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Somen

Blog, Summer Food

Tanabata 七夕 Japan’s Star Festival & Recipe For Tofu Sōmen Salad


Dating back more than 2000 years July brings Tanabata, one of Japan’s most well-known festivals.

Tanabata たなばた (七夕 ) means “the evening of the seventh,” and is celebrated mainly on July 7th each year.  It is one of the five main seasonal festivals of Japan called Gosekku 五節句.

Tanabata is celebrated to commemorate the romantic story of two lovers  織姫 (Orihime), meaning “the weaving princess,” and 彦星 (Hikoboshi), meaning “the cow herder.”They are represented by the stars Vega and Altair who are only allowed to meet each other once a year in the Milky Way as long as the skies are clear. This is also why Tanabata is known as the ‘Star Festival’ or Hoshi Matsuri ‘hoshi’ meaning star in Japanese.

The legend of two star-crossed lovers.

In the tale, a noblewoman Princess Orihime (Vega) who wove beautiful pieces of cloth and a cow-herder named Hikoboshi (Altair) fall in love. Distracted by their romance, the two start to neglect their duties. Orihime stops weaving and Hikoboshi’s cows are left unattended. This angers Orihime’s father, the Emperor of the Heavens, who separates the two by widening the “heavenly river,” or Milky Way. But he was also the father of Orihime and loved her deeply, so to make her happy, he arranged that they could meet up once a year if Orihime returned to her weaving. This day became the 7th day of the 7th month. On the first day they were to be reunited, they found the river (Milky Way) to be too difficult to cross. Orihime became so despondent that a flock of magpies came and made a bridge for her. It is said that if it rains on Tanabata, the magpies will not come, and the two lovers must wait another year to be reunited, so Japanese people always wish for good weather on Tanabata.

How to celebrate Tanabata

Tanzaku 短冊

(wish upon a star)

When Tanabata first arrived in Japan from China in the Heian period (794 to 1185) aristocrats in the imperial court would write poetry while gazing at the stars to celebrate the lovers. The festival gained widespread popularity amongst the general public and by the early Edo period (1603–1868) that the story of Tanabata and its festival was celebrated by all the people of Japan. It was during this period that the tradition of writing wishes on tanzaku, brightly coloured pieces of paper, and hanging them from branches of bamboo became part of the celebration. Bamboo is regarded as a spiritual plant and life force in Japan, since bamboo grows straight up to the sky. Hanging tanzaku means that the bamboo carries your wishes to the sky. The wishes made on Tanabata are not needy ones, but instead are those that are focused on improvement in one’s skills or abilities. Many children practice their calligraphy skills when writing their tanzaku.

These tanzaku then become beautiful wish trees. On the following day, the decorated trees are floated on a river or in the ocean or burned as an offering.

Large-scale Tanabata festivals are held in many places in Japan on both July 7th and August 7th. The exact date varies by region, depending on which calendar is being followed, the Georgian or lunar calendar.

Along shopping malls and streets you will see many  decorations of large, colourful streamers.

These are called Fukinagashi 吹き流し paper streamers said to represent weaving threads.

The ornamental ball kusudama 薬玉 often decorated above the  streamers in present-day Tanabata decorations was originally conceived in 1946 by the owner of a shop in downtown Sendai. The ball was originally modelled after the dahlia flower.

The most famous Tanabata festival is held in Sendai around the 6th to 8th of August. Along with the Asagaya Matsuri which is has been held in the Pearl Centre shopping street a 1 kilometer long, covered arcade or (shotengai) near Asagaya station Tokyo at the beginning of every August since 1954.

You can also celebrate Tanabata in Tokyo on the weekend around the 7th of July at the Shitamachi Tanabata Matsuri Asakusa’s Kappabashi famous kitchen town when local businesses put out stalls and hold parades and street performances. You may also witness a beautiful candle light-up at Zojoji Temple which is located at the foot of the Tokyo Tower, where hundreds of washi paper lanterns are arranged in the shape of the Milky Way along the staircase that leads up to the temple’s main hall.

There are many celebrations all over Japan, which also include parades, food stalls, colourful decorations, and fireworks.

The Tanabata Festival brings colour to public spaces across Japan as beautiful decorations go up on display.

Many prefectures and local neighbourhoods will have their Tanabata celebrations so you’re sure to find something if you are in Japan at these times.

Special food eaten at Tanabata

If you are not in Japan at this time why not celebrate at home by making your own Tanabata wishing tree or making some of the seasonal food eaten to celebrate.

Food for Tanabata

If you happen to be out and about during the Tanabata celebrations in Japan you will find many food stalls or Yatai selling classic Japanese street food from takoyaki, yakitori and okonomiyaki to yakisoba, these are all a delicious way to enjoy the festivities of the season. 

However, nothing says Tanabata more than Sōmen! A more traditional dish, to celebrate the day, these noodles are served cold with a light dipping sauce and can sometimes be topped with vegetables cut in the shape of stars. This dish is symbolic as it is believed that the long threads of sōmen noodles bear a resemblance to the Milky Way, but also the threads woven by Orihime. Somen noodles are made from wheat flour,salt and water and are very fine and delicate much like thread.

Recipe for Tanabata Tofu & Somen salad with a Kyoto-style “Awase-zu” all purpose citrus vinegar seasoning.

Because somen noodles 素麺/そうめん are so fine and delicate they are normally sold in dried bundles but only take a few minutes to cook.


This chilled somen salad is perfect in summer, when temperatures soar with lots of refreshing watering vegetables.

The salad is sort of a variation of Hiyayakko where chilled tofu is served with various toppings and has a refreshing dressing poured over. In this recipe we will use the soft variety of “Shizenno Megumi” tofu by dragonfly foods to make a variation on  Hiyayakko by cutting the chilled tofu in to stars to decorate colourful somen noodles. The soft tofu is perfect for salads and is light, silky and creamy.

Salad ingredients & Method for 1-2 people

First make your Kyoto style Awase-zu (合わせ酢) in advance to chill in the fridge.

Ingredients:

1/2 cup brown rice vinegar

1 tablespoons granulated sugar

2 tablespoons mirin

pinch of salt

1 tablespoon of light  soy sauce (“usukuchi shoyu”)

1 tablespoon of yuzu juice (lemon or lime) if you do not have yuzu

Method:

  1. In a sauce pan, combine all the ingredients except for the yuzu juice. Over a medium heat stir the sugar and salt to dissolve.
  2. As soon as it starts boiling, turn off the heat. Add the yuzu juice and let it chill in the fridge until nice and cold.
  3. I also find adding a little sesame oil at this point adds some lovely depth of flavour or even a little ginger juice. 

You will need a selection of refreshing vegetables for your salad think juicy cherry tomatoes, watery cucumber, sliced myoga ginger, chopped shiso leaves, sweetcorn, edamame and crispy salad leaves. Maybe even some chopped watermelon (suica). Prepare these to add to your salad in advance. You could also cut some into star shapes.

Unpack and drain your chilled tofu this tofu contains a lot more liquid than regular tofu, so you need to drain the tofu for at least 10 minutes. I find wrapping it in a soft muslin cloth or kitchen towel helps . After this time unwrap and place on a cutting board, carefully slice in half across the width of the tofu to make two thinner slices. Using a small star shaped cutter cut into the tofu making star shapes. Do not throw the remaining tofu you can use this to make a creamy dessert. See one of my previous recipes using “Shizenno Megumi” tofu.


You will need one bunch of somen noodles per person. The next step is up to you but dying the noodles blue with butterfly pea tea powder makes for a beautiful celebratory meal in keeping with the Milky Way.

Into a pan of simmering water add one heaped teaspoon of butterfly pea tea powder and  stir to combine then add your noodles. Or just use plain water if you are not dying the noodles.

Note: so you can arrange them nicely I find tying the ends with string works well this can be cut off after cooking and arranging.

Cook for a few minutes then have some ice cold water ready to plunge the noodles into straight away after draining to avoid over cooking them.

Arrange the noodles on a plate over some salad leaves by holding the noodles from the end tied with string place them in a swirl pattern and then cut the end to remove the string.

Arrange your vegetables and pour a little of your dressing over the noodles the yuzu will turn the died blue noodles a pretty purple colour. If you like you could even add some gold flakes if you have some.

This recipe makes the perfect summer dish to enjoy on a hot Tanabata evening while gazing at the stars with a cold drink.

We hope for clear skies so the lovers can be reunited and may all your wishes come true on tanabata!

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Japanese Micro Season 8 小満 Shōman (Lesser ripening)

小満 Shōman (Lesser ripening)
May 21–25 蚕起食桑 Kaiko okite kuwa o hamu Silkworms start feasting on mulberry leaves

May 26–30 紅花栄 Benibana sakau Safflowers bloom

May 31–June 5 麦秋至 Mugi no toki itaru Wheat ripens and is harvested

The summer heat is starting to be felt now as temperatures rise in Japan. There is a vibrant spurt of growth in the fields.
Safflowers blooms are picked to make natural  textile dyes ranging from yellow to red in colour.

Towards the end of this micro season the wheat is harvested. People often forget that wheat is important in Japanese cooking because rice takes the forefront. However we must remember that noodles are made from wheat so we would have no ramen, somen, or udon without it. Also we have the barley to make barley miso or barley tea known as mugi cha, I particularly like this one by Sabo it is an organic roasted  barley that is loose instead of in a teabag form.


Of course beer is very popular in the hot summers of Japan with Asahi, Ebisu, Kirin, and Sapporo beer springing to mind. Do you have a favourite Japanese beer brand ?
As the temperatures start to rise cold noodles are enjoyed why not make Hiyashi Chuka a dish of cold ramen with various toppings and a dressing. It’s nice to choose refreshing vegetables for your ramen like cucumber and tomato, bell peppers and sweetcorn maybe. Then a dressing made with soy sauce and vinegar. I have a recipe on my pages with a lovely refreshing dressing. You could also make Tsukemen or dipping ramen. Ramen is dipped into a hot soup. Somen noodles are very much a favourite of summer in Japan

The noodles are very fine and are normally served chilled with ice and condiments for dipping and serving. Again I have a recipe on my pages for somen dishes.
I hope that over the summer you can try making a chilled noodle dish for yourself.

Blog, Summer Food

Somen & Bean Sprout Salad


In Japan there is a bean sprout salad with the name Moyashi Namuru, taken from the Korean name Namul, Moyashi means bean sprouts in Japanese. It makes an excellent side dish, however I decided to take this dish one step further by adding somen noodles to it. Somen are very fine noodles more often eaten chilled in the summertime. They take very little cooking just a few minutes in boiling water then once cooked are drained and rinsed in cold running water, to remove any excess starch. These somen noodles work perfectly with the bean sprouts and dressing to make this light but filling meal. You can even add more to the dish if you like maybe some finely sliced cucumber or if you can get it Myoga ginger.

First lightly steam a few handfuls of bean sprouts and set aside.
You will need to cook and drain one bundle of somen noodles and  rinse them well. You can keep them for a few moments in cold water while you get everything prepared ready.

To make a simple refreshing dressing add to a bowl:

x1 tablespoon of tamari or soy sauce, 1/2 tablespoon of Yuzu juice, x1 tablespoon of toasted sesame oil and 1/2 tablespoon of mirin.

If you want to add anything else then slice that finely and set aside. I just used some chopped chives as I didn’t want to complicate the flavours to much.

The last thing is to add the bean sprouts to the noodles and gently toss them in and then add your dressing and chives, you could also use chopped green onion . I like to use chopsticks to mix everything together by lifting and dropping the noodles. Finish with a scatter of sesame seeds and chill in the fridge.

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Tanabata Summer Somen

Chilled Somen noodles with a dipping sauce is one of the most enjoyed foods on the Japanese holiday of Tanabata,which is on the 7th day of the 7th month. Tanabata is the star festival reuniting of the lovers Orihime and Hikoboshi or the stars Vega and Altair. Separated by the Milky Way all but for one night each year.

The Somen noodles are supposed to signify the Milky Way. On this day people write wishes on coloured strips of paper known as tanzaku and hang them on bamboo. See my  other Tanabata post on the blog for more pictures.

Somen noodles are made from wheat flour,salt and water and are very fine and delicate . Mostly white but you can get ones in green tea,Ume plum and egg variety. I have even been lucky to have yuzu ones before also. The coloured ones are said to represent the threads from which Orihime weaved her cloth as she was a weaver.

These noodles are normally served chilled sometimes with ice to keep them super cold,served hot in winter they are called new men. Because they are so fine and delicate they are normally sold in dried bundles but only take a few minutes to cook. Plunge straight away in cold water to avoid over cooking. Serve with condiments like chopped green onion,sesame seeds,ginger and grated daikon.

Or why not make a refreshing Somen salad like the one in my previous Tanabata post with cut cucumber stars .

What will you be wishing for this Tanabata?