All You Need To Know About Japanese Somen Noodles: A Refreshing Bowl of Japan's Summer Icon
Among the bounty of cool, energizing foods enjoyed during Japan's steamy summers, few are as beloved and refreshing as somen noodles. The act of catching somen noodles as they flow down a bamboo chute filled with cold water is a playful and enjoyable experience for children and adults alike. These thin white wheat noodles have been part of Japanese cuisine for centuries and are a quintessential food of the season. These fine somen noodles are not only a culinary delight but also an integral part of the country's culinary culture.
A Brief History of Somen Noodles
Somen noodles have a rich and storied history that dates back several centuries. While their exact origins are somewhat unclear, it is believed that somen noodles were introduced to Japan from China during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). Over time, Japanese chefs refined the preparation and presentation of somen noodles, turning them into a distinct culinary art form.
One of the key historical figures associated with the development of somen is a Japanese monk named Enni Ben'en, who is said to have brought back somen-making techniques from China in the 14th century. Enni's contribution to somen's evolution in Japan is celebrated, and he is often referred to as the "father of somen."
Characteristics of Somen Noodles
Somen noodles are made from wheat flour, salt, and water, which gives them their delicate and translucent appearance. They are thin, typically less than 1.3 millimeters in diameter, making them one of the thinnest types of noodles in the world. The fine texture of somen noodles is achieved through a meticulous rolling and stretching process that requires exceptional skill.
These noodles are available in various lengths, with the most common being around 20-30 centimeters. Somen noodles are typically served cold and are enjoyed during the warmer months, as they make for a refreshing and light meal. They can also be served hot, especially in soups during the colder seasons.
Making somen noodles is a labor-intensive process that requires a high level of precision and expertise. The traditional method involves mixing wheat flour and water to create a dough. This dough is then rolled out to a very thin sheet and cut into thin strips. These strips are carefully stretched, sometimes using bamboo or wooden poles, to create the desired thickness and texture. The somen noodles are then air-dried, giving them their unique texture.
In modern times, machines are often used to produce somen noodles more efficiently. However, artisanal somen makers still use traditional methods to preserve the authenticity and quality of this beloved food.
How to Enjoy Somen in Home
Somen noodles can be enjoyed in various dishes and are often served in elegant and creative presentations. Here are a few popular ways to savor somen:
- Somen Salad: Cold somen noodles are commonly served in a salad, paired with a range of fresh vegetables, proteins like grilled chicken or shrimp, and a flavorful dipping sauce.
- Somen Noodle Soup: Hot somen noodle soups are comforting and are perfect for warming yourself up on a chilly day. The noodles are typically served in a flavorful broth with ingredients like green onions, mushrooms, and tofu.
- Somen with Tsuyu Dipping Sauce: This is perhaps the most classic way to enjoy somen. The noodles are served cold, and a dipping sauce called tsuyu, made from soy sauce, mirin, and dashi. Some like to add condiments like grated ginger, wasabi, or green onions to enhance the flavor.
- Somen Noodle Rolls: Somen noodles can be wrapped in nori seaweed and served as a roll, often accompanied by sashimi or other toppings.
While somen is humble fare, there's an art to eating it properly to enhance flavors and textures. Follow these pro tips:
- Eat cold: Chilled somen is most refreshing on hot days. Add ice to the dipping broth.
- Don't overcook: For an al dente texture, boil only 1-2 minutes. Rinse in cold water immediately after.
- Using your chopsticks well: Twirling the noodles around your chopsticks will prevent them from breaking. Don't slurp them directly.
- Dip quickly: Only dip the noodles briefly to prevent them from oversoftening in the broth.
- Try original dipping sauces: Popular tsuyu flavors are chilled bonito, sweet sesame, spicy ground radish, or miso.
- Add condiments: Many top somen with thin myōga ginger slices, mitsuba leaves, shiso, chopped negi, or shredded nori.
- Mind your manners: Eat somen silently without slurping. The subtle flavors deserve full focus.