素麺/索麺(Soumen) is a type of very thin white Japanese noodles made from wheat flour. The diameter of soumen is under 1.3 mm, and it is usually served cold with a light flavored dipping sauce. You might imagine ‘udon’ if you heard Japanese noodles made from wheat flour. Soumen’s main ingredients are the same as that of udon, but the big difference between udon and soumen is their thickness. There is one more type of noodles called hiyamugi, which is very similar to soumen.
Soumen : under 1.3 mm
Hiyamugi : 1.3 mm to 1.6 mm
Udon : more than 1.7 mm
Why is somen so thin?
Soumen are stretched in the process of manufacturing with using vegetable oil. The oil coated the surface of the dough helps making noodles very thin without tearing them off. After stretching, soumen are dried indoors or outdoors for one day. Although the mechanization of manufacturing soumen developped, there are still many soumen manufacturers that sell hand-stretched soumen in West Japan.
The difference how to eat soumen between EAST and WEST Japan
I wrote about the difference how to cook eels between East Japan and West Japan in the article about eels (the day people eat eels). There are also differences how to eat soumen in East Japan and West Japan.
East Japan : It is common to eat soumen with 薬味(yakumi) such as chopped green onion, grazed ginger or wasabi, sliced *myoga(myoga ginger), white sesame, shredded dried-seaweed, siso(Japanese herb), etc.
West Japan : Unlike East Japan, “yakumi” is not very common in West Japan. People eat soumen with thin strips of foods such as cucumbers, ham, omelette, etc.
*Myoga : If you know Inuyasha, Japanese anime/manga, you might imagine the character called Myoga, a flea demon who appears randomly and gives information about current events, foes, and shards of the Shikon Jewel for Inuyasha. Although the sound is completely the same, the kanji for myoga ginger and the character are different. 茗荷(myoga = myoga ginger) and 冥加(Myoga = the character in Inuyasha) and 冥加 literally means divine protection.(I don’t know why the author named Myoga for the flea demon though…)
Soumen served in hot soup has a different name, Nyumen
When Japanese people say soba or udon only, we don’t know which one they want to say soba or udon served cold or hot until we ask. However, we don’t have the issue for soumen, since hot soumen has a different name called nyumen. Nyumen is eaten during winter.
流しそうめん (Nagashi-soumen = flowing soumen)
Nagashi soumen is one of the things that reminds summer in Japan. Soumen are placed in a long flume made of bamboo, and the flume carriers soumen with clear cold water. People pluck them with their chopsticks as the soumen pass by, and dig them in dipping sauce. There are some theories about how flowing soumen was invented, but It is said this style of eating soumen was commercialized around 1955 at Takachiho area in Miyazaki, where clean spring water is famous. In those days, neither air conditioners or freezers for making ice were commonly used at households, and people couldn’t cool off their bodies easily. Apparently, that lead ‘flowing soumen’ became popular in summer season in Japan.
The Guinness record of flowing soumen
The longest distance of flowing soumen is 3,317.7m (about 2,061miles) certified by Guinness World Records on 27th August 2016. Many people in Japan try to make a new record of flowing soumen every summer.
26th August 2007, 熊本県葦北郡芦北町Ashikita-machi, Ashikita-gun, Kumamoto
1,750m (about 1,088miles)
20th July 2008, 福岡県田川郡福智町Fukuchi-machi, Tagawa-gun, Fukuoka
2,345m (about 1,457miles)
13th June 2010, 岐阜県可児郡御嵩町 Mitake-cho, Kani-gun, Gifu
2,500m (about 1,554miles)
19th September 2010, 鳥取県鳥取市河原町 Kawahara-cho, Tottori-city, Tottori
2,631m (about 1,635miles)
20th March 2011, 京都府綴喜郡井手町 Ide-cho, Tsuzuki-gun, Kyoto
3,216.7m (about 1,999 miles)
26th July 2014, 熊本県菊池市 Kukuchi-city, Kumamoto
3,328.38m (about 2,069 miles)
*They updated the longest distance of flowing soumen, but unfortunately, they didn’t apply for Guiness World Records at that time.
19th July 2015, 徳島県三好市 Miyoshi-city, Tokushima
3,250m (about 2,020 miles)
27th August 2016, Guiness World Records certified., 奈良県御所市 Gose-city, Nara
3317.7m (about 2,062 miles)
It’s hard to cut a bamboo and make flumes for flowing noodles on your own, but you can eat flowing noodles at your home if you have a flowing noodles machine! Unfortunately, it is made of plastic, not real bamboos, but it’s still good enough to experience what flowing noodles are like.
ソーメンチャンプルー (Soumen chanpuru, or soumin champuru in Okinawan language)
Chanpuru is one of Oknawan stir-fried dishes, and it generally consists of tofu, egg, some vegetables (for example: onions, carrots, leeks, bean sprouts, etc), meat, or fish. Chanpuru means “something mixed” in Okinawan language, and the word is used to refer to the Okinawan culture as well. There are some types of Chanpuru, such as goya (bitter melon) chanpuru, cabbage chanpuru, green-papaya chanpuru, tofu chanpuru etc. Somen chanpuru is one of them.
Where can we eat soumen?
Unlike ramen, soba or udon, the restaurants where you can eat soumen is very limited since most Japanese people think soumen is homemade food. If you want to try soumen but cannot find a restaurant that serves it, you can buy cooked soumen for 350 yen at convenience stores. (Or you can also buy soumen box at a supermarket and then cook it at your home.)
You’ll find soumen, chopped green onions, two packages of liquid and a small package of grazed ginger inside the soumen box. The one is dipping sauce, and the other is just water. Please don’t forget to use the water before you complain about the soumen in your box are stick each and other. You need to pour the water to soumen and loosen them using your chopsticks before you eat, and you can add the grazed ginger to your dipping sauce if you want to.
Comparing other noodles, soumen might not be very flavorful, but it is a good light meal when you don’t have appetite very much in hot weather.