When I was growing up in California, our Japanese neighbours would often invite us over on hot days for a lunch of cold noodles. Although ethnically Japanese, the family hailed from Hawaii, and therefore had a more casual approach to meals than people raised in Japan, but still, it was always an impressive spread. In the centre of the table would be a huge bowl of noodles in ice water, from which we would help ourselves. We’d have individual cups of dipping sauce, and there would be an array of ingredients – minced negi (Japanese leeks), nori, pickled vegetables and strips of cold meats and egg omelette – that we added to our bowls or ate alongside the noodles.
Japanese cold noodles with dipping sauce
Most people (including my neighbours) use bottled dipping sauce, but I make my own, based on a recipe in Japanese Cooking – A Simple Art (1980) by Shizuo Tsuji. It’s not difficult, and one batch is large enough for several meals; just decant it into a sterilised bottle and store in the fridge, where it will keep for weeks.
Japanese noodles often come in small bundles of 100 grams, which the producers consider to be the correct serving size. That’s enough for some people, but those with heartier appetites can eat much more, so cook the appropriate amount for your guests.
If I’m dining alone, I keep the accompaniments simple: fresh wasabi (I store the root in the freezer and grate it as needed), chopped negi, shredded nori, and whatever ingredients I can find in the fridge. But if I’m serving others, I make a little more effort: small portions of sea urchin and/or ikura (salmon roe), fresh soybeans (boiled in their pods in salted water), home-made pickles (including Korean kimchi), cold beancurd (like the recipe I gave a few weeks ago, but without the century egg and pork floss) and a salad of cherry tomatoes in a flavourful dressing.
2 bags of instant dashi powder (they look like teabags)
130ml soy sauce
15 grams granulated sugar
30 grams dried bonito flakes (katsuobushi)
Thin Japanese noodles of your choice (such as soba, somen or udon), at least 100 grams per person
Make the dipping sauce several hours in advance so it has enough time to chill. Put the bags of dashi powder into a saucepan and add 500ml of boiling water. Leave to steep for several minutes, then remove the bags. Add the soy sauce, sake and sugar to the pan and bring to the boil over a medium flame. Turn off the heat then add the bonito flakes. Stir once, then leave for about 10 seconds. Strain the liquid through a colander placed over a bowl. Press the bonito flakes gently to extract the flavour, then discard. Cool the liquid, then refrigerate until cold.
Bring a pan of water to the boil and cook the noodles until done. Strain through a colander, rinse with cold running water then put them into a bowl with plenty of cool water. Add plenty of ice cubes and leave until the noodles are very cold. Drain the noodles and portion them out onto individual serving plates. Ladle the cold dipping sauce into small bowls or cups, then serve with the condiments and accompaniments of your choice.
Japanese tomato salad with soy and onion dressing
This is a delicious and colourful salad to serve with cold noodles and many other dishes. The dressing keeps well in the fridge, so if you have some on hand, it takes only a couple of minutes to make this dish.
50 grams onion
10 grams granulated sugar
50ml Japanese rice vinegar
25ml Japanese soy sauce
75ml neutral-tasting cooking oil
¼ tsp sesame oil
Cherry tomatoes, as needed
Toasted sesame seeds
Roughly chop the onion and put it in the bowl of a food processor. Add the sugar, vinegar and soy sauce and process until smooth. With the processor motor running, pour the cooking oil and sesame oil through the feed tube in a slow, steady stream to create an emulsion. Scrape the mixture into a container and chill until needed.
Cut the cherry tomatoes in half and mix in some of the dressing, using just enough to coat the fruit. Sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds, then serve.