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At the threshold 

Filed in: summer

Somen on ice for a sultry summer

The rains clear leaving a steaming cauldron in their wake. The sun burns brightly stalling any breeze that might whisper some small reprieve. Young hawks take flight, learning to soar through the hot summer skies. The heavy rains followed by sun has spurred a burst of growth and I pass rice farmers, backs bent with the weight of summer’s hottest interval on their shoulders, battling to rid their fields of weeds. With less at stake we battle an encroaching jungly wildness. Vines clamber up and over everything in their path. They reach long tentacles into the yard to strangle shrubs and trees.

We are swimming through sultry days. Hot, still air vibrates with the high-tension shrill of giant cicadas. But by all accounts this is still the minor phase of heat, the prelude to a major swelter soon to come. Mornings are moderately cool. Higurashi, herald an early dawn. My alarm is useless for its ring of songbirds is indistinguishable from the chorus right outside the open window above my head. But no matter, I’m already awake.

somen for summer lunch

Downtown summer takes on a different feel. It’s the season of shaved ice and evening strolls and fireworks. Or at least it would be in any other year. This year we’ll have to rely on memories of another time. I remember standing on the balcony of a friend’s apartment as the sun set behind Karatsu castle sending it into silhouette. Parents and children, shy couples, and avid photographers gathered along the riverside promenade below us. The sky above glowed as darkness fell and streetlights illuminated the far edge of the Matsuura river. The reflection of their amber yellow incandescence stretched into the black waters below. Then a streak hurtled up, a comet shot from offshore that exploded into the fizzling shape of a giant allium flower. Kids shrieked with delight as its tendrils trailed and flickered out leaving a breath of smoke floating in a navy night sky. 

Summer is full of long days but the season as a whole is fleeting. As we hover at the threshold of major heat, interest in food wanes. We don’t crave satiety so much as an antidote to a pervading lethargy. It is too hot to think and summer suffocates culinary inspiration, so many a lunch is made of thin, smooth, slippery somen on a bed of ice. As a pot of water warms we prepare an array of garnishes. The secret to somen is mixing a festival of herbaceous flavors into a sauce of dashi and soy. We finely slice scallions, shiso, and myoga. We grate fresh ginger and set a few umeboshi with its accompanying red shiso and a sprinkling of raw sesame seeds in a bowl.

With so many garnishes to present, somen offers a perfect opportunity to pull out a selection of kobachi. The rounds of scallion go into a palm sized sky blue oval shaped bowl, the ribbons of shisho into a porcelain one. The rose and white threads of sliced myoga are presented in a glass guinomi, the creamy beige dollop of grated ginger on the tiniest, palest pinched lavender plate. Bamboo, glass, and ceramics in soft and delicate shades, these are what we reach for in summer for their light, cool, refreshing qualities.

condiments for somen

As the water comes to a boil I set the table  with torizara, bowls of dipping sauce, and the array of garnishes. Somen cooks in nearly an instant. The timer is set for one minute, the thin noodles fanned into the gently boiling water and stirred. The timer sounds and Hanako drains the noodles immediately, shocking them in ice water to tighten their structure.

Koshi ga aru describes the perfect texture of noodles in Japan. They have a waist, meaning that they maintain a firmness and pleasant bite at the core. Summer somen calls me to bring out my beloved zaru, thin strips of bamboo delicately woven in a double layer into a shallow tray. It is airy and light and perfectly suited to the season. The white noodles, swirled into small white dunes on the tray, are topped with a cascade of fresh ice cubes.

cold somen noodles

Sight and smell awake the senses and prime the taste buds and whet our appetites. Before a single bite is taken, the sight of so many clear blocks of ice glistening as they melt, revivifies a constitution fatigued by summer. As we scoop a bit of each condiment into our sauce we take in the rainbow of aromatics. The piquant freshness of myoga, the penetrating zest of fresh ginger, and the tart fruitiness of umeboshi are reviving. Each scent, vital and explicit, awakens and clarifies the mind.

We each take a mound of creamy noodles onto our pear colored plates. All around me slurping ensues. Hanako’s noodles, one end between her teeth, the other still floating in sauce and gently fenced in by her chopsticks, disappear lightening fast. It never goes so smoothly for me. I suck in air as the ends of my somen flicker and fly. They whipping flecks of soy onto my white summer shirt and I feel defeated. This slurp baffles me. I feel inhibited by an inherited code of manners and hindered by recalcitrant buccinators. But honestly, I haven’t the energy to work too hard at it. However they get there, the cold noodles slither down to cool molten cores. The sauce is fresh and invigorating, and the sight of ice melting in the high heat of summer revitalizing.

somen swimming in ice

Cold Somen Recipe

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  1. […] rise and when torrents aren’t pouring down, the air is still and swampy. The memory of my first tsuyu in Japan lingers, tropical, dreamlike, and vivid. I stood at the bank of windows in Kuniko’s dining room […]

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If Kuniko, my mother-in-law, were to write the story of her life it might read more as a menu than a memoir. 

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