Slim for the summer

Served on the rocks: Japan’s thinnest noodles promise to keep you cool in the hot, hot heat.

The sun is out, the sky is clear, the air is heating up and the summer weather we’ve been waiting for is finally upon us. With June comes the promise of warmer weather, days spent outdoors and, inevitably, the need to cool down. Luckily there’s a particular dish that is made for days like this—and it comes on a bed of ice.

Nearly everyone who has delved into Japanese cuisine has encountered sōmen. Versatile as a main or side dish, sōmen are wheat-based noodles, milky white in colour and firm yet slippery in texture. Just over a millimetre in diameter, they are impressively thin, much slimmer than their culinary cousin, udon, and rivalling even the thinnest of noodles, vermicelli. At the height of summer— when it becomes difficult to imagine eating a hot, robust meal—sōmen offer the perfect reprieve: a light, refreshing meal or snack to comfortably fill you up and effectively cool you down.

The first documentation of these ultra-thin noodles dates back to the Nara period (710–794 AD) and hints at their rich history. Considered a delicacy, sōmen were typically enjoyed by Japan’s aristocracy on special occasions and given as gifts among the wealthy following a labour-intensive creation process. Comprised of wheat flour, water and salt, the dough used to make the noodles would find itself being stamped on by feet and then pulled out by hand into long, thin ropes. Coated in oil, the ropes would then be stretched with sticks until they resembled wispy threads, ready to be cut, dried and packaged. The process took several days; in modern-day Japan machines have largely taken over the practice, but some old-school noodle-makers are still hard at work—and charging a premium for their hand-made creations.

f there is a particular day of summer that is closely tied to sōmen, it’s Tanabata (literally “the seventh day of the seventh month”). Depending on whether one follows the Gregorian or lunar calendar, this could mean the seventh day of either July or August, but no matter—it’s a day (and night) to celebrate the stars. Legend has it that star-crossed lovers separated by the Milky Way are reunited for a single night on Tanabata, and since sōmen are said to resemble both the Milky Way and connecting threads, the super-slim noodles are considered an ideal dish for the occasion.

There are plenty of ways to enjoy sōmen. You can try it in its traditional embodiment as hiyashi sōmen, chilled on a bed of ice and served with yakumi (mixed garnishes) and tsuyu (lightly flavoured dipping sauce). On a cool summer night, combine the noodles with miso soup to make sōmen misoshiru, a regional specialty. Or give these slippery fellas a go in their most entertaining form: nagashi sōmen. Test your dexterity by visiting a restaurant that stretches a bamboo flume of cold water across the length of the room and slides the noodles down the flume. Catch as many as you can with your chopsticks and enjoy a cool, refreshing slurp.