An apocalyptic heat arrived in Los Angeles, to punctuate what had been a mild summer, inviting along that two-headed beast of physical and existential discomfort. We stayed indoors, in between the peace lily and the window unit, eating chilled fruit and drinking yesterday’s coffee from the fridge. Lunch was somen, always somen, thin wheat noodles in cold broth that cook in the amount of time it takes to make tea, the absolute maximum for using the range. A quick swish through cold water and onto the zaru, completed with the usual cucumber and scallions and whatever else I could find in the garden.
Somen in Japan is among the arsenal of cold noodle dishes to deal with the heat, along with hiyashi chuka. I grew up eating it all summer, a vestige of my family’s Kansai origins, the westside of Japan’s main island where somen is most popular. I’ve long since traded in the store-bought instant tsuyu of those early days for my own made from scratch, tinkering with it over the years to my taste. The only catch is doing it in advance so it has time to fully chill in the fridge, so it pays to make a big bottle that will last a while.
Writing this on a mild day has me half convinced that the worst is over. But knowing how summers in LA tend to linger, I'll be keeping the cucumbers and tsuyu stocked.
2 cups water
1 3-inch piece of kombu
small handful of katsuobushi
1/2 cup mirin
1/2 cup shoyu
2 tbsp dried shrimp
somen noodles, 1 bundle per person
toppings of your choice, see below
To make the dashi, combine the water and kombu in a small pot over high heat. Bring the water just to a simmer, then remove the kombu. Now bring the water to a full boil, add the katsuobushi, and turn off immediately. Set aside and leave to steep for about 15 minutes, then strain into another container.
Rinse out the pot you used for the dashi, add the mirin and bring to a boil. Add the dashi, shoyu, and shrimp, and bring back to a boil. Turn it off and let it steep on the stove until completely cool. Then strain the tsuyu into a bottle and chill completely in the fridge before using.
To make the somen, first prep your toppings. In addition to sliced cucumber and scallions, which I consider essential, other common toppings include wasabi, tomatoes, shiso, grated ginger, boiled okra, sliced radish, chilled shrimp, and sliced deli meat like ham or turkey. Have fun trying new additions.
When ready to eat, boil the noodles according to package instructions. Immediately drain and rinse the noodles under cold water and place them in a bowl or zaru if you have it.
To eat, place about 1/3 cup of tsuyu into small glasses or soba choko (our small glass tumblers are perfect for this). For each bite, add toppings to your tsuyu, then pick up a bite of noodles with your chopsticks and dip them into the tsuyu. Give it a quick swish then grab the noodles and the toppings together and slurp it all up in one bite.