April 13:"Soumen", Japanese noodle
by Mie
Tatsuno City in Hyougo prefecture, my birthplace, is famous for its production of "Soumen", a type of Japanese noodle. The brand name of the Soumen produced here is "Ibo-no-ito", literally meaning "Ibo district's thread." On my way back from my parents' cemetery visiting in Hayashida town, we dropped in Soumen Museum annexed to the noodle factory in Kamioka town in Tatsuno city. People can see the whole manufacturing procedure of the noodle and understand all about it.
The panel (left) illustrates the history of Soumen: Around 7,000 B.C., wheat had been cultivated in Mesopotamia area and around 1,000 B.C. , the invention of rotary mortar triggered the spread of wheat plantation in wider area such as Egypt, Central Asia. Wheat, together with rotary mortar, was brought to China around 300 B.C. through the Silk Road.
Old Chinese then produced "Mizuhiki-mochi", a kind of rice cake-presumably the root of Soumen-, from wheat. The rice cake technology was brought to Japan through the Japanese envoys to Tang Dynasty China.

Wheat civilization has spread all around the world, but what is interesting is, noodle civilization has developed in Italy and Asian countries. A Chinese makes lamian from a lump of dough added with oil on the surface (right.)
It was around in 1750 of Edo period when Somen was produced in a large scale here in Banshu-an old name of this area. The feudal lord of Tatsuno gave license and encouraged the production of Soumen. Actual starting time, however, may dates back to Muromachi era: an old document handed down in Ikaruga Temple in Taishi town records the name of "Saumen" that suggests the food was popular there.
In old days, Soumen was also used as the feast to the guests at Court. In the Middle Age, it was modified as a Buddhist monk's snack, and then it became much popular food for ordinary people in Edo period. As the Soumen was served without cutting at that time, chewy noodles requested people special eating techniques: by putting Soumen around the neck or standing up on a step.
Many factors allowed the booming of Soumen production in this area: Wheat or cotton had been produced in a large scale here in Banshu plain, good salt was available from Ako saltpans nearby, soft water was also abundant from many streams you can see on the panel like this, and the area was blessed with much sunlight and dryness in winter season.
Mannequins demonstrate how to make Soumen in a traditional way: the mannequin on the left coats (Saimoku-process, left) the surface of still thick Soumen with cotton oil so as to protect them from drying before making Soumen thinner by a hand-driven tools like this (right.)
Even today, when the production process is largely mechanized, there are still many handwork steps that causes the name of the final product as "Hand-made Soumen." Visitors can experience the "pulling" process: the dough in the length of about ten centimeters will be very carefully stretched up to about two meters without severing them. Dividing the stretched Soumen requires the skill as well. The chewy dough made me perspired in just one time trial.

Making Soumen starts four in a cold winter morning by kneading the flour. It takes about 36 hours to undergo the final inspection after five times maturing. Only intensified care can produce high quality hand-made Soumen under the brand name of "Ibo-no-Ito."
Visitors can see the actual manufacturing process through the glass. The Soumen dried in the sunlight is cut into 19 centimeters in length before the packing. All the packages are to be matured in the storehouse during the rainy season. The product is shipped in the hot summer.

The Soumen of this area has won the nationwide reputation. This is because the manufactures were organized in early days (1865) into a union in order to keep and improve the quality of the "Ibo-no-Ito" brand.
There are many types of product (left.) In the center top is standard Soumen, other variations included are longer size, colored ones, and others. Somen is also for sale in a shop (right.) The small boxes are called "Hine", meaning matured over a year. On the top is a monumental Soumen ornament called Yokozuna (of Sumo wrestling.)
Soumen is also served as a celebrating dish with a sea bream-luck bringing fish. The dish used to be popular in wedding feast in this area.
Now, we will enjoy Soumen dish as well for lunch.Soumen is usually served in cold in hot summer, but here in Banshu, people prefer to take it in hot dish.

In the front is a tray of cold Soumen, and two large bowls contain hot Soumen. As this area is famous for its production of "thin" soy sauce, we can enjoy very tasty Soumen with rich flavor of the soy sauce. I have been very familiar with Soumen since my childhood, but I have learned much more today.
Please come and take a look at the Museum. You will see an unusual pure white Soumen drying scene in farmers backyard in a dry, clear winter days.

Soumen Museum: 56-Okumura Kamioka town Tatsuno City, Hyougo prefecture Japan; Phone 0791-65-9000

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