Somen (Japanese vermicelli) (素麺)

Somen is a kind of noodle made from flour. Although available throughout the year because of distribution in the form of dried noodle, somen is generally served cold, and it is common to eat somen as summer noodle for its pleasant coolness.

Summary

One process of making dried noodles is to mix flour with salt and water, knead it well, add cooking oil such as cotton oil, flour, or starch, stretch the mixture while twisting it, and dry it until mature. Somen made with this process and satisfying 'Japanese Agricultural Standards for dried noodle stretched by hand' is classified as 'tenobe somen' (literally meaning hand-stretched somen). These days, production of the tenobe somen has been widely mechanized.
Somen made by shredding dough made by mixing flour with salt and water and kneading the mixture and drying the shredded dough using a machine is classified as 'machine-made somen.'

According to "Quality Labeling Standards for instant noodles" by the Japan Agricultural Standards (JAS), thickness of the machine-made somen is defined to be no more than 1.3 mm in diameter. For additional information, noodles with the diameter no less than 1.3 mm and no more than 1.7 mm is defined as cold noodles, and those with a diameter no less than 1.7 mm are classified as udon.
In the case of hand-stretched noodles, the same standard is applied to both somen and cold noodles, and those formed in cylindrical shape with a diameter no more than 1.7 mm are classified as 'tenobe somen' or 'tenobe cold noodles.'
For additional information, those formed in a cylindrical shape with a diameter no less than 1.7 mm are classified as 'tenobe udon.'

Although dried noodles exhibit good storage quality, it easily attracts worms and attention needs to be paid to preserve the noodles. Somen preserved as long until it loses oil and becomes smooth with increased eating quality, and it is often valued referred to as 'mushitsuki somen' (literally meaning somen with worms) meaning that the somen has been preserved so long it has worms. There is also objection that long-time preservation oxidizes oil in somen and rather causes a loss in eating quality.

Namamen (fresh noodles) and yudemen (boiled noodles) are defined by "Fair Competition Codes concerning labeling on fresh noodles" as 'in this code, "udon" refers to any noodle produced by adding water to flour and kneading it or the noodles processed after production regardless of the name of the noodles such as hiramen (thin noodles), cold noodles, and somen.'
This code classifies 'somen' as 'udon,' and therefore the namamen and yudemen types of somen can be regarded as a kind of udon in a limited sense. However, because another article says 'the name can be changed so as not to be misidentified by common consumers' thereby allowing the use of the name 'somen,' "Fair Competition Codes concerning labeling on fresh noodles" do not set standards for the thickness by specific values or specific regulations on the shape except for a few indigenous products. Therefore, 'somen,' 'cold noodles,' 'thin udon noodles,' and the like can be freely named by their manufacturers and distributors based on their determination by appearance or their intention as long as the common consumers do not misidentify them.

For this reason, namamen and yudemen types of somen according to the code are actually produced and sold. Ryusuimen' (Wash to Eat Somen Noodles) by Shimadaya Corporation and 'Chanpuru noodle' by Sun Foods are examples of such somen.

Before machine-made noodles became popular, somen having a round cross section due to making the dough thinner through the hand-stretching process could be distinguished from cold noodles having a square cross section due to its process of drawing out the dough and shredding it. However, now that the machine-made noodles have become popular and both somen and cold noodles are produced with similar methods, it is difficult to distinguish one from another as described above.

How to eat

It is common to eat somen dipped in mentsuyu (a Japanese soup base) after boiling it, cooling it in flowing water, washing it by hand to remove the sliminess. Contrary to 'nyumen' served in hot soup as described later, it is sometimes called 'hiyashi somen' or 'hiya somen,' literally meaning cold somen. Salt is not used in boiling water. This is to remove salt from the noodles. There is a controversy over whether cold water called sashimizu (or bikkuri mizu) should be poured in when the water is about to boil over. Because the noodles are so thin they may absorb a foreign taste, it needs to be washed with the best water avoiding hand sebum when boiling is over.

Mentsuyu is salty-sweet soup base made from soy sauce, bonito broth, and mirin (sweet cooking rice wine) or sugar, which is said to be good when prepared on the day before eating. Sesame sauce is sometimes used as tsukejiru (noodle dipping sauce). Stewed shiitake mushroom, Kinshitamago (thinly shredded egg omelet), and the like may accompany the noodle as relish. Condiments may be chopped leeks, grated ginger, sesame, Japanese ginger, and so on.

Example of mentsuyu

Ingredients (200 cc over as cooked)

Soy sauce - 50 cc

Mirin - 50 cc

Water - 1 cup (200 cc)

Dried bonito - Moderate amount (about 1 cup)

How to cook

Pour soy sauce and mirin into a pan, boil it to evaporate alcohol, and then add water and dried bonito.

Upon boiling again, stop heating it immediately and cool it.

The ratio of soy sauce, mirin, and water being 1:1:4 realizes mentsuyu with the saltiness suitable for somen. The saltiness and sweetness may be adjusted to suit your taste. Even saltier and sweeter mentsuyu may be preferred depending upon locality.

Other ways of eating somen are described below.

Nyumen: Boiled somen noodles served hot without cooling, in hot tsuyu like udon, or stewed in tsuyu. The name 'nyumen' is a modified form of the sound 'ni-men,' literally meaning boiled noodles. In regions where nyumen is frequently eaten, cold nyumen are sometimes called 'hiya somen,' literally meaning cold somen, for distinction.

Somin chanpuru: Hard-boiled somen stir-fried like yaki udon noodles (stir-fried udon noodles) in Okinawa Prefecture. Also known as somin tashiya.

Somen is sometimes deep-fried in a dried state for use as food decoration. By boiling somen after deep-frying it, you can enjoy the flavor like Yifu noodles (egg noodle, referred to as "yi mien" in Taiwan) in Guangzhou City, China.

Nagashi somen (flowing noodles, somen nagashi): Flow somen through a bamboo toi (a generic term for a gutter), catch it with chopsticks, and dip it in mentsuyu to eat. It is one of summer features in Japan. It is also referred to as "somen nagashi." Its birthplaces are the Takachiho Gorge in Miyazaki Prefecture and the Tosen Gorge in Ibusuki City, Kagoshima Prefecture, where a tourist facility is located. There are several restaurants in many areas in Kagoshima Prefecture where you can eat somen flowing in a circular toi on a round table.

It is sometimes performed as an event in a summer camp and the like.

A nagashi somen machine electrically flowing water for domestic use is being manufactured and sold.

Once visitors brought the machine and somen to Kawasaki Stadium voluntarily to enjoy nagashi somen when it was the home grounds of the Chiba Lotte Marines.

Somen salad: Serve salad on top of somen and pour salad dressing based on mayonnaise and mentsuyu over it to eat.

Suimono (clear soup): Somen is also used as an ingredient for suimono.

Somen represents a summer noodle dish, and many food manufacturers and soy sauce manufacturers release seasoned mentsuyu called 'somen tsuyu' in summer.

Origin of somen

Sakurai City, Nara Prefecture is believed to be the birthplace of somen in Japan, and the widespread theory is that somen derives from Sakubei (sometimes called muginawa (wheat rope) in Japanese), one of Chinese sweets originated from China during the Nara period.

Originally, the term 'sakubei' often appeared in documents during The Later Han Dynasty and Tang Dynasty in ancient China, and the oldest record of the term is a mokkan (a narrow strip of wood on which an official message is written) excavated from the site of residence of Prince Nagaya, the grandson of Emperor Tenmu (Nara City). The original form was two thin long strips of dough made from glutinous rice and flour twisted together deep-fried in oil, which is believed to have been similar to present Sweetened Fried Bread Twists. Sakubei as Chinese sweets is still used as a food offering to the gods at the present time, which is a clue to know about the prototype of somen.

The ingredients, amounts, and tools used to make sakubei are described in "the Engishiki" (an ancient book for codes and procedures on national rites and prayers) in the middle of the Heian period, from which it is clear that sakubei was a noodle made from flour, rice flour, and salt (one opinion says the rice flour is not used). However, the shape is unclear, and the most widely-accepted theory is that sakubei was thicker than the present somen and udon, that was broken with the hands to eat.

In an article of July 7, 1343 (old calendar) in 'Gion Shigyonikki' which is a record of Gion-sha Shrine during the period of the Northern and Southern Courts (Japan), there are three words indicative of noodles including 'sakubei,' 'sakumen,' and 'somen,' and it is believed to be the first appearance of the word 'somen' in writings (there is another theory that the first appearance of 'somen' was 'Iseiteikinourai' during the period of the Northern and Southern Courts).

After the Chinese tradition that diseases (malaria fever) can be avoided by eating sakubei on the day of the Tanabata festival, sakubei was taken to Tanabata events in the court during the Heian period.

It is believed that the shape in the present day was completed and the names of 'sakubei,' 'sakumen,' and 'somen' were still used in Muromachi period, but the name was later fixed to 'somen.'

There are other theories that somen was transferred from the Yuan Dynasty through exchanges of zen monks and trading in the period of the Northern and Southern Courts.

In China, there is a description of 'sakumen' in the Northern Song Dynasty period much earlier compared to Japan.
The recipe of sakumen described in an encyclopedia called "The Guide to Running a Household" from the end of the Southern Sung period to the beginning of the Yuan period includes one closely resembling the recipe of Japanese hand-stretched somen such as 'making the dough thinner by stretching it with oil applied to its surface and finally making it still thinner by hooking it on rods.'

The shape of sakubei, which had been unknown from the Nara period to the period of the Northern and Southern Courts, became clear during that time. It is conceivable that confusing the terms occurred because sakumen had the name and shape both similar to those of sakubei.

During the Muromachi period, it was mainly boiled, washed, and then steamed to eat, which was also referred to as "mushimugi" (literally meaning steamed noodles) and "atsumushi" (literally meaning hot-steamed). There is also a description left in some documents from this period that sakumen served on a leaf of Broussonetia papyrifera was a feature of Tanabata. Somen was also called 'zoro' in the court-lady language of this period.

During the Edo period, the custom of offering somen as an altarage during Tanabata became popular. The custom was to pray for the progress of sewing regarding a thin and long somen as a thread.

Production area of somen in Japan

Somen has been actively produced mainly in western Japan since the early-modern times. One of the reasons is that the production areas of the ingredients including wheat, water (soft water), and salt (seawater salt) were in the close locally.

Banshu somen: Major production areas include Tatsuno City and Himeji City, Hyogo Prefecture. The largest production output in Japan as of 2008. It is believed that somen production became active because the area was blessed with good ingredients such as high-quality wheat from Harima, clear flow of the Ibo River, and salt from Ako. In Kamigata (Kyoto and Osaka area) during the Edo period, in fact, Banshu somen had fallen behind Nada somen from Settsu Province. However, due to the rapid urbanization in modern times, production declined in Nada. Accordingly, it is said that skilled workers migrated from Nada to Banshu and transferred their techniques, thereby improving the quality (refer to Ibonoito for details of brand names).

Miwa somen: Miwa district in Sakurai City, Nara Prefecture. Most production areas of somen all over the country have originated from Miwa having the longest history of producing somen. The market price of somen used to be determined in Miwa during ancient times.
(The production volume has been small since then, and somen was purchased mainly from Shimabara.)
(This tendency continued until around 2000 when the problem of fraudulently claiming the origin arose, and seventy percent of Miwa somen was actually produced in Shimabara at the time.)
Some is still produced by OEM in Shimabara and other prefectures, but such somen does not use the name of "Miwa some" in the present days (for details, refer to Miwa somen). Miwa somen is characterized by stretching it using cotton oil because Miwa was located close to the production area of cotton flowers.

Shodo-shima Island hand-stretched somen: Produced in Tonosho-cho and Shodoshima-cho, Kagawa Prefecture. Stretched using hardly-oxidized sesame oil. Brand names include Shima no Hikari and Seto no Kaze. The above-described three production areas are commonly called the three greatest somen in Japan.

Shimabara somen: Produced in Minamishimabara City, Nagasaki Prefecture. The production volume is the second largest in Japan, and production of wheat was encouraged as a hardy plant during the Edo period. With excellent quality, it used to be supplied to Miwa. For this reason, the name was not so widely known, but now the brand has recently been growing competitive. On the other hand, there is a problem that the transaction price has dropped compared with Miwa somen.

Handa somen: Produced in Tsurugi-cho (former Handa-cho), Tokushima Prefecture. There are many opinions about its origin, and the dominant theory is that a boatman in the Yoshino-gawa River started producing it to feed his own family and as a side business in Tenpo era. A description about this somen is included in 'nihon-sangai-meibutsu-zue' (a guidebook for special products, consisting of pictures and explanations about them) written in 1754. It is characterized in its thickness compared with somen from other areas, and therefore it was about to have a name other than somen in the past (by the revising the "Quality Labeling Standard for instant noodles," it is officially called 'hand-stretched somen' now).

Awaji somen: Minamiawaji City (former Nandan-cho), Hyogo Prefecture. Produced in cold seasons taking two days based upon an ancient production method without using mass production. The trade names vary depending upon its thickness, including Awaji-ito (fine), Goryo-ito (medium-fine), and Onokoro-ito (extra-fine).

Okado Somen: Tonami City, Toyama Prefecture. Characterized in stretching without oil, and wound in a ball-like shape unlike the common somen shape of a straight bundle.

Nankan somen: Nankan-machi, Kumamoto Prefecture. Characterized in extremely thin noodles, which was compared to white threads by Hakushu KITAHARA. It was offered to Shogun families and Emperor Meiji in history. Most manufacturers continue the ancient hand-stretching production method.

Kamogata somen: Asakuchi City, Okayama Prefecture. It has been called "Bicchu somen" since ancient times, and a kind of noodles called "mugikiri" was historically offered to the court. Production of the presently-called somen started during the late Edo period by inviting veteran workmen from Banshu to learn their techniques. This area grew to become one of the major production areas blessed with high-quality ingredients including salt, water, and wheat like Banshu. Although most manufacturers use machines, some still keep producing the ancient hand-stretched somen. They also produce hand-stretched udon (Kamogata udon) in this area.

Kanzaki somen: Kanzaki City, Saga Prefecture. Large production (third largest of machine-made noodles in Japan). This is the birthplace of machine production, where Terusato MASAKI established an iron shop in 1874 conceiving the mechanization of noodles from the hand-stretching method and invented a noodle making machine in 1883 (another theory says 1880). The machine-production of noodles developed accordingly, and quite a few workmen stick to it. Known for its tough body, Kanzaki somen is famous for 'nyumen' served in hot soup as well as served cold.

Egg noodles: Area including Morioka City, Esashi City, and Mizusawa City, Iwate Prefecture. Yellow somen containing egg yolk and flour. It hardly stretches due to little water contained in it.

Five-colored somen: Matsuyama City, Ehime Prefecture. Famous product sung in Iyo Tune. There are five colors including white, red (plum), green (green tea), yellow (egg yolk), and brown (buckwheat powder).

Oyachi hand-stretched somen: Oyachi district in Yokkaichi City, Mie Prefecture, which is known as a production area of cold noodles, has been also the production area of somen since the Edo period. The climate is suitable for producing noodles with the water of Asake River rich in minerals and cold winds blowing down from Suzuka mountain range.

Inaniwa somen: Inaniwa-cho, Yuzawa City, Akita Prefecture. Hand-stretched somen exposed to cold weather produced in the same way as Inaniwa udon. Characterized in production using no oil.

Shiroishi umen: Shiroishi City, Miyagi Prefecture. Short noodles with the length of ten centimeters or so, which does not use oil like Inaniwa somen.

Miharu somen: Miharu-machi, Fukushima Prefecture. Once died out in early Meiji period, but revived in late Showa period, and the shape of the noodles produced after the revival is flat.

Izumi somen: Anjo City, Aichi Prefecture. Known for its unique production method of returning the noodles to rows by hand-stretching the noodle before it dries called "hannama modoshi" (rather commonly used for other noodles) with strong body. While somen is dried by cold winds in winter in other production areas, the hannama modoshi noodles are mainly produced in summer using wet winds blowing from Mikawa Bay. The noodle is as long as nearly two meters, which is also referred to as ichi-jo men.

Declined production areas of somen

Areas which flourished during the Edo period having a history of presenting its somen to bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun) but lost its somen industry later due to the urbanization, lack of successors, degradation of water quality, rise of machine-production of noodles, and so on.

Ogawa somen (Saitama Prefecture): It was such a famous production area that 'Shinpen Musashi Fudo Kiko' (a topography of Musashi Province from 1804 to 1829) wrote its specialty was somen, but manufacturers of somen converted to producing washi paper as Ogawamachi washi became popular.

Kururi somen (Chiba Prefecture): Used to be a major production area blessed with high-quality water and having a history of presenting its somen to the Edo bakufu.

Wajima somen (Ishikawa Prefecture): There is a saying that Okado somen was made by workmen who learned how to produce Wajima somen. That is so to say an ancestor of Okado somen.

Kawachi somen (Osaka Prefecture): Though flourished until the modern times, gradually declined according to the urbanization and the degradation of the environment. Now only limited production remains for domestic consumption.

Nada somen (Hyogo Prefecture): Technique transferred from Miwa. Developed around the Uozaki district, Nada gained a reputation as a leading production area in Kamigata during the Edo period. Rapidly declined since the late Meiji period due to urbanization and the like. Abolished now. The technique of Nada somen transferred later to other areas including Banshu and Kamogata.

And others.

Variations of additives

Various foods are added to somen.

Green tea somen: Kneaded with green tea powder. The color is green.

Strawberry somen: Kneaded with strawberry juice. The color is pale pink.

Ume somen: Kneaded with crushed pickled ume (plum). The color is pale pink.

Sake somen: Kneaded with seishu or refined sake. It is said to be harder and smoother.

Ago somen: Kneaded with ago (flying fish).

Somen and eating customs

Somen is often served in events at celebrations and taboos. Known as a celebratory foods are sea bream somen eaten around Oki no shima Island in Kyushu, grilled mackerel somen eaten in the Kohoku area (area north of Lake Biwa) around Nagahama City, Shiga Prefecture, and 'tai men' (literally meaning sea bream noodle) served in wedding banquettes in Hiroshima Prefecture. Furthermore, there is a custom of eating somen called 'celebration noodles' for lunch in a celebration event in Temples of the Zen sect. For taboo events, 'nyumen' is served in a wake meal or a religious ceremony in some areas. The custom of offering somen on a tray used for serving as one of the {Buddhist altar fittings} in Urabon-e festival (a Festival of the Dead or Buddhist All Souls' Day, around the fifteenth of July or August, depending on local customs) and Ebisu ko (a fete in honor of Ebisu for the purpose of asking for good fortune) is observed nationwide. In most cases, somen is not only offered to sorei (ancestral spirit, collective of ancestral spirits which have lost their individualities, ancestor deified as a kami, spirit of a kami) and Shinto and Buddhist deities, but also served to relatives by blood and marriage who gathered for the event.

There is the custom of eating somen during Tanabata praying for exorcism and health of children in Sendai. This custom derives from a Chinese historical event when a child who died young became a ghost and spread diseases, people offered sakubei which the child loved before death, and then the disaster disappeared.

Fish somen which is fish paste and egg somen which is sweet made from egg are named because they have a shape similar to that of somen. There are also squid somen or shredded raw squid and somen-like yam.

Sometimes a bundle of somen includes a few colored noodles such as red and green, which is more popular in the case of cold noodles. This is because the noodle factory puts the colored noodles into the bundles of somen. This custom was common around Kanto area (Tokyo) until the late 1980's, but it became less popular in the 1990's and now a majority of somen is white only. On the other hand, some manufacturers still continue this custom.

Fushimen (curved part of noodles made by hanging to dry)

Fushimen is a byproduct of somen, which is a wound part formed at the time of hanging on rods and then cut off later. Straight parts becomes the regular product of somen. Fushimen is also referred to as "somen fushi" or "kiriotoshi" (literally meaning cut-off) depending on the area. In Banshu district of Hyogo Prefecture, it is called 'bachi' because it looks like bachi (plectrum) of shamisen. Although it is made from the same ingredients as somen, because it is wide and the wound part is three-dimensional with a shape similar to conchiglie, it cannot be classified as somen according to the JAS standard. Due to the thickness and width, it is still salty after boiling and the texture varies, which has a flavor different from somen. It can be used in many ways, e.g., stewed in a one-pot dish or put in miso soup.

Somen in other countries

There is also machine-made somen and hand-stretched somen in the People's Republic of China. Somen (described "線麺" in Fuzhou) has been present around Fuzhou, China since no later than the early Ming period. It is also one of the most popular dried noodles in other areas, which is produced in factories all over China and sold. There are machine-made noodles called gongmian.

Republic of Korea also has a culture of ordinarily eating somen. There is a custom of eating noodles as a feast of hare and ke (sacred-profane dichotomy) in some areas, and somen is sometimes served in or after a celebratory event such as a wedding ceremony.