The summer of 2013 has been one of the hottest I can remember in Los Angeles, and we will probably have another heat wave in September. When temperatures creep into the intolerable level, the only thing that restores my energy, particularly my appetite, is to cool off.
Jumping into a cold shower or pool, or being near the sea, or under the shade of a big tree helps, but there is something just as good or effective: eat cooling foods. Chilled somen noodles are on the top of my list of cooling foods, along with chilled watermelon and snow cones. That’s a typical answer you will hear from most Japanese. Somen noodles make the perfect restorative cool meal and a nice appetizer before a barbecue.
Like angel-hair pasta, somen noodles are very thin wheat noodles that take only about two to four minutes to cook and about the same to chill. They are served in ice water, with ice cubes added to give the noodles that chilling factor.
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Somen can be made by hand or machine. The hand-stretched noodles are called tenobe somen. They are a delicacy and are slightly more expensive than the standard machine-made noodles. Teruaki Moriwaki from the village of Handa in the Tokushima prefecture of Shikoku Island in Japan is an artisan somen maker who makes them by hand. The Moriwakis used to be farmers, but when they lost their farmland in a landslide, they switched to noodle making, which they have done now for two generations. Even though it is physically demanding work, it seems to be the secret of their youthful looks. Moriwaki’s mother is in her late 70s but appears no more than 60.
To make the noodles, the Moriwakis follow a disciplined schedule, which starts at 4 a.m. The noodles have three main ingredients: wheat flour, water and salt. They source their wheat flour from Australia (most wheat flour used in Japan is imported), mineral-rich salt from Seto Inland Sea, and spring water from the Yoshino River.
While some machinery is used in the noodle-making process, they rely on their feet to stomp the dough and thin sticks to stretch the noodles by hand. When stretching the noodles, the hands move fast and rhythmically, like a concert master. Once the noodles are stretched to their ideal thickness, they are dried, cut and packaged. The Moriwakis’ dried somen noodles are known for being slightly thicker than other somen noodles, and they have a smooth slippery feeling in the throat when swallowed.
Somen noodles a versatile dish
The classic way to eat somen is with a cold soy- and mirin-based dipping sauce and a variety of herbs and condiments Japanese call yakumi — ginger, chopped scallions, chives, myoga (a gingery flower bud) and basil-like shiso leaves. These act not only to brighten the flavor of the noodles but also aid in digestion.
Other condiment choices can include roasted sesame seeds, chopped umeboshi (sour plum pickles) and spices such as shichimi and sansho peppers.
For a more substantial dish, you can slice up a variety of vegetables like kale, avocado, tomatoes and cucumbers. You can also serve chilled somen noodles with grilled eggplant, zucchini and peppers. Grilled meat and seafood also make a nice accompaniment.
To serve, arrange the condiments in small bowls around the chilled somen so guests can garnish the noodles with whatever condiments appeal to them. Pour the cold dipping sauce into the individual serving bowls. Use about one-third to one-half cup for each bowl. Start by adding a dash of shichimi pepper, a dab of ginger and a teaspoon of sliced scallions to the dipping sauce.
Now pick up a bunch of noodles out of the ice water with chopsticks or a fork and drop them into the sauce. At this time, you can put more garnishes on top, such as sliced shiso leaves, a teaspoon of sesame seeds, shredded chicken or cut nori seaweed. Eat it fast; you don’t want the noodles to become overpowered by the sauce. When you have finished the first round, go back and repeat what you just did. It’s not bad manners to slurp, so go ahead and make noise.
Iced Somen Noodles With Ginger, Herbs and Pickled Plum
Makes four 1-cup servings, each with 3½ ounces of noodles
Note: Dried somen noodles and other ingredients can be found at Japanese markets. To order Moriwaki’s Handa Somen Noodles, go to www.yagicho-honten.jp/. The contact is Mamiko Nishiyama.
The noodles take fewer than four minutes to cook, so have the soy-mirin dipping sauce and all the condiments ready to go before you cook the noodles.
For the condiments:
4 to 5 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds, grounded
4 scallions, white parts only, cut crosswise into ⅛-inch slices (discard green and root ends)
6 pickled plums (umeboshi), seeded and chopped to form a paste
¼ cup peeled and grated ginger, from about a 4-inch root (reserve the juice to serve with the grated ginger)
1 nori seaweed sheet, sliced thinly with scissors
For the noodles:
4 to 6 bundles of dried somen noodles (3½ ounces to 5 ounces each)
1. Prepare the condiments and put them on a platter or in individual small bowls to pass around. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve the noodles.
2. Cook the noodles in plenty of boiling water for 2 to 4 minutes, following the manufacturer’s instructions.
3. Rinse under running water and give the noodles a good massage to remove surface film.
4. Transfer to a serving bowl of water with ice cubes.
5. Serve immediately with the soy-mirin dipping sauce. (See recipe below.)
Soy-Mirin Dipping Sauce
Makes 4 servings
2 shitake mushrooms, softened in 3 cups of water overnight in the refrigerator.
5 ounces mirin (sweet sake)
5 ounces light-colored soy sauce (usukuchi-shoyu). If you cannot find light-colored soy sauce, use Koikuchi-shoyu
1½ cups bonito flakes (they should be large flakes)
1. In a medium-sized pan, bring the shitake and its soaking water to a boil.
2. Add the mirin, soy sauce and bonito flakes and reduce the heat. Simmer gently for 3 minutes to infuse the flavors.
3. Remove from heat, strain the sauce and discard the bonito flakes. Reserve the shiitake mushrooms; remove any tough stems and slice them thinly to use as a condiment for the noodles.
4. Let the dipping sauce come to room temperature and then refrigerate, covered until needed. The sauce will keep in the refrigerator for a week.
Top photo: Dried somen noodles. Credit: Sonoko Sakai