Blessings from the natural environment
Himeji City, the land of Kuroda Kanbee, an outstanding 16th-century samurai strategist who never lost a battle in the age of warring provincial lords, boasts Himeji Castle―Japan’s first UNESCO-designated World Heritage site as well as one of Japan’s national treasures―which is a popular destination for tourists and history lovers from overseas and Japan. In addition to this beautiful internationally known castle nicknamed the White Heron Castle, it is worth remembering that the region of Himeji and its adjacent Seiban is a land of a variety of indigenous industries that have been cherished and nursed by history and tradition and that have engaged in day-and-night endeavors to capture the hearts and needs of a fast-changing world. Among these industries is the making of Himeji dry noodles. Let us introduce to you the dry noodle industry of western Hyogo Prefecture that makes most of the blessings of nature―high-grade wheat flour, high-quality salt, and water of limpid streams.
Introduced from China
Dry noodles are a food stuff made from wheat flour or buckwheat flour kneaded with salt-added water and then dried so that they would be stored for a long period at room temperature. This additive-free, organic foodstuff is composed of two main types: one is the hand-stretched somen (thin, string-like noodles) and the other, a thicker type produced by machine. Both include semi-fresh noodles.
Noodles are said to have been brought to Japan from China more than 1200 years ago by envoys dispatched to mainland Asia. The original form was a kind of Chinese savory made of wheat and rice powders kneaded with salty water and then stretched into thin twined cords. In the literature of the Nara to Kamakura eras, the Chinese characters for either “wheat” and “rope” or “rope” and “rice cake” were applied to this savory, the pronunciation of which is said to have changed over the years to somen.
It is said that the profession of somen specialists appeared in the Muromachi era from the 14th to 16th centuries and that many somen food stores stood side by side in Kyoto’s streets in those days. From the latter part of this era to the early part of the Edo era (1603-1867), production of Japan’s famous somen started in western Hyogo and the Miwa area of Nara, leaving to today the legacy of brand somen production sites. Various parts of Japan followed to produce dried noodles that became one of the representative foods of Japan
Today, when you mention the term noodle in Japan, people living in the Kansai region including Osaka think of udon or wheat noodles but those living in the Kanto region including Tokyo think of soba or buckwheat noodles. Soba became a popular daily food for ordinary people in Edo (the present Tokyo) in the Edo era. Until then, noodles meant somen or udon to them, too.
Ingredients of Japanese dried noodles
The main ingredient is wheat powder. Without knowledge of wheat, it is impossible to make delicious noodles. So, for the type of noodles you plan to produce, you need to select the appropriate type of wheat and proper production method.
There are different types of wheat, depending of the season of their cultivation such as spring wheat and winter wheat. Depending upon the color of the grains, we call them red wheat and white wheat. They are classified into, depending upon their hardness, hard wheat, soft wheat, and intermediate-quality wheat, which is similar to bread flour. Years ago, it was believed that domestically produced wheat was suited to the production of Japanese noodles. Yet, in recent years, imports of Australian wheat are expanding on a large scale due to the production cutback of Japanese wheat for the sake of increased rice production.
Salt is a key ingredient in noodle making. You dissolve salt in water so that it is easier for the wheat powder to absorb it. Levels of salt concentration differ according to the season and production method. Salt works upon gluten or wheat protein, to tighten the dough. It also gives a lightly saline taste to the noodles. Moreover, it works to shorten time to boil the noodles and contains a multiplicity of bacteria.
For hand-stretched noodles, cooking oil is used. You grease the surface of the noodles with it and stretch them very thinly so that you impede moisture loss from the surface of the noodles, prevent adhesion of the noodles, and imbue them with unique flavor. Cotton seed oil is often used since it has a high melting point, stability of quality, and a fresh flavor. It does not oxidize readily. Another reason is that its price is quite reasonable.
Among other ingredients that are approved by the Japanese Agricultural Standards (JAS) are yam, starch, and plant protein. To flavor dried noodles, the use of eggs, powdered tea, dried vegetable, etc. is approved.
History in western Hyogo
Hand-stretched somen was traditionally produced in western Hyogo. Around 1900, it developed into the production of dried noodles to realize mass production and cut production costs. Western Hyogo is endowed with the natural gifts of sticky wheat fit for noodles, high-quality natural salt produced on the coast of the Inland Sea, and clear water from the limpid streams of the Ibo River.
Today, this region is the No.1 production site of Japan’s hand-stretched somen including Ibonoito Somen made by the Hyogo Prefecture Tenobe Somen Association. Making of dried noodles from this area is conducted all year round today and shipped to all over Japan since they have achieved great fame with their high quality and unique flavor. Although reasonable mechanization of production is underway for the dried noodle industry as a whole, there are still small-scale makers. As for hand-stretched somen, in particular, traditional, home-working trade is still active.
Hand-stretched somen was a traditional product of western Hyogo, spreading into many parts of Japan for its well-known delicious taste and unique flavor. Towards the end of the 19th century, production by machine of dried noodles became active to meet the needs of mass production and rationalization to cut down production costs.
With the appearance of mass merchandise markets from around 1960, the call for the full-fledged distribution of dried noodles became a challenge. Even before that, from the 1950s, the industry composed of small-scale, household manufacturers had been pressed to transform into a modern industry that could afford nationwide distribution of dried noodles, equipped with large-scale production capacity. While big makers succeeded in introducing larger-capacity equipment to meet the needs of the times, many tiny domestic-sized manufacturers were forced out of business.
Dried noodle manufacturers had long worked upon their products in the months when demand was low and stored them for shipment at the peak time of demand. Yet, with advanced mechanization and a larger production capacity, they came to distribute machine-made dried noodles all the year round. For the peak season, many of them began to subcontract their production.
Meanwhile, the young generation of Japan came to retreat from hard work in many occupations. This is true of the dried noodle industry. It is really a tough job to stretch out somen in the bitter cold and hang them on lines to dry. Moreover, it takes a long time to master this skill. The number of skilled artisans continued to decline and the successor problem turned out to be a very serious one. Even for the making of hand-stretched somen, machines began to be introduced.
The word “hand-stretched” attracted consumers and sales kept increasing. The introduction of machines has begun to stir a quiet controversy about the use of the term “hand-stretched” for noodles made by machine. The reality is that production of authentic hand-stretched noodles is on the decrease, although their popularity is on the increase.
Brand somen Ibonoito ®
Ibonoito® is a trademark of the Hyogo Prefecture Tenobe Somen Association. Ito means “string”, no means “of”, and Ibo signifies the “Ibo River”. Yes, Ibonoito® is the beautifully thin string-shaped somen produced in the wide areas from Tatsuno City along the Ibo River to the western part of Himeji City.It is produced in a limited period from October through April every year as Japan’s famous somen,arepresentative somen together with that from Miwa, Nara Prefecture. (Tatsuno City is also famous for the light soy sauce Higashimaru shoyu.) In addition to somen, the Association sells “hand-stretched hiyamugi” and “hand-stretched udon”. Hiyamugi is thicker than somen and thinner than udon.
The Association opened the “Ibonoito® Museum: Somen no Sato” or Land of Somen in Tatsuno City in 1997. It serves as a very popular museum to learn about the history of hand-stretched somen and its manufacturing process. Visitors can also try many somen recipes at the restaurant Iori.