Growing up with a Japanese mother, the comfort foods I know and love tend to be a little different than most people’s in North America. In our house, on hot, humid summer days, my mother would put together for us one of my favorite Japanese dishes: Hiyashi Somen. “Hiyashi” means something like “for cooling down,” so these are noodles meant to cool you down, and they in fact do that.
You boil the thin, delicate wheat noodles, then rinse them off in cold water, and add some ice cubes into the drained noodles to keep them as cold as possible. The dipping soup, calls tsuyu, is also kept cold. The best part of this dish is that it is served with a table full of possible toppings that you can pick and choose from. The toppings I included for our dinner tonight was what we call “Japanese omelette” in our house (which might work for anyone who is lacto-ovo vegetarian), tofu, rehydrated dried shiitake mushrooms, fresh chives from our garden, nori (sheets of Japanese dried seaweed, more commonly seen in North America as the wrapper in sushi), and wasabi.
The tsuyu is usually made using bonito fish stock, but in order to keep things vegetarian, I’ve replaced the fish stock with the combu dashi I used a couple of weeks ago. I made this the night before, and also soaked the dehydrated shiitake mushrooms in hot water the night before and let if soak overnight. The omelette, tofu, wasabi, and all the sides were made the night before so they would all have time to cool off in the refrigerator. The only thing I had to prepare tonight was the somen noodles themselves – they simply won’t keep overnight.
To serve this dish, you set out the cooled noodles in a bowl (I just keep it in the colander), along with all of the toppings (I’ve listed the ones I served below as part of the recipe, but you can add and use whatever else you like). Traditionally, everyone gets their own small cup/bowl, to which each person adds the noodles (fill about halfway), then add the tsuyu. Then, add whatever toppings you enjoy. It’s one of those communal dishes where people just grab what they want from the middle of the table, and make whatever combinations in their own dish that suits their taste.
My kids absolutely loved this dish, which was a nice surprise. I expected my son to love it, because he’s our Japanese-food fan. My daughter, who is a little more meat-and-potatoes, though, also really loved this dish. She out-ate all of us!
In addition to loving the fact that I can pass this dish on to my children, what was great about preparing this meal was that I could do a lot of it the night before, when the temperature had cooled off a bit and I could afford to heat up the house a little. If you haven’t guessed yet, we are not blessed with central air, so we avoid cooking indoors on days like this.
So, if you’re looking for a cooling dish for dinner this summer, give this one a try. It’s sure to please everyone.
Hiyashi Somen & Toppings
(Serves 4 people with some leftovers)
Topping #1: Rehydrated Shiitake:
7-8 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 cup hot water (does not need to be boiling, it can be what comes out of your tap)
*Reserve the aromatic liquid that results from soaking the shiitake and use in the tsuyu (recipe follows)
1) Place shiitake mushrooms in non-reactive bowl. Add hot water, then weight the mushrooms and liquid by placing a saucer over the top of the bowl. Set aside on counter overnight.
2) When mushrooms are soft and pliable, remove the mushrooms from the liquid. Over the bowl, squeeze some of the liquid out of the shiitake. Set the liquid aside.
3) Thinly slice the mushrooms and place into a serving bowl, or place on serving dish.
Topping #2: Japanese omelette
4 large eggs
2 Tbsp soy sauce
3 Tbsp sugar (sounds weird, but trust me on this)
2 Tbsp of the shiitake juice
1 tsp of sesame seed oil (optional)
2 Tbsp olive oil
1) (You can prepare this the night before and leave it cooling in the refrigerator until it’s time to eat). Crack eggs into medium bowl. Add all of the ingredients except olive oil. Beat together until well-combined.
2) Add olive oil to medium pan and heat pan over medium heat, until oil swirls easily in the pan. Add about 1 cup of the omelette mixture to the pan. Cook the eggs until the edges look almost done but liquid still remains. Lift the edges of the omelette and gently tilt the pan to allow the mixture to leak onto the pan. Once most of the mixture is solid (it will still appear wet), start folding the eggs. Start with the outer edge on one side, folding about 1/4 of the omelette first. Slowly fold again, until the omelette has been completely ‘rolled.’
3) Remove the cooked omelette from the pan and place onto a cutting board to cool. Repeat step 2 until all of the mixture has been cooked.
4) Once the ‘rolled’ eggs have cooled enough to handle, thinly slice width-wise and place in serving dish. Cool in refrigerator until ready to serve.
Topping #3: Tofu
1 package of firm tofu
That’s it, there’s not much to this topping. Simply slice the tofu horizontally into thirds, then into about fifths vertically and then again into fourths. You just want little, slightly-smaller-than-bite-sized cubes of tofu. Place in serving dish, and keep cool until ready to serve.
Topping #4: Nori
4 sheets of roasted nori
1) Cut nori into fourths so you have sixteen narrow strips.
2) Stack the strips, and using kitchen scissors, snip the nori so you get very skinny strips of nori. I like mine to be about 1/4 to 1/2 an inch wide. Place into serving dish – I recommend one that sits by itself so it doesn’t get wet.
Topping #5: Chives, or any other vegetable you’d like
Whatever vegetables you choose to include as a topping, just be sure to chop them up so they are very small. You want them to be, like the tofu, a little smaller than bite-sized so they don’t overwhelm the dish, and so that you can combine as many of them together as you want without overloading.
Tsuyu (Dipping sauce for the noodles):
3 1/2 cups of combu dashi. Recipe here: Combu dashi recipe.
2 Tbsp soy sauce
1 Tbsp mirin
1/4 cup liquid from re-hydrating shiitake
Prepare the combu dashi. Add soy sauce, shiitake liquid, and mirin and stir to combine. Cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
4 ‘bundles’ of somen noodles
4 cups of water
6-8 ice cubes
1) In a 4-quart pot, place water and bring to a boil. Remove black bands from around the noodles (you can snip them with scissors if need be) and put into boiling water. Cook for 5-6 minutes. Do not overcook.
2) Drain the noodles in a colander when time is up, and rinse immediately with cold water. Add half the ice cubes to the draining noodles, and toss so they are covered a bit by the noodles. Add the remaining ice cubes.