Yes, I know there is sadly no Nobel Prize for culinary arts. But there should be. So I am officially nominating an unassuming, down-to-earth genius female Japanese chef named Etsuko Ichise. My definition of culinary genius is someone who has perfected the art of creating five-minute dishes that taste like they should have taken you hours to make, but didn’t. Better yet, Ichise’s are not your heavy, greasy ramen noodles, where the thick broth recipe is guarded ferociously by a whole line of Japanese male chefs cooking them the same way since the middle ages. These lighter somen recipes will literally expand your imagination—and your noodle. These five-ingredient recipes are light, flavorful, and as healthy as you want them to be.
You can stick your steamed broccoli and two strands of cut-up romaine in them (as I did with the avocado recipe) and make them into a noodle lunch salad. They are a great vehicle for eggs: You can lightly fry eggs and place them on top. Make sure the yolk is liquid as it gives the noodles, even more, umami; or poach an egg directly into boiling hot broth, as in the jalapeno recipe below. You can add any protein you have on hand, such as your leftover chicken, beef, pork, or tofu. Or, if all else fails, dig around your pantry, and drop some chopped roasted cashews or peanuts on a cold or warm noodle salad, as I have done. Cube a mango into the cold noodles for extra vitamins—or add a handful of sprouts. Better yet, you can eat these somen noodles hot, room temperature, or cold for the hot summer months. Serve in hot broth, or with just a little sauce, or even with a dipping sauce on the side.
In Japan, chefs often publish “mooks,” which are magazine-like books, small enough to feel like a magazine, but beautiful and sturdy enough to keep as books. I bought one of Ichise’s books, and instantly fell in love with her brilliance. I now make amazing noodles in less time than a sandwich. But there’s a catch. The recipes are all in Japanese. As far as I can tell, no one has tried to translate these masterpieces. Imagine if Einstein’s theory of relativity went unpublished.
So here, I recruited my blue-eyed husband who speaks flawless Japanese to translate three of them that we love. When I asked him to get me more of Ichise’s “mooks” for Christmas, turns out she had over 800 of them published in Japan. Of course, I asked for all of them. After much squabbling, he agreed to buy me thirty of the 800. Sadly, we couldn’t locate any in the English-speaking world. So this article is about correcting this sorry state of affairs. We must bring this lady’s genius to the rest of the world. Japan cannot just be known for sushi and ramen, but also for Ichise’s somen noodles.
Although most ingredients can be found in the Asian isle of your local supermarket, if you want to up your game without much effort, stock up on the essential pantry items from a real Japanese store that carries small-batch soy sauce made in Kanazawa, and sesame oil so delicate it tastes like a flower (as depicted below). Purchasing these artisanal ingredients helps maintain these dying traditions, and provides more pure ingredients that don’t have additives, such as corn syrup or artificial coloring.
Somen is a thin wheat noodle that cooks in about 3 minutes in boiling, unsalted water (don’t forget to remove the ribbon from the package). It is most often served cold as a dipping noodle (tsukemen), meaning you have a plate of noodles that you dip in a savory soup or sauce before eating.
All recipes below serve 2 and are adapted from The Book of Somen by Etsuko Ichise, Ei Publishing Co., LTD. 2019. For more ideas, see Etsuko’s blog.
Poached egg oyster sauce noodles
2 poached eggs (or lightly fried with liquid yolk)
1 ¼ cup light chicken broth
2 T oyster sauce
1 T soy sauce
½ tsp sugar
Pinch of salt and pepper
1 serrano, jalapeño, or other chili, thinly sliced rounds.
Cook two servings of somen noodles in unsalted boiling water for 3 minutes. Rinse and drain, using cold water to chill if you want it cold. Put noodles in a bowl and pour sauce over it. Add toppings last.
Avocado and wasabi noodles
1 ripe avocado
1 pack of sprouts (or other micro-green or veggie)
2 T soy sauce
1 T toasted sesame oil
1 T rice vinegar
1 tsp prepared wasabi paste.
Cook two servings of somen noodles in unsalted boiling water for 3 minutes. Rinse and drain, using cold water to chill if you want it cold. Serve in a bowl with the sauce poured over and top with avocado, sprouts, and peanuts.
Taiwan style somen
¾ cup seasoned, cooked ground meat (see below)
2 leaves thin chopped romaine lettuce, Chinese chives, or other green
2 fried eggs (keep yolk liquid)
2 T mirin
2 T soy sauce
½ tsp chili oil
1 T toasted sesame oil
¾ cup ground meat
1 clove garlic
1 tsp minced fresh ginger root
1 T soy sauce
1 tsp mirin
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
½ tsp sugar.
First, prepare your protein by sauteing on medium heat with all the ingredients for protein. Once browned and slightly caramelized, set aside. Prepare sauce in a bowl. Cook two servings of somen noodles in unsalted boiling water for 3 minutes. Rinse and drain, using cold water to chill if you like it cold. Serve in a bowl, top with protein in the middle, with greens of your choice surrounding. Top with the egg.