Summer Fun! Somen Fun!
Historically Japanese houses were constructed to promote cross-breezes to combat the sweltering heat of summer. Yet however architecture may be designed with ‘coolness’ in mind, there’s no denying that in Japan summer is a hot, humid and sticky affair. Apart from indoor air-conditioning units, fans and shaved ice, the Japanese have come up with many ‘natural’ ways to combat heat: eating foods that fortify the body against high temperatures, telling ghost stories to get a shiver down the spine, and enjoying refreshing sounds (supposedly, the tinkle of a windchime is considered one). Yet by far one of the most beloved and truly cooling foods of summer is somen.
Traditionally made only of wheat, salt and water, these delicate, extremely thin noodles are most commonly served cold, dipped in an icy broth and slurped up in a single mouthful.Like many noodles, they originate in China and were first imported in the Heian Period (roughly 800-1200 C.E.). Throughout Japan different regions have come to be known for their somen production, and all will claim to be authentic.Over the centuries these noodles have taken on a cultural association: they are the preferred meal on Tanabata, an astrological phenomenon and corresponding festival that occurs on July 7. Like the noodles themselves, this festival originates in China, celebrating the celestial union of the Vega and Altair starswhich annually cross the Milky Way and reunite for one night only. According to legend, these two stars are represented by the Princess Weaver (Orihime) and the humble Cow-herder (Hikoboshi) who throughout the years have continued an interstellar romance. The ultra-thin strands of the somen are reminiscent to the threads of a weaver’s loom, and paired with sliced okra, which has a natural star-like shape, the combination has cosmic connotations (see below).
Somen isn’t just eaten to cool down or taste the heavens. It’s also a way to have fun in the summer time. Nagashi-somenor ‘flowing’ somen is another way to eat these delicate noodles. Most commonly cooked noodles are funneled down an open bamboo trough and participants capture them with their chopsticks. My preferred method is the mechanical. Somewhat akin to currents generated in water amusement parks, table-top machines propel ice-cold water in a vessel. Catching the somen in your chopsticks, you quickly dip and enjoy. Try making it for yourself, here!