredients in a pan. Bring to a boil slowly, over a low-medium flame, then turn off the heat and leave to cool. Strain and store in a clean jar. This base will keep in the refrigerator for a month, and can be used for cold soba, udon or hiyamugi (a thinner version of udon), too.
Bring a large pot of water (at least 5 liters) to a boil. Drop the bundles of sōmen into the water while taking off the paper wrappers. Cook for about two minutes, then drain. Rinse the noodles with cold water until the noodles feel firm rather than sticky. Drain well.
Put some ice cubes on a large plate, and arrange the noodles in small bundles on top. Put the tomatoes and kamaboko on top or on a separate plate. Dilute the mentsuyu with an equal amount of ice-cold water, and serve in individual bowls with the garnishes on the side.