E57 A Brief History of Noodles
Show Notes for episode 57 of our Podcast – A Brief History of Noodles.
If you mention Japan and noodles in the same sentence, most people in America would, I assume, think you are talking about ramen. Ramen has become so ingrained in American culture that, along with sushi, that’s may be what most of us thought about when we first thought about going to Japan – either to visit or to live.
And in doing the research for this podcast, that’s the article topic that came up most frequently. Ramen is a hugely popular dish worldwide, and of course in Japan.
And it would be sooo easy to just focus on ramen for this episode. I thought about it – BUT I feel like ramen should have it’s own episode.
There so so many different types of noodles in Japan! And they are all equally delicious in their own way! So, while we are going to mention about ramen because it IS amazing, I want to give some more information about other noodle-y delights as well.
So it could be said that this noodle has origins from the Nara Period, coming to Japan from China. These rice noodles were called soumochi. These noodles were made from rice flour.
But in the Kamakura period, noodles were being made from wheat instead of rice. These wheat based noodles were served at buddhist temples in the Muromachi period. This is probably when we get the name transition to somen.
And while other noodles may be talked about more in other counties, in Japan somen is a popular gift item. In fact – a tradition I’ve heard about is when you move to a new place, you often present your new neighbors with somen.
Chilled somen is eaten in summertime. Dipped in a mentsuyu broth, it’s cooling and refreshing. And also said to be easy and light on the stomach, as appetites may be lower due to the intense heat and humidity.
For a fun experience, nagashi somen is somen noodles sent down a floating bamboo tube. However, unless you buy your own personal home nagashi somen machine, you’ll need to wait till well AFTER the danger of the new corona virus to try this with others.
Soba – or buckwheat noodles as you might know them. A sort of grey-ish noodle that’s eaten hot or cold. These are thought to have come from China during the Jomon period, sometime between 10,000 and 300 BC.
Buckwheat has a lot of nutritional value. But, some people do have allergies to this grain. Oddly enough, it’s not a grass or a wheat like you might think but is actually related to rhubarb.
Soba is eaten on New Year’s Eve in Japan, along with tempura to mark the passing of the years end and to look to the future.
Soba is served hot in dashi stock, or cold with a dipping sauce which usually includes a side of green onions and wasabi.
Soba is made from buckwheat flour and funny enough, I saw that in Hokkaido that buckwheat was submerged in sack in the water and brought out recently to dry out and grind into buckwheat flour. And unfortunately I didn’t have time to look this up but I think we might have to come back to buckwheat in the future.
There are a few possible origin stories for udon – one says possibly a monk named Enni brought over a wheat milling technique from China around 1421 which paved the way for widespread noodle making. Another said that a monk named Kukai introduced the noodles to Sanuki province, or Shikoku, in the Heien Era after studying in China (Thomas knows who this is – I may interrupt here). There’s more, but let’s move on to talking about the noodles themselves.
Made from wheat flour, kneaded, and cut, these are thick and chewy noodles and happen to be one of my absolute favorites. There’s many ways to enjoy them – kitsune udon (light stock with sweet fried tofu) is very popular and cheap! But you can also eat them similar to soba or somen – dipped into a flavorful stock. Yaki udon is also great! And I’ve also seen udon noodles included in okonomiyaki, at least here in Hiroshima prefecture.
I have focused on wheat noodles, but if your definition of noodles includes anything that is long and thin, well then I’ll briefly mention –
Harusame are noodles made from different types of starches, including perhaps potato or mung beans. You can hydrate these noodles in hot water, or add them to nabe. They’re used in salads too, among other things.
So let’s end with ramen. Ramen noodles are made from wheat and water – but to be called ramen noodles they have to be made with kansui – alkaline water. If they aren’t made a certain way, they can’t be called ramen. At least, that’s what I have been told!
These noodles are also thought to have come from China, but not that long ago in relative Japanese noodle history.
Like I said, we’ll have another episode just on ramen, but some popular base types you might know are
- Shoyu – soy sauce based
- Tonkotsu – pork broth based
- Shio – a salt based broth
- Miso – miso based broth
We’ve also got Hokkaido ramen, made with miso and butter and corn. Speaking of which, pretty much every prefecture, area, and city in Japan has their own style of ramen.
Actually – all the noodles mentioned here have their own regional specialties as well! So perhaps we’ll visit noodles again. Or better yet, just try them all!
So there you have a very very short intro to noodles in Japan! And if you want further information, there are tons and tons of food vloggers, cooking vloggers, articles, tv shows, documentaries, etc about Japanese noodles and I encourage you to check them out! I learn something new all the time.
And if you are wondering – why, yes I did have to eat noodles while writing this research! In fact, today was udon. Which may be my favorite. No, wait. Somen. No, soba. I need further “research” before I can confirm.
Todays poem comes from Kobayashi Issa.
Kagerō ya / Soba-ya ga mae no / Hashi no yama
In the heat-haze
Before the noodle shop lies
A mountain of chopsticks.
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