If a Japanese dish bears the name chūka, meaning Chinese, chances are it’s not really Chinese at all, but a Japanese invention with Chinese-inspired flavors.

Such is the case with hiyashi chūka, a cold noodle dish that is a popular summertime fixture. While there are cold noodles dishes in real Chinese cuisine, they are usually cooled down by rinsing them briefly at most, or fanning them. But the Chinese-style noodles used for hiyashi chūka are cooled in the same way more traditional Japanese noodles such as soba, sōmen, hiyamugi and udon are — by rinsing them vigorously in several changes of cold water, rubbing away any surface starch. The cold water treatment not only stops the cooking process and cools down the noodles quickly, it’s also believed to improve the texture by firming them up. Another name for hiyashi chūka (the name used depends on what region you’re in) is hiyashi ramen — chilled ramen — and that’s essentially what it is; a cold version of the Japanese-adapted version of Chinese noodle soup.

While there are mentions in Japanese publications of Chinese-style cold noodles dating back to the 1920s, the most popular theory for how this dish was born holds that it was invented in the city of Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture, at a Chinese restaurant called Ryutei, in the summer of 1937.

Back then, in the days before air conditioning, Chinese restaurants had a hard time attracting customers during the hot summer months since the cuisine had a reputation for being oily and “heavy.” The local Chinese food makers’ association met at the restaurant (which is still in business, by the way,) to brainstorm ideas for light, refreshing dishes that would fill lure in customers when the mercury began to rise. They came up with what is thought to be the forerunner of modern hiyashi chūka — a dish of noodles cooled in water, sprinkled with oil to prevent them from getting too hard, and topped with sliced cucumber and carrots, boiled cabbage, tomatoes and char siu (Cantonese-style roast pork).

The sauce poured over the noodles and toppings was made with a chicken stock base with soy sauce and vinegar. Called ryan-ban-men (in Chinese liang ban mian, but quite different from the northern Chinese noodle dish with that name), it quickly became popular in the Chinese restaurants of Sendai and spread around the country.

Up until a few years ago, the sign put out by ramen shops and Chinese restaurants saying hiyashi chūka hajimemashita — now serving hiyashi chūka — was informally regarded as a sign that summer had really arrived.

Nowadays the start of hiyashi chūka season is not as clear-cut, since it’s available everywhere from family restaurants to convenience stores as early as March. In any case, the cool, slippery noodles are a welcome treat when the heat and humidity make appetites flag.

Hiyashi chūka is exceptionally easy to create at home, and you can make it quite nutritious by adding lots of healthy toppings. The sauce is going to decide the flavor of this dish. Here, I’ve given you two choices, a refreshing lemonbased sauce and a hearty sesame sauce.

Hiyashi chūka (Cold Chinese-style noodles)

Serves 2

100g cooked meat such as chicken, ham, char siu or roast beef, julienned (here I’ve used chicken)
2 soft-boiled eggs, halved
240g (2 hanks) fresh Chinese style noodles
1/2 tablespoon sesame oil
1 small cucumber, julienned
1 medium tomato, cut into wedges
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons shredded pickled red ginger (beni-shōga)
2 teaspoons Japanese-style mustard

For the lemon sauce:
50 ml chicken stock (or 100 ml water + 1/4 teaspoon chicken stock granules)
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons Japanese Worcestershire-style sauce (e.g. Bulldog)
a pinch of salt

For the sesame sauce:
100 ml chicken stock (or 100 ml water + 1/2 teaspoon chicken stock granules)
3 tablespoons ground sesame paste (nerigoma) or Chinese sesame paste (zhimajiang)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1/2 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon Chinese chili paste (doubanjiang)
1 teaspoon grated ginger
1 teaspoon grated garlic

Combine the sauce ingredients of your choice in a small bowl until the sugar has dissolved. Refrigerate while you prepare the noodles and toppings.
Bring two liters of water to a boil. Unravel the noodles as you drop them in the boiling water. When the water boils again, lower the heat and cook the noodles for about two minutes, or until a strand is just beyond al dente. Drain the noodles and transfer immediately to a bowl filled with cold water. Rinse the noodles under cold running water, rubbing the noodles to remove any surface starch. When the noodles are completely cold, drain well. Sprinkle with 1/2 tablespoon of sesame oil.
Put the noodles and toppings on a plate or in a bowl. Pour on the sauce, and serve with the mustard on the side.

(Makiko Itoh)

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