Although rice is unarguably the mainstay of the Japanese diet, noodles are just as important to the cuisine, with many people consuming them as often as rice. This is especially true during the summer, when the notoriously humid and stifling weather makes even eating seem like a chore (or so I’ve heard. We’re not quite there yet, but it’s coming…) Indeed, the thought of a steaming hot bowl noodles (or rice) in the middle of July would kill even the heartiest eater’s appetite. Luckily, the Japanese have devised a number of delicious (and healthy) ways to consume noodles when the weather’s warm. These dishes are quick to prepare, requiring little time behind the stove, and they also take almost no effort to eat, a great boon when the dog days of summer are upon us.
The basis of all these dishes is some form of chilled noodle, usually dipped in or lightly dressed with a dashi and soy-based sauce. Many of you have probably heard of zaru soba, but the others may be unfamiliar. Below, a quick run-through of four common Japanese summer noodle dishes.
Zaru soba: If you ask me, earthy soba noodles are a nearly perfect food, thanks to their nutritional properties and culinary versatility. Because they’re made from buckwheat, they won’t weight you down like wheat-based noodles do. After eating a bowl of soba, I always feel very satisfied but never full. Zaru soba are simply soba noodles served chilled on a bamboo mat (zaru means “basket”) with a dark dipping sauce (mentsuyu) and a variety of toppings. These may include grated daikon radish and ginger, thinly sliced leeks or scallions, raw egg, or grated raw nagaimo (a sticky, white type of yam).
Sōmen: These thin wheat noodles, Smaller in diameter than even angel hair pasta, are a classic summer food. They are eaten in a similar manner to zaru soba. Nagashi sōmen, which literally translates to “flowing sōmen”, is a fun way to consume sōmen during the summer season – the noodles flow through running water down a bamboo chute, and participants try to capture them with chopsticks:
Bukkake udon: The classic thick wheat noodle, served cold with sauce poured over the top rather than in dashi-based broth. Again, the toppings here are similar to those used for zaru soba and sōmen. I often make some variation of this for a quick weeknight dinner, throwing in any vegetables that need to be used up.
Hiyashi chuka (a.k.a. hiyashi ramen): Of the four dishes listed here, this is personal favorite because it is colorful, fun, and supremely delicious. Hiyashi chuka is somewhat similar to tsukemen (“dipping noodles”) – ramen noodles served with a dipping sauce or soup on the side. While thick and robustnoodles are usually used for tsukemen, a thin and squiggly noodle is used for hiyashi chuka, making it all the better suited for its role as a summer dish. Hiyashi chuka also differs from tsukemen in that the sauce is poured over the top, rather than served on the side.
The sauce for hiyashi chuka is unlike that used for any other cold noodle dish – it is sharp and vinegary, with a rounded layer of richness from the addition of toasted sesame oil. The noodles, which are usually spread on a platter, are topped with a salad bar’s worth of ingredients. These typically include: ripe tomatoes, Japanese cucumbers, shredded omelette, ham, bean sprouts, and sweet pickled ginger (beni shoga), perhaps with a smear of hot mustardon the side. Hiyashi chuka, which has its roots in the early 20th century, includes a number of ingredients that are not traditional to Japanese cuisine but that have become quite common, such as Chinese noodles, tomatoes, and ham. In this sense, the dish reflect Japan’s fascinating propensity for culinary assimilation – the ability to borrow ingredients and techniques from abroad and meld them into something new and uniquely Japanese.
1 piece kombu, about 3 x 4 inches
1 handful katsuobushi
1 cup Japanese soy sauce
1 cup mirin
Rice vinegar to taste
3 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
First, make a quick dashi. Place the kombu in a saucepan with 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and add the katsuobushi. Cover and let steep for 10 minutes, then strain and return to pan. Bring broth to a boil and add the soy sauce and mirin. Remove from heat and add vinegar to taste, plus the sesame oil. Chill until ready to use. Makes about 4 cups, enough for several servings of hiyashi chuka.
For each serving, use one package of chukamen (thin fresh ramen noodles). Cook in unsalted boiling water for about 4 minutes, until just cooked – they should remain a bit chewy. Drain and chill until ready to use.
Thinly sliced Japanese or Korean cucumber (if you can’t find these, use the English variety)
Good, ripe tomatoes, cut into wedges
Thinly sliced scallions or leeks
Mung bean sprouts (moyashi)
Shredded omelette (For 1-2 servings: Beat a large egg very well. Heat a medium-sized cast iron or nonstick skillet over moderate heat. Add a little oil and then pour in the egg, swirling to coat the bottom of the pan in a thin, even layer. Cook over low heat until just set but not browned on the bottom. Remove omelette from pan and let cool a bit. Fold in half and cut into very thin strips.)
Red pickled ginger (beni shōga)
Thin strips of ham, optional
Pickled bamboo shoots (menma), optional
A dab of hot Japanese mustard (karashi), optional
To serve, pile the noodles on a platter, or divide among individual serving bowls. Arrange the toppings in neat piles, and pour some of the sauce over everything. (See photo below for reference.) The toppings listed above are those most commonly used, but you needn’t use all of them at once. Feel free to substitute any fresh, seasonal vegetables you have on hand. In my opinion, the tomatoes, cucumber, scallions, bean sprouts, omelette, and ginger are necessary, but feel free to customize your noodles with any of the other toppings!