Somen (Japanese style angel hair pasta)

Chilled Noodles for Those Hot Summer Days

During the fierce dog days of summer in Japan, everyone tends to lose their appetite. And just when you think you might starve, here comes somen to the rescue! Somen, thin wheat noodles, are easy to make and easy to eat -- the perfect solution on hot, still days.
In the days before a/c, eating somen chilled in cool spring water on a lattice shaded veranda while listening to the sounds of insects trilling in the shade and the clear tones of wind chimes in the occasional breeze were measures we took to cool ourselves. These activities were all part of the warp and woof of the Japanese summer tapestry, and they are inseparable from the image of summer that we hold to this very day.
Let’s explore the wonderful appeal of these delicious noodles, so painstakingly made by professionals with years of apprenticeship and training behind them.

History of Somen

A product similar to somen is said to have been introduced from China to Japan during the Nara period (710 – 794). Called sakubei or muginawa, this distant relative of somen was made of wheat and rice flours, kneaded with water and salt, and twisted into a rope shape (saku means string, -bei refers to food items made from wheat; mugi means wheat, and -nawa means rope). While these are said to be the origin upon which today’s somen are based, there was no physical resemblance. Regarding the term somen, there is some speculation that perhaps somen might have come from sakubei which was altered to sakumen, then again to somen.

During the Muromachi Period (1335 – 1558), Japanese monks returning home from religious training in China brought with them the manufacturing process which gave birth to the prototype of the somen that we enjoy today. This method was a unique method of noodle making which consisted of gently hand-stretching highly elastic dough that had been brushed with oil and was made from finely mill-ground wheat flour. Due to the newly wide-spread use at that time of iron-made farm tools there was a dramatic rise in wheat production throughout the country which in turn created favorable conditions for noodle production. The new types of noodles were called somen, and they were first served as court food, at religious ceremonies, and the like.

Hand-Stretched Somen of Banshu

Of the “Big Three” somen producing areas, Miwa, Banshu (modern day Hyogo prefecture) and Shoudoshima, it is in the main producing centers of Banshu’s hand-stretched somen where we can find a written reference that dates back to over 600 years ago to somen being eaten in Banshu, showing the link between somen and Banshu. Along the Ibo River which courses through the open plains of Banshu, wheat cultivation thrived due to circumstances which made the region ideal, such as the pure, soft Ibo River water known for its low calcium and iron content and the fertile farm land in the river basin. Also, to the west of the river lies the famous mineral rich natural salt producing region of Ako, whose salt is used in Banshu somen. Moreover, the winter weather during the few months when somen is produced has limited rainfall and dry, clear days; the location along the Ibo River made it easy and convenient to transport the finished product. All the necessary conditions for somen manufacturing were met at this location, and Banshu’s somen production blossomed from around the Bunka Period (1804 – 1818) of the Edo era (1603 -- 1868), with Banshu becoming known as a location famous for somen production.

The location being as conducive as it was to wheat cultivation meant that many farmers began to make somen, some of whom, however, were less than scrupulous. This resulted in production of some inferior quality products which had the potential to tarnish the reputation of Banshu somen. In order to protect its reputation and uphold the standards of excellence upon which it prided itself, the Hyogo Prefecture Hand-Stretched Somen Cooperative was established in 1887. With the aid of this cooperative, and by a conscientious adherence to traditional hand-stretching techniques under a strict quality control system, Banshu has become Japan’s number one production area for hand-stretched somen, with Ibonoito, trademark registered in 1906, serving as the main trademark of Banshu somen. Nowadays, the name Ibonoito is the brand name synonymous with hand-stretched somen.

Ibonoito Somen
Ibonoito hand-stretched somen continues to be made only by highly skilled professionals who have undergone years of training and experience in the traditional method of production that has been handed down over generations in Banshu.

Wheat flour, salt and water are kneaded together to form the dough. By slowly and gently stretching the dough, a long large noodle is made and shaped into a coil; several of these coils are combined into one. This process is repeated several times. If the dough is stretched with too much force, it will break, so it is painstakingly and gently twisted as it is stretched, and then allowed to rest (ripen). This ripening and stretching and twisting process is also repeated several times over a 36-hour period including two nights. This process creates a noodle like no other due to the fact that the gluten (proteins in the flour) fibers become densely arranged in a rope-like manner, and this gluten wraps itself around the flour’s starches and keeps them in the noodle. The delicate strands of the cooked somen have a pearl-like luster and firm, springy texture. In spite of their thinness, when cooked just right, they have a perfect a la dente texture, with a soft yet firm, pleasant chewiness. It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that it is because these hand-stretched noodles are made with so much time and effort that they are peerless in texture and taste.

Some Pointers

Somen storage
Room Temperature: when storing somen at room temperature, keep it away from direct sunlight and place it in a dry, well-ventilated area. Somen has a tendency to absorb odors from its surrounding, so keep it separated from strong-smelling foods.

When storing somen in the refrigerator, place in a vacuum sealed container and keep it away from strong-smelling foods.

The knack to cooking somen just right is to use a large pot and plenty of boiling water. If you don’t have enough water, the salt that has been released from the noodles will be reabsorbed, and the noodles will also begin to clump together and develop a sticky texture which will compromise their flavor.

Drain the cooked noodles in a colander and cool with lots of cold running water. After the somen is completely cooled, keep the water running and use both hands to gently rub the somen, removing any starchy or slippery residue. This is the trick to giving your somen a beautiful shine. Next, drain the somen well so the noodles don’t lose their shape or absorb too much water.

Important: Before beginning this step, make sure that your hands don’t smell of soap or any other fragrance as it will be directly imparted to the somen.

Healthy, light and delicious, somen not only cooks in a flash, but will fit into any menu, hot or cold! Make a somen salad with seasonal fruits or veggies, or how about a seafood and seaweed dish, dressed in savory sesame sauce? Use it in place of pasta for an Italian-inspired dish, or replace the rice in curry rice for a meal your kids will love! Aside from enjoying chilled somen as a refreshing and soothing summertime dish, try it warm in soup (nyumen) with your favorite ingredients and seasonings. You can think of somen as a delicious blank slate, amenable to the temperature and flavors of your choosing!

How To Cook Somen

Place 3 bundles of somen into a large pot filled with 2 quarts boiling unsalted water, separating the strands as you add them. Stir once. Bring back to a boil.

After the water boils again, lower the heat so that the water doesn’t boil over. After 1 ½ to 2 minutes, the somen is ready.

Strain the somen and cool under running water. Using your hands, gently rub the cooled somen under the running water to rinse away any starchy residue. Plunge the strainer into a large bowl of ice water, then thoroughly drain the somen.