There are only so many foods you can throw down a waterslide—well, only so many foods that would survive the trip. Pizza? Nope. Rotisserie chicken? Yuck. But somen, slippery and thread-thin, seems made for it. In fact, Japanese summers wouldn’t be the same without the delicate noodles barreling down a bamboo pipe of ice-cold water, splashing and careening around curves as happy diners wait, chopsticks primed, to catch them. How’s that for a lively antidote to heat exhaustion?
During Japan’s hot and humid summers, when the heat zaps energy and kills appetites, cold somen is a restorative necessity. Being so thin—regulations require no more than 1.3 millimeters in width for machine-made somen and no more than 1.7 millimeters for hand-stretched—part of the noodles’ allure is that they take mere minutes to boil. The aged, dried sticks quickly transform into silken threads, to rinse in a colander under cold running water and immediately enjoy.
Typically eaten for lunch, the noodles are commonly served on a platter or bowl with ice cubes—or in the case of nagashi somen, or “flowing noodles,” down that bamboo slide of frigid water. They’re eaten with chilled tsuyu, a simple dashi-based broth for dipping, and often a medley of other cold toppings or sides.
A Brief History
Somen, like the more famous ramen noodle, came to Japan from China. References to thin noodles made from rice flour, called somochi, first appear in documents from the Nara period of the 8th century, when they were enjoyed by the Imperial Court on special occasions. Later, thin noodles started being made out of wheat and were noted as a popular light meal for Buddhist monks. Shintos and Buddhists have long recommended eating somen for its healing properties on Tanabata, a summer festival that falls in July or August. Now, everyone is already eating the cold noodles daily by then. Nobody needs persuading.
Somen eventually spread to the masses and throughout Japan, becoming firmly implanted in Japanese cuisine and culture. Nagashi somen came later, but is now synonymous with Natsu Matsuri, Japan’s summer festival. It’s tied to kids dressing in airy cotton jinbei with kimono ties; the clack of wooden geta, or traditional sandals; and laughter as parents and kids fish for real goldfish and play games with yo-yo water balloons. Somen, as well as nagashi somen, are simply part of the Japanese summer.
Throwing Your Own Somen Party
Up until a couple of years ago, our neighborhood in Tokyo hosted a large annual nagashi somen party. An elderly man would acquire a long, thick piece of bamboo each year and hollow it out for the party. We would pass him on our way to and from errands and the children’s preschool, so once we saw the bamboo first appear, we knew preparations for nagashi somen had begun.
Festivities happen on a larger scale, too: In 2016, the town of Gose in Nara, Japan, created a working nagashi somen luge that was 3,317.7 meters (10,871 feet, 8 inches) long, setting the Guinness World Record for “longest distance to flow noodles down a line of bamboo gutters.”
Due to the pandemic, communal nagashi somen practices have shifted. Whereas excited children and adults would normally post themselves along the course with chopsticks in hand, now they must simply watch—mouths watering—until the noodles finish their journey and collect in a tub at the bottom, where they may finally take their portion. This is sad, of course, but not without a silver lining—battery-powered nagashi somen home kits for the dining room table or patio are now wildly popular.
Whether or not you opt for the noodle water slide, you can easily throw your own summer somen party at home. Inexpensive packages of dried somen noodles and bottles of premade tsuyu are readily available in Japanese and other Asian grocery stores, as well as online.
Ibonoito is one of the finest and most famous brands in Japan and has been making hand-stretched somen, or tenobe somen, since 1898. Wheat flour is mixed with a specific salt and pure mountain water, then the dough is repeatedly stretched and aged. Brushing it with oil helps ensure a supple stretch. Once dried and packaged, the product continues to age for a certain amount of time before being deemed ready for market.
Some companies also produce multicolored somen, tinted pink with umeboshi, green with matcha, purple with sweet potato, or blue with gardenia seeds.
After boiling and chilling your somen of choice, set out dipping bowls of tsuyu and a variety of summery accouterments for each person to add to their liking. Picture fragrant ribbons of scallions, shiso leaf, and myoga (Japanese ginger); crisp vegetables such as sliced cucumbers or cherry tomatoes; or more substantial additions such as sliced ham, fishcakes, or golden strands of shredded egg omelet.
Summer somen can be as simple, complex, or whimsical as you would like. It’s true grazing food, as diners take bundles of noodles from a family-style platter, add it to their tsuyu with their toppings of choice, and slurp and crunch away—before going back for more. The salty, sweet, smoky components of the tsuyu and the refreshing gamut of herbs and crisp veggies are just as much part of this summer pick-me-up as the noodles themselves.