In the sweltering summer, it is inevitable that your appetite might be affected and that you will probably crave for something light and cooling. In that case, why not try some somen which can give you that much-needed energy boost and refreshing feeling during the summer season? Read on to find out more about the somen which is a common sight on Japanese dining tables!
Somen (そうめん or 素麺) is a type of noodle made from wheat flour and is usually sold in dry form as seen in the photo above. First, wheat flour, salt, and water are mixed together and kneaded into a dough. Menjitsuyu i.e. cottonseed oil (綿実油), cooking oil, or starch flour is applied onto the dough which is then lengthened by hand into long and thin noodles, dried, and left to mature before they are cut shorter for packaging. This type of somen is called tenobe somen (手延べそうめん) i.e. somen lengthened by hand. In recent years, though, the development of machines which can cut the noodles short first before drying them has resulted in a new type of somen called kikai somen (機械そうめん) i.e. machinery somen.
According to the Japanese Agricultural Standards for dried noodles, there are strict requirements on the size of the somen. For the tenobe somen, the circumference of the noodles must not be more than 1.7 mm or else it will be classified as tenobe udon. On the other hand, the kikai somen’s circumference must be between 1.3 mm and 1.7 mm or it will be considered as udon. The color of the plain somen is usually white but you may find some types with a yellowish tinge which is due to the season when the somen was made and it does not affect the quality nor taste of the somen.
Generally, dry noodles can be kept for a long time and somen is said to taste better if it’s kept for a while before consumption since the oil content will gradually seep out. However, if it’s kept for too long, the somen’s taste will be affected when the oil oxidizes and it will be prone to contamination by tobacco beetles. To prevent such issues, the somen should be stored in a well-ventilated and dry place but not in cabinets and drawers. As somen is prone to absorbing the smell of other items, it is important to avoid placing items such as soap or cosmetics near the somen. Last but not least, on fine days, bring out the somen from the box and dry them in the shade over a few hours as this will prevent bugs and mold from building up.
Nowadays, somen does not just come in a single flavor or color as there are new ingredients that are added to make variations of somen such as:
- Matcha or shiso somen (green)
- Strawberry somen (light pink)
- Ume somen (light red)
- Sake somen
- Ago somen made from flying fish
- Iyokan somen (dark orange)
- Olive somen
During joyous occasions, the pink and white somen are usually used since they are auspicious colors. In Matsuyama City, Ehime Prefecture, there is a type of goshoku somen (五色そうめん) which contains five colors i.e. red, yellow, green, brown and white.
There is a by-product from the somen production process i.e. fushimen (節麺) which are parts of the dough that are stuck on the sticks used to hang the somen for drying and maturing. As such, they do not have the same shape and thickness as the somen sold to consumers. Although the ingredients of the fushimen are the same as the somen, its shape resembles the conchiglie or macaroni and retains the salt content even after being boiled. It is usually used in hotpot dishes, stews, or miso soup rather than being eaten in the same way as somen.
There are different classifications for the somen which you should be aware of when buying. As mentioned earlier, the longer the somen is left to mature, the taste is said to be better. As such, there are special categories of somen which are deliberately left to mature for at least a year before they are sold to the consumers. Those which have been left to mature for more than a year are called hinemono (古物), while those which have gone through the process for more than two years are called oohine (大古). The best type of matured somen is said to be those ranging between two and three years.
In addition, the thickness of the somen also plays a major role in determining the price. The thinnest type which is also regarded as the best and most expensive is kamisugi (神杉), while subsequent ranks in descending order are odamaki (緒環), mizugaki (瑞垣), and homare (誉). However, some manufacturers do not make a clear distinction between some of these categories or use different types for each category of somen but you can still identify them by the torii band used to separate the somen into batches. Gold bands are usually for mizugaki while black ones are for homare. In the past, it was not common to see very thin somen since the gluten content in the wheat produced in Japan was rather low so it was difficult to make such thin ones by hand. However, with advancements in technology, it has become possible to achieve the thinness seen in the top-grade somen these days.
Historical records suggest that somen was inspired by the Chinese confectionery sakubei (索餅) which was known as muginawa in Japanese i.e. wheat rope (麦縄) during the Nara era from the Tang empire. This led to the creation of the somen at Sakurai City in Nara Prefecture which is recognized as the hometown of somen in Japan. At that time, the sakubei was made from glutinous rice and wheat flour to form the stick dough where two pieces were twisted together before being deep-fried in oil. This snack was said to guard against getting malaria in summer so it was eaten during Tanabata in the Heian era and was an offering item during the Tanabata rites in the palace. By the Muromachi era, the somen came to look like how it is today although the terms sakubei and somen were still used interchangeably.
As the Miwa area of Sakurai City has the longest history in making somen and most of the production bases scattered around the country had acquired knowledge of the production process from there, the market rate for somen has been determined by Miwa traditionally. Its leading position as a somen manufacturer was also due to the fact that the area used to be a producer of cottonseed oil which is an essential ingredient in somen. However, it came to light in 2000 that 70 percent of the somen said to be produced in Miwa was actually from Shimabara in Nagasaki Prefecture when three major manufacturers of somen were passing off their products as those produced entirely in Miwa. Since then, only the somen made in Miwa is tagged as such while those produced in Shimabara and other places are no longer branded as Miwa somen even if the manufacturers are based in Miwa.
Somen is a staple on the Japanese dining table during joyous and mourning occasions. In the Kyushu region, there is a dish called tai-somen (鯛素麺) or taimen (鯛麺) which contains an entire tai i.e. sea bream with boiled somen that is eaten with the tai’s broth. Depending on the location, there are some modifications to this dish such as adding omelet strips, thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms, spring onions, and ginger.
As for mourning occasions, the nyuumen (にゅうめん) is served during the wake or the religious ceremony in the funeral. Somen is also served as an offering during the Urabone (盂蘭盆会) to pray for good fortune. In places like Sendai City, somen is eaten to ward off evil spirits and to pray for the health of children. Apparently, this practice was said to originate from a Chinese belief that children who died young would come back as spirits to spread the plague so people would offer the sakubei to the spirits since it was a favorite food item of children.
Although somen is a versatile noodle which can be used in various dishes, I will introduce the two most common ways of eating it during summer.
First up is the hiyashi somen (冷やしそうめん) i.e. chilled somen which is a common sight during the summer season. Although it looks like a simple dish, there are some key points to take note of while preparing this:
- Ensure that there is enough water in the pot when boiling your somen. It is recommended that you use at least 3 liters of water for 4 portions of somen and that the somen must be spread open when put into the pot. While cooking it under high heat, use chopsticks to stir the somen quickly. If you have too little water or you do not stir quickly enough, the somen will tend to become a huge lump just like dango i.e. rice balls.
- Follow the cooking time indicated on the packaging of the somen. For thinner somen, the cooking time required is shorter than that of the thicker ones. If you are planning to cook the somen further such as in stir-fried dishes or nyuumen which uses a hot dipping sauce, you should not overcook it at this boiling stage.
- Get rid of the sliminess by washing the somen in cold water. Upon cooking, there is this slimy sensation on the somen which can be removed by washing it under running water. If this step is skipped, the somen loses its springy texture and shine. Once the somen is cool, it can then be served directly or placed in a bowl of ice as shown in the photo above.
With regards to the tsuyu (つゆ) i.e. dipping sauce eaten with the somen, there are three common versions. One is the basic type which is made of mirin, soy sauce, and water. The sesame version uses the same ingredients as well but has bonito flakes, oil from white sesame, and vinegar. Last but not least, the miso version uses salad oil, red miso, dashi, sugar, grated ginger, and cayenne pepper powder. As such, depending on your preferences, you can choose to match your somen with any of these three types of tsuyu.
In the event that you find that making your own tsuyu is a hassle, most food manufacturers offer ready-made somen tsuyu which can be easily found in supermarkets. Typically, such ready-made tsuyu will contain soy sauce, dashi, mirin, and sugar for a sweet and spicy taste.
The hiyashi somen is a relatively simple dish since it contains only the somen, tsuyu, and condiments such as spring onions and grated ginger. However, you don’t have to limit yourself to these ingredients and you can put in your favorite items such as omelet, cucumber strips, and prawns.
Nagashi somen is somewhat like an upgraded version of the hiyashi somen with a fun factor as people line up along the waterway made from bamboo poles and try to pick up the somen that flows in running water from the top to the bottom with their chopsticks. It is a fun activity for friends and family as they compete to pick up the somen which is dipped into the cups of tsuyu they are holding in their hands. On the 27th of July 2014, the students at Kikuchi Senior High School in Kumamoto set a record for having the longest nagashi somen waterway at 3,328 meters.
Nowadays, due to space constraints and for ease of preparation, there are rotation-style nagashi somen machines where the somen flows not from top to bottom but rather in a circular motion. Such machines usually have spaces in the center for the somen and other condiments as featured in the photo above. In the Kyushu region, especially in Kagoshima, this way of eating nagashi somen is actually more prevalent than the use of bamboo poles. Comparatively, this method might be easier for children or those who are poor at using chopsticks to pick up their somen than if you are to use the bamboo pole method.
Having read so much about the somen, are you ready to make your own and enjoy this refreshing delicacy with your friends and family while having some summer fun?