Somen: Chilled, the Japanese noodles are a summer delight

Iced somen noodles with chicken and vegetables with spicy ginger sesame sauce
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

“When I slurp a bowl of somen noodles it becomes a summer breeze.”

I am at the Granada Market, the neighborhood mom-and-pop grocery in West Los Angeles where I get my Japanese staples. The fish counter looks cheerful with roses and dahlias from the owner’s garden in empty milk bottles. A samurai saga is playing on satellite television. The volume is a tad too high, but I don’t complain because it’s part of the funky atmosphere here that has comforted me for more than 20 years.

The owner’s handprinted signs draw attention to premium Kobe beef, Meiji tofu and Jidori chicken. He has put aside a piece of toro for me, which I didn’t even order. But it’s wrapped and ready to go, so I am committed. There is a fresh-looking wasabi root next to the tuna. I ask him whether he will sell me just half. He does. My shopping cart fills up quickly and dangerously as I submit to my cravings and his sales pitches.

But it’s when I go down the narrow aisle of the noodle section that I really get excited because I see the food that for me defines summer eating -- somen.

All Japanese noodles, including somen, udon and soba, can be eaten hot or cold, but it is somen that stars during the hot summer months because Japanese consume them in enormous quantities to stay cool. It’s beloved to the point that in haiku, somen is a word that signifies summer.

Why are somen so extraordinarily cooling? Like angel hair pasta, somen is a very thin wheat noodle that takes only about two minutes to cook and about the same to chill. They are served in ice water with ice cubes added to give the noodles that extra chilling factor. This is what makes the experience of slurping somen so smooth and satisfying in the summertime.

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.

The classic way to eat somen is with a cold soy- and mirin-based dipping sauce, and an assortment of herbs and condiments Japanese call yakumi -- ginger, wasabi, chopped scallions, chives, myoga (a gingery flower bud) and minty shiso leaves.

Other choices can include roasted sesame seeds, chopped umeboshi (sour plum pickles) and spices such as shichimi and sansho peppers. You can also deviate from the classic recipe and try a fusion of Korean or Chinese fermented bean pastes or chile oil added to a soy-ginger-sesame-based dressing to give a nice heat.

Arrange everything in bowls around the chilled somen so each guest can garnish the noodles with whatever condiments appeal.

Pour the cold dipping sauce into the individual serving bowls. Use about one-third cup for each bowl. If you have beginning noodle slurpers, you can be the first person to demonstrate. Start by adding a pinch of sesame seeds, a dash of shichimi peppers, a dab of ginger or wasabi, and a teaspoon of sliced scallions to the dipping sauce.

Now pick up a bunch of noodles (enough for a mouthful or two) out of the ice water with your chopsticks and drop them into the sauce. At this time, you can put more garnishes on top, such as shiso, myoga, shredded chicken and cut nori seaweed. Do it quickly; you don’t want the sauce to overpower the noodles. Lift the bowl with one hand and use the chopsticks in the other to pick up a mouthful of the noodles and garnishes and give them a slurp. Slurping is not considered bad manners. It’s part of the noodle eating ritual. So go ahead and make that noise.

When you have finished the first round, go back and repeat what you just did.

Somen is typically eaten for lunch but can be served as an appetizer or side dish with grilled chicken, beef, shrimp or even sliced ham.

Slurping a bowl of cold somen is a good reason to shut off your air-conditioner and feel the heat of the summer and the cool of the noodles. As a girl, I survived the horrible muggy summers in Japan without air-conditioning in the house. With my brothers and sisters, we fought for the cool breeze of the single electric fan. Or went to the beach to swim.

But by far, the best solution for cooling down was eating cold somen. Grandmother would use an ice pick to break the big block of ice. We’d sit on the cool tatami mat and eat the somen that floated around the mini-iceberg in the bowl of ice water.

When you slurp your first bowl of somen, you will feel the summer breeze. You might even be inspired to scribble that haiku feeling or maybe you just want to keep slurping.

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