Like a dripping popsicle in an overheated toddler’s hand, I’m melting in Kyoto’s sultry, summer streets. Luckily, my friend Tomoko knows the perfect thing to revive me: a cooling lunch of icy noodles at a restaurant perched atop a cascading mountain stream. The only hitch -- and part of the fun -- is that we’ll have to catch our somen noodles (with chopsticks, of course) as they whiz down the cold water rushing through a bamboo tube. Nagashi Somen or “flowing noodles” is a traditional treat to cope with Japan’s sauna-like summers. Some families erect a backyard bamboo course to delight the kids -- as in this video.
Near Kyoto, only one restaurant serves this summertime-only, snatch-your-noodle-experience. Tomoko and I take a 20-minute train ride and a 10-minute bus ride to the village of Kibune, nestled in a forested valley. Then we walk up a narrow mountain road, past picturesque inns and high-end kaiseki restaurants set on platforms over the gushing river. Even though it’s an uphill trek to the last eating spot at the top of the path, the forest's shaded greenery, undulating thrum of cicadas and refreshing river air feels revitalizing -- plus it’s twenty degrees cooler than in the city.
This popular restaurant adds a stainless steel gutter inside the traditional bamboo pipe -- perhaps for ease of cleanup or added speed? The crowd of diners are seated ten at a time at the noodle bar and treated to bracing breezes from nearby dramatic waterfalls. As the server brings us each a bowl of dipping sauce and pair of chopsticks to nab our noodles, she points out which of the several pipelines are assigned to which diners and the fun begins as slippery strands zoom by hungry patrons. Squeals of delight or frustration are heard all around, followed by murmurs of enjoyment.
Tomoko is seated "downstream" from me, so she can snag a clump of noodles if I miss it, which I do on the first round. Then she shares her strategy: stand the ends of the chopsticks in the water to act as a dainty dam. It works! My chilled nest of noodles, dipped in tangy sauce, tastes even better for having caught it. Once we all get the hang of it, the challenge is to grab your noodles, take a photo, dip and eat before the next bundle comes whizzing by. You can watch all the diners attempting this juggling act. After a dozen or so rounds, a last tangle of pink noodles silently slides by to announce the final serving.
On our journey back to the city, I ask Tomoko what other foods are eaten in Japan’s meltingly hot summers. Besides cold noodles (somen, reimen and soba), she tells me that unagi is supposed to supply strength to withstand the withering weather. Plus cooling sweets such as mizu-yokan (a jelly made with red adzuki beans) and shaved iced desserts like kakigori, flavored with green tea or other syrups.
Even though our rare Bay Area hot spells are short and blessedly dry,” I start to wonder about "cooling foods" in other cultures. So I ask a few Bay Area connections to share their wisdom. (This is just a sampling of cultures. Please feel free to add your favorites).
Sweet and Icy
Aileen Suzara, educator, natural chef and environmental justice advocate, who often writes about Filipino cuisine at Kitchen Kwento, suggests the classic Filipino icy treat, halo-halo, “literally a mix-mix" with a range of possible ingredients. The layered medley may include jackfruit, kaong palm fruit, pineapple gelatin, red beans, a scoop of shaved ice, toasted rice pinipig or ube (purple yam) ice cream, topped with evaporated milk, leche flan and strands of coconut.
This reminds me of Ice Kachang, a mountain of shaved ice, doused with syrups and toppings, which I sampled on a trip to Singapore, another steamy city. Korean Pat-bing-soo also features shaved ice, topped with sweet red bean paste and mochi. And of course, even a day in the 70’s would be an excuse for San Franciscans to head over to Bi-Rite Creamery for a scoop of their salted caramel or balsamic strawberry ice cream. Ironically, this article in Time reveals that slurping ice cream actually heats up the body, thanks to its fat content. (Oh, now I know why SF is such an ice cream-crazed city -- it makes us warmer!)
Soup (cold or hot)
While we’re on the subject of chilled dishes, people in many countries enjoy cold soups during the hottest months -- think Spanish gazpachos, Swedish fruit soups, and French-inspired vichyssoise. Yet, on the opposite end of the culinary continuum, diners in other cultures prefer to sip hot summer soups for their cooling properties.
A recent article in the Chicago Tribune featured Korean summer foods, like Sam gye tang (Ginseng Chicken Soup).
"Boiled chicken in a steaming stone bowl may sound like the last thing you crave on a sweltering, 90 percent humidity afternoon. But that's exactly what Koreans line up for during the summer doldrums. Sam gye tang is young chicken or hen stuffed with glutinous rice, garlic, jujube (a prune-y maroon date), ginseng and sometimes ginger, then simmered in its own fat and juices. The two vital "warming" ingredients, ginseng and garlic, are meant to inject you with nutrients lost to excessive sweating, as well as regulate blood flow and metabolism."
Wok-wizard and acclaimed cookbook author, Grace Young, grew up in a traditional Chinese home in San Francisco. In The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen she presents “the brilliant harmony of Chinese cooking” as an ingenious system to mitigate the effects of external as well as internal heat. “Unlike the Western practice of drinking iced beverages to cool the body," Young explains, "hot soups are often drunk in the summer in China.”
Young includes recipes her mother and aunt would routinely make during hot weather, including Herbal Winter Melon Soup with adzuki beans, and Soybean and Sparerib Soup with ginger. She explains that these soups are "tonics" and sipped for their healing properties, rather than consumed as a meal. Young recalls that growing up in her Cantonese family's home, a bowl or two was drunk at mealtimes, in place of water, milk or soda. She also notes that these “yin-yang concoctions” are "an acquired taste" and change with the seasons.
Heat from Spice is Nice
It’s not just the warm temperature of the food, but the heat from spices (especially peppers) that many cultures employ to beat the heat. Vinita Jacinto, chef and cooking teacher, who writes at The Spice Whisperer shares that in India, certain herbs and spices (like cumin and cayenne) promote perspiration to naturally cool the body. "Spicy food is a natural way to keep cool in the tropics," she says. One of her favorite hot weather beverages is Jal-Jeera, a spiced lemonade she prepares with toasted cumin powder, mint, cilantro, black salt and raw sugar or agave.
Because of its replenishing, high water content, watermelon is a natural hot weather favorite around the world. Jacinto amps up watermelon's cooling capabilities by sprinkling chunks of fruit with a mixture of dry mango powder, black salt, ginger powder and garnishing with chopped mint. An additional summer drink she suggests is a salted buttermilk lassi with toasted cumin and muddled mint. "Its protein fights off heat exhaustion as it rehydrates the body," counsels Jacinto.
Another devotee of the power of peppers is Nico Vera, who chronicles the drinks and cuisine of Peru in his blog Pisco Trail. "During Peruvian summers [November-March], when Lima is hot and humid," Vera says, “the most cooling dish for lunch is ceviche: fresh fish, lime juice, onions, salt, hot peppers, and a cold beer make quite the combination. I suspect that the hot peppers also act as cooling agents, in that they make one perspire and cool off.”
Traveling full circle back to Japan, Vera comments that, “Peru has a tremendous abundance and variety of fish. But not until the arrival of the Japanese 100 years ago, did Peruvians truly become interested in seafood. Thanks in large part to their profound appreciation for fish, the Japanese transformed how Peruvians prepared and ate Ceviche, making it one of Peru’s most culturally significant dishes.” Here is his recipe for Ceviche Nikkei.
With our quirky Bay Area weather patterns, we often get our warmest days in early fall, so you might just want to keep some ice and spice handy.