Hiyashi somen—thin, delicate wheat noodles served chilled with tsuyu, a dipping sauce—is one of the most popular meals during the hot and humid summers in Japan. It’s also one of the foods enjoyed on Tanabata, one of my favorite Japanese holidays. Tanabata literally means “evening of the seventh,” and is celebrated every year on the seventh day of the seventh month. This is either July 7th, or August 7th, depending on whether the region celebrates the holiday according to the Gregorian calendar, or the lunar calendar. Tanabata is also known as the Star Festival, because it is a celebration of the reuniting of the lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi (or the stars Vega and Altair), separated by the vast expanse of the Milky Way, for one night a year when Orihime is allowed to cross to be with Hikoboshi.
If the day is rainy, it is said that the Milky Way will flood, making it impossible for Orihime to cross and be with Hikoboshi. So people pray for good weather and also make wishes for themselves. They write the wishes on small colorful pieces of paper, known as tanzaku (短冊), and hang them on bamboo, sometimes accompanied by other decorations.
During my trip to Tokyo two years ago, Mr. Fuji and I went out to Jindaiji, the second oldest temple in Japan. I love Jindaiji, but the quaint little village surrounding the temple is even better, giving you the feeling that not much has changed since the Edo period of Japan. The day we visited was July 6th, the day before Tanabata, and the little village was alive with preparations for the holiday. After visiting the temple, Mr. Fuji and I happened to walk down one of the wider streets of the village and saw one of the shop owners balancing at the top of a precarious ladder, while several other men steadied its legs.
The man carefully hung large, brightly colored paper decorations onto tall bamboo branches, making adjustments here and there, and then stopping to examine his work.
As the decorating proceeded, two women emerged from their shops to weigh in on the process. They critically examined the arrangement and clucked like little mother hens, calling out instructions to the man on the ladder to switch this decoration with that—a process he patiently bore, despite how exasperating it must have been to move decorations taller than he was as he balanced on the rungs of the ladder.
By this point a small crowd of onlookers had gathered, and I think we all held our breath as each change was made, hoping that the man would retain his balance. After getting nods of approval from the two women below, he carefully climbed down the ladder, which was quickly dismantled, and then the moment was over.
The experience, although seemingly insignificant, was so beautifully perfect that now when I think of Tanabata, it is always associated with this memory.
It is said that somen noodles resemble the Milky Way or weaving threads (significant because Orihime was a weaver), making it a perfect dish to be consumed on Tanabata. The delicate noodles, which are easily broken, also remind me of the precarious position of the man on the ladder, which makes me smile. Dipping the cool slippery noodles, often served on a bed of ice cubes to keep them perfectly chilled, into the lightly flavored tsuyu (dipping sauce), and then carefully sucking them into my mouth, trying not to drip tsuyu on my chin, is a wonderful way to take a timeout during the hot summer and remember my favorite Tanabata moment. I wonder what memories you’ll associate your summer somen with?
Hiyashi Somen (Japanese Chilled Somen Noodles with Dipping Sauce)
Makes 4 servings
For the somen tsuyu (dipping sauce):
1 1/4 cups dashi
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1/4 cup mirin
16 ounces dried somen noodles
1/2 Persian cucumber (or 1 Japanese cucumber), sliced into thin ribbons (I like to use a vegetable peeler!)
Freshly grated ginger
Scallions, thinly sliced
Toasted sesame seeds
1. Make the somen tsuyu: Mix the somen tsuyu ingredients together in a medium saucepan. Bring the tsuyu to a rolling boil over medium heat and then remove the saucepan from the heat and let cool. Chill in the refrigerator in an airtight container.
2. Prepare the somen: Cook the somen noodles according to the package directions. Drain the somen in a colander and rinse them under cold running water, to cool and remove the excess starch from the surface of the noodles.
3. Serve the somen with the cucumber ribbons on a bed of ice cubes in a shallow bowl, along with individual cups of chilled dipping sauce and toppings on the side. To eat, each person seasons their sauce to taste with the toppings, then dips the chilled somen into the sauce before eating.