They are a summer favourite in Japan for basing light meals on.
The traditional areas of production is Harima Province. The dough is made from wheat flour, water and salt. It is worked and rolled over and over again into long ropes as thick as a finger, then coated in oil, and set aside to allow the dough to relax. Then, using two sticks, each rope is pulled until it’s as thin as a thread, then dried. Nowadays, of course, most are machine-made, but people still pay a premium for hand-stretched ones, considered to have better texture and taste.
Hand-made ones take two days. They are made from November to March, then stored, then shipped to market starting in August. Aged ones are considered better tasting; some are even aged 2 to 3 years, which makes them more expensive. The grade that is aged for over 1 year is called “hine.”
The dried noodles are boiled in hot water, then drained, and rinsed in cold water. The strands are loosened from each other while being rinsed. Then the noodles are put in ice water to chill them.
The noodles are served with a dipping sauce called “men-tsuyu” made from konbu and katsuobushi dashi with soy sauce, sugar and mirin, which you can make or buy already made. You don’t pour the sauce over the noodles; instead you dip them in it.
The noodles are also accompanied by side garnishes are called “yakumi”: items such as ground fresh ginger, chopped green onion, sesame seeds, seaweed, and wasabi.
Served this way, the noodles have a light texture and a light taste, perfect for flagging appetites in the humid Japanese summers.
In Okinawan, the noodles are used in stir fry with tofu and vegetables. For winter eating, they can be served in a hot broth. When served in a warm dish like this, the noodles are called “Nyumen somen”; in a chilled dish, “Hiyashi somen.”
One yellowish variety of Somen, called “tamago somen”, has egg yolk in it.
Cook in lots of water, so that the noodles can move about in the water. Add when the water hits a full boil, and stir them for a few seconds to ensure they are separate. Cook 5 to 7 minutes. When ready, the centre should be a bit whiter than the outsides.
Rinse under cold water, then depending on whether you are planning on using them hot or cold, plunge into either hot or cold water.
Store for up to 6 to 8 months.
Somen Noodles have been made commercially since at least 1750. Because they were so labour intensive, though, only the rich could afford them.