Cultural fusion adds a new dimension to the somen noodle
Thin somen noodles are traditionally associated with summer. They are easy to cook: simply boil up, rinse in cold water to cool, then douse in cold mentsuyu broth. But somen dishes do not have to be confined to the hot summer months, with popular variations including nyumen, which is served in a hot dashi broth, and somen salad, for the health-conscious somen aficionado. In fact, somen can be enjoyed all year round together with seasonal produce.
Marukatsu Takada Shoten is located in Miwa, Nara prefecture, said to be the birthplace of the somen noodle in Japan. This unique business is dedicated to producing hand-stretched somen noodles for local and export markets. At the same time, Marukatsu Takada Shoten is spearheading a new approach to somen, creating a range of exciting new dishes incorporating elements of foreign cuisine.
Turning the conventional concept of somen on its head
Marukatsu Takada Shoten president Katsuichi Takada is keen to promote the key selling points of the somen noodle: great taste and convenience. “Somen is not just a summer dish,” he explains. “You can eat it any time of the year, and it’s adaptable enough that you can prepare it any way you like.”
Takada is busy working on his latest challenge: fusing somen noodles with Italian cuisine.
The aim is to create new somen dishes with year-round appeal.
“The original inspiration came from the time I was asked to prepare somen noodles for a reception after an Italian fashion show,” recalls Takada. “As it was winter, I served a nyumen dish in hot broth. The local Italians absolutely loved it, the way the noodles were thin yet firm, and they peppered me with questions about how to cook somen al dente style. I realized that somen noodles were quite suited to Italian cuisine, and this opened my eyes to a whole new world of possibilities.”
It was this moment when Takada was alerted to the wider potential of the somen noodle, something that had not really occurred to Japanese people before. It marked the start of Takada’s mission to create an Italian-themed menu at Marukatsu Takada Shoten.
Using his Italian connections, Takada brought out a number of Michelin-starred chefs from Italy to help him create a range of new somen dishes designed to appeal to both the Japanese palate as well as overseas consumers.
Here we present La Ricetta, one of the somen-Italian fusion recipes developed by Marukatsu Takada Shoten together with Chef Luca Collami from the Michelin-starred Ristorante Baldin, which is located in Genoa, Italy’s the largest port city.
This recipe uses tomato, Alaskan king crab and ricotta cheese. Collami is fulsome in his praise of the somen noodle: “It’s really versatile; you can match it with just about anything. I love it for its taste and the way it is firm to the bite.”
The exquisite flavor of crab meat is complemented by the sharpness of the tomato and the smooth ricotta cheese to create a gentle yet pleasing combination. The simplicity of the recipe means that it is important to use the very best ingredients, particularly the crab meat and the tomato.
A long-established restaurant with an eye for quality produce
Takada explains the fundamentals of preparing somen noodles as follows.
“You have to take the approach that somen is only one element in your dish. Although it is traditionally eaten in the summer months, there are plenty of other ways to serve it?as hot nyumen for breakfast, for instance, or added to a hearty nabe stew. So our job is to prepare the finest somen noodles that will complement any dish.”
Marukatsu Takada Shoten uses extra virgin Italian olive oil in its flagship product Kamiito as well as other somen varieties. Hand-rolled somen is normally made from wheat, salt and water, with cotton seed oil added to help stretch the noodles to the required thinness. The olive oil enhances the aroma of the wheat, an important part of the somen experience, and preserves the flavor for longer. The finished somen noodle retains something of the flavor of the oil, so the use of olive oil adds an extra dimension to the flavor.
Meanwhile, Marukatsu Takada Shoten is also developing a number of new somen product lines, such as the smooth-tasting Kanade, made with Yoshino Kudzu (arrowroot starch) from Nara prefecture as well as Japanese wheat. The business clearly takes great pride in exploring new directions for the somen noodle while at the same time upholding the ancient traditions of this delicious noodle.
“In Italy, and indeed throughout the world, you see a strong focus on the quality of the ingredients,” says Takada. “In our quest to explore new culinary avenues, we are forging a link between Italian and Japanese cuisines. I am confident that Japanese-style dishes that appeal directly to Italians will also resonate with consumers here in Japan.”
At first glance, somen noodles and Italian dishes would seem to be worlds apart. Yet by showing due respect to both forms of cuisine, Marukatsu Takada Shoten and the team of Italian chefs have created a unique and exciting fusion of the two, based on the medium of the humble somen noodle.
Marukatsu Takada Shoten is dedicated to promoting the delights of the somen noodle to the wider international market. To this end, the company pours considerable resources into researching the tastes and preferences of consumers in other countries. This unique culinary cultural exchange program has the added benefit of introducing Japanese consumers to new flavors and new ideas for somen that in turn filter through to the rest of the world.