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A goldmine of traditional Japanese food! The delicious island of Shodoshima – Part 2

May 28, 2018

400-year-old food culture – Somen noodles

Shodoshima, an island set in the calm waters of the Seto Inland Sea, is the birthplace of Japan’s 110-year-long tradition of olive cultivation. Compared to some of the island’s other specialties, however, olives are but a recent addition to its distinctive food culture. The production of somen noodles, for instance, dates back several centuries. Thinner than udon, somen is especially popular during the scorching summer months. After boiling, the vermicelli-like noodles are plunged in ice water to firm, and then served with an icy cold dipping sauce. Smooth and cold, they’re perfect for eating on a brutally hot day when you don’t have much of an appetite.

The history of somen production on Shodoshima is said to date back to 1598. That year, a group of islanders returning from a pilgrimage to the Ise Grand Shrine visited Miwa in Nara Prefecture, the birthplace of somen. Realizing the potential of somen as a side business for farmers during the winter off-season, they learned the necessary techniques and brought their newfound knowledge back to Shodoshima. Because of the island’s flourishing shipping trade, it was easy to procure the necessary wheat from throughout the country. This, along with Shodoshima’s abundant supply of high quality water and salt, enabled the somen-making industry to take off across the island. Even today, there are still about 200 somen factories in operation.

Shodoshima’s somen is made using the 400-year-old “tenobe,” or hand stretching, method. The dough is kneaded and stretched repeatedly by hand before being carefully separated into ultra-thin noodles using long wooden chopsticks. The noodles are then dried slowly in the sun. This painstaking process results in flavorful noodles that are thin yet firm. Somen production usually takes place from October through March, when the weather is dry and there is plenty of sunshine. During that period, visitors to the island will be greeted by the poetic sight of curtains of somen fluttering in the breeze.

An additional unique quality of this particular somen is that it’s made using sesame oil. Wheat, water, and salt are kneaded together, and the resulting dough is folded and stretched repeatedly to give it a firm texture. The dough is then rolled into a long rope and coated with sesame oil before being coiled up. The oil prevents the rope from sticking and keeps the surface moist and smooth.

Some somen factories offer visitors a chance to attempt “hashiwake,“ the traditional process of using wooden chopsticks to stretch the noodles into threads. Yoshikage Nakabu, the second-generation owner of the factory I visited, has been making somen for 36 years. Following his advice, I tried my hand at hashiwake for the very first time. “Just relax and allow the chopsticks to slide through,” he advised. It’s much easier said than done! The chopsticks are 70 cm long, making them difficult to handle. Additionally, the concentration required to stretch the noodles into threads without breaking them generates significant tension! When I finally succeeded in getting it right, it was enormously satisfying. This is a fun way to experience Shodoshima’s food culture firsthand.

400-year-old food culture – Soy sauce fermented in wooden barrels

Shodoshima boasts another culinary specialty that goes back well over four centuries. To learn all about it, I headed to Hishio-no-sato, an area that has become a major tourist attraction. As I strolled through streets lined with black wooden buildings, I detected the tantalizing aroma of one of Japan's most essential seasonings: soy sauce. The combination of high-quality soybeans (courtesy of a thriving shipping industry), locally produced salt, and the island’s mild climate has made Shodoshima the perfect location to produce delicious soy sauce. There are still over 20 manufacturers carrying on this 400-year-old local tradition, and each one produces soy sauce with distinctive characteristics.

Yasuo Yamamoto is the fifth-generation owner of a soy sauce brewery that dates back 150 years. He was kind enough to give me a tour when I visited. I was immediately struck by the sight of gigantic two-meter high barrels packed side by side. The barrels at Yamamoto’s brewery are at least a century old and made of cryptomeria (or Japanese cedar, as sugi is sometimes called). Yamamoto declares that the secret to Shodoshima’s exquisite soy sauce lies in using these wooden barrels. This method of production is known as “kioke-jikomi,” aging in a wooden barrel.

But why does he insist on using wooden barrels? Before addressing that question, Yamamoto invited me to taste a soy sauce that had been fermented for four years. Slightly salty, wonderfully aromatic, and bursting with umami, it was sheer bliss. I’d never tasted anything like it before. This, Yamamoto explained, lies behind his commitment to wooden barrels. Each barrel is an ecosystem that supports over 100 different kinds of microorganisms, including the enzymes and lactic acids necessary for fermentation. The microorganisms that thrive in the barrels of each brewery are different, which is why no soy sauce is the same, even though the production process itself is identical. That makes things all the more interesting, he says. Allowing soy sauce to ferment naturally in wooden barrels is a painstaking process, and the number of manufacturers adopting it has sharply declined, making it a rare sight in Japan these days. On Shodoshima, however, this tradition of soy sauce production continues to thrive.

Tsukudani, a delicious by-product of soy sauce

Shodoshima’s exquisite soy sauce is used to prepare tsukudani. This local specialty is made by simmering seafood and konbu in soy sauce and other seasonings. Tsukudani was first made on Shodoshima in 1945. There was a local food shortage at the time, but islanders discovered that simmering sweet potato vines in soy sauce made them delicious. Because the final product is easy to preserve and transport, it wasn’t long before Shodoshima’s tsukudani became famous throughout Japan.

There are still about 20 tsukudani factories in operation on the island. When I visited one, I found fourth-generation owner Katsuhiko Kurushima making tsukudani the traditional way. He uses a large spatula to stir the contents of a 70 cm wide vat placed over direct heat. Baby sardines, konbu, nori, and other marine products from the Seto Inland Sea are simmered in a dashi made from konbu and skipjack shavings and flavored with soy sauce and sugar. The mixture has to be stirred for two hours. The key to making delicious tsukudani is the soy sauce that’s used. Kurushima prepares his with Shodoshima soy sauce that has been allowed to ferment naturally for four years inside wooden barrels. The umami-rich soy sauce draws out the inherent flavors of the ingredients without making them too salty.

After two hours of simmering, the ingredients are transformed into a batch of tender, glistening tsukudani. I had the pleasure of eating a bowl of piping hot rice topped with the freshly made tsukudani. It was such a treat for my taste buds! The tsukudani was excellent—bursting with flavor and aroma from the rich soy sauce, with just a hint of sweetness. Because the islanders eat tsukudani every day, Kurushima says he insists on using only the best quality ingredients. He turned out to be Shodoshima soy sauce’s biggest fan.

Somen, soy sauce, and tsukudani are all products emblematic of Shodoshima’s distinctive brand. Their creation is made possible by the island’s mild climate and the various techniques that were introduced and honed over the years. A visit to Shodoshima guarantees an unforgettable culinary experience.

See also
Using olives in Washoku?! The delicious island of Shodoshima – Part 1

Text and photos: Nao Ishikawa

Yamaroku Shoyu
1607 Yasuda-ko, Shodoshima-cho, Shozu-gun, Kagawa Prefecture
Tel: +81 (0) 879-82-0666

Shodoshima foods
491-1 Kusakabe-honmachi, Shodoshima-cho, Shozu-gun, Kagawa Prefecture
Tel: +81 (0) 879-82-0627

Nakabu Shoten
1385 Yasuda-ko, Shodoshima-cho, Shozu-gun, Kagawa Prefecture
Tel: +81 (0) 879-82-3669