I can see it now, the whole family seated around the balcony table in bathing suits, the August sun above. Before us, a round of mugi-cha and peach iced teas, large bowls of fine, wheat noodles with plates of sliced vegetables. The smell of barbecues waft in from all sides, plumes of cedar smoke to remind us we’re in the States. Let the barbarians have their lunch–we’re eating somen, a cold noodle soup that, along with hiyashi chuka, opens and closes the Japanese summer.
Photographs of this tableau vivant tell the family history: the epochal passing of girlfriends, bad haircuts, and George Hamilton suntans that mark the years. And then there are the incremental refinements of the form that appear in the finer pixels. A preponderance of shiso from when our little garden was invaded with that minty demi-weed. Truly paper thin slices of cucumber after we bought the mandoline. What tsuyu were we using? Still the store bought hon-tsuyu from concentrate? Zannen ne.
Two decades wiser, I now make it from scratch. Like almost every sauce or soup in Japanese cooking, somen tsuyu is derived from dashi, the lightly simmered master stock of kombu (dried kelp) and katsuo (fermented bonito). The secret ingredient is a handful of dried shrimp, brought to a boil and then steeped overnight, resting in the refrigerator:
(For 3 people)
1 cup dashi
1/2 cup mirin
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 small handful of dried shrimp
Tomorrow is sweltering, as summer days tend to be, and eating light is one of the natural instincts. The Japanese summer is a humid rainy season, so a cold lunch works just as well. In resort towns throughout the country, one can still find old timey nagashi somen restaurants (pictured below), where the host passes the noodles down an irrigated bamboo canal for guests to pluck nimbly with their chopsticks. Visiting one on a recent trip, I became homesick.
I played the scene back in my mind, everyone around the table, each with a cup of cold tsuyu, arguing what to put in it. Thinly sliced cucumber and scallions have always been a given, along with sliced ham. Beyond that, one’s imagination runs wild. The premise of somen is to enjoy all kinds of summery produce in a chilled broth: tomato, shiso, arugula, wasabi, basil, shrimp, egg, myoga, pickles, seaweed, but no grated daikon–this isn’t soba. Suddenly, conversation ceases, replaced by the sound of slurping as we inhale the noodles in a steady stream.
Despite being relatively obscure in the US, dry somen is easy to find at Asian grocery stores, generally pre-bundled for individual use (one to one and a half bundles per person). Once the noodles are cooked, rinse them thoroughly in cold water and drain before transferring them to a large bowl. To prevent sticking, add an ice cube or two and maybe a dash of water, but don’t overdo it as waterlogged somen will damage the noodles and dilute the tsuyu.
To drink, as I mentioned, is a tall glass of cold mugi-cha–roasted barley tea. Growing up we used the store bought cold-brew tea bags that overnight produced a pitcher of chestnut colored cardboard water. We acquired the taste and didn’t complain, but as I realized recently, the Korean bori-cha is infinitely richer and somehow less expensive, despite being made with whole barley grains.