There is another type of noodles that has been enjoyed by the Japanese since time immemorial besides udon, ramen and soba – the somen. Usually served as a comfort food during summer days, somen noodles have come a very long way throughout the years.
The history of somen dates back to as early as the 8th century. According to historical records, it was believed that the Chinese brought these noodles to Japan during the Nara Period (710-794). The first somen was called somochi, where rice flour was used to make the noodles instead of wheat. The noodles were made by twisting the dough like a rope (i.e. la mian)–a technique used by the Chinese to warm the dough thereby allowing glutens to align.
Between 794-1185 also known as the Nara and Heian periods, the popularity of somen reached the Imperial Court. It was during these times when somen was served on special occasions. In fact, even Shintos and Buddhists encouraged people to eat somen particularly during the Tanabata Festival (every 7th of July) because of its healing power to prevent serious illnesses–a tradition that has been kept going all these years.
Wheat began to replace rice flour as the sole ingredient in making somen during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). These thin white, wheat noodles were served as a light meal (tenshin) at Buddhist temples during the Muromachi Period (1392-1573). Soon the popularity of somen spread to the lay people, especially in the western and southern regions of Japan where wheat was widely cultivated. Somen became very famous in Edo (now Tokyo) between 1603-1868 especially during the 18th century.
Records of people eating somen 600 years ago have also been documented in a diary of the Ikagura Temple in Ibo-gun, Hyogo. It was also written in the diary that somen manufacturers made a pledge to produce only the finest quality of somen in response to the deteriorating quality of somen at the time that it was mass-produced. To date, the Hyogo Prefecture holds the reputation of producing high-quality somen in Japan.
In keeping the tradition of noodle making, there are three main important things that noodle-makers must consider to achieve the best quality of somen: the thinness, smoothness, and whiteness of the noodles. People during the early periods and until today coat the noodle strands with oil to get a fine, silky smooth texture.
There were also accounts when somen used to be served in long strands. But because eating long noodles appear to be rather difficult these days, most people cut their somen before they eat them. Today, cut bundles of dried somen are the most popular gifts during mid-summer. However, only wealthy people could afford to buy high quality dried somen because these noodles are very expensive. The noodles are aged at a minimum of two to three years to improve the flavor and preserving quality.
One of the most famous styles in serving cold somen these days is nagashi somen. The small bundles of noodles in bamboo flues or in nagashi somen machines are bathed in a stream of clean cold water. But some people also serve the noodles with ice cubes.
Summer: Time to try Nagashi Somen