You’ve heard of Japanese noodles but aren’t sure what they are called, where they are from, what they are made of? This is for you.
The most popular Japanese noodles are ramen, soba, and udon, and are either made of wheat flour, or buckwheat. More varieties like sōmen, hiyamugi, yakisoba are also commonplace in Japanese cuisine. You can find them all over the country, or abroad, and there are many ways to prepare them!
Let’s get the elephant out of the room first, ramen, (ラーメン, pronounced rāmen) did not originate in Japan, but were imported from China, many centuries ago. Here’s the story:
Once upon a time, in the 1660s to be somewhat precise, a Chinese scholar going by the name of Zhu Shunsui became the first person to eat ramen in Japan. He was a refugee from China, and advisor to the Tokugawa regime. This might or might not be true, as some people claim this is just a story made up to give ramen a more important place in Japanese history. It may actually not have been imported to the country until the 19th century to Yokohama’s still flourishing Chinatown.
The king of noodles. Or at least, the most popular, in Japan and abroad. Ramen are made out of wheat flour, and became very popular during the Showa period, around the middle of the 20th century, thanks to their convenience. Who’s got time to wait 20 minutes for a meal on a one hour lunch break? Nobody. Ramen chefs were on to something, and developed an ingenious system wherein all the black-suited salarymen could get their noodle fix in the blink of an eye.
Ramen’s unique flavour comes from one of its four ingredients. In addition to wheat flour, salt, and water, they use kansui (鹹水, かんすい), which is a special type of alkaline mineral water. Back in the days, it came all the way from Mongolia. Yes, Mongolia. This is what gives the noodles their gentle yellow hue.
The noodles are thinly sliced, and swim in a delicious soup, in most cases served with a chicken or pork soup stock. The stock is carefully prepared by combining a variety of ingredients such as konbu (kelp), katsuobushi (skipjack tuna flakes), niboshi (dried baby sardines), beef bones, pork bones, shiitake.
There are many flavor variations and toppings available for ramen, and I’ll go into more details in a dedicated article!
Soba noodles (そば or 蕎麦, "buckwheat") are actually a type of noodle that originated in Japan! The buckwheat used for the noodles is mostly produced in the northern island of Hokkaido. It can be harvested every three month, and depending on the time of the year, as well as the freshness of the buckwheat, the noodle’s flavors change!
Other areas produce their own buckwheat too, and there is a big competition going on to know which Japanese prefecture makes the best soba. Nagano is a strong contender for this one, with their shinshu soba, produced on land with a volcanic soil, providing the noodles a unique taste.
They can be eaten hot or cold, in a fast food joint, or high end restaurant. There is soba for every taste. Going through Japanese kitchens since the 17th century and the Tokugawa period, they are a very nutritious serving of noodles. Still today, you can find a soba restaurant in nearly every neighborhood.
In the summer, you will often find Japanese people eating them after they’ve been drained, and chilled as opposed to swimming in a warm dashi broth during the freezing winter months.
Soba are for the amateurs of minimalistic dishes with gentle and subtle flavors. Toppings are often kept to a minimum, and vary depending on the season.
Those are very thick wheat flour noodles. Udon (うどん or 饂飩) are a major comfort food across the country. Often eaten for breakfast or on the go!
The story goes that they originated all the way back to the 13th century. A monk going by the name of Enni is said to have brought flour milling techniques from China. Another story prefers the Nara period as the point of origin. And one more claims that the Buddhist priest Kukai introduced the noodles to the Shikoku island of Japan during the Heian period.
Nobody knows for sure, and to be honest, does it matter? One thing that we know though, is that the former Sanuki province in Shikoku, now Tokushima and Kagawa prefectures make some damn good udon noodles. Trust me, I tried them myself.
Udon are boiled in a large pot of water, and can also be served chilled in the summer, just like soba. They are the thickest of all three Japanese noodles, and when served in a broth called nurumugi (温麦) when hot, or hiyamugi (冷麦) when cold. Nuru means hot, and hiya, cold, that’s why. Mugi simply means wheat and there you go.
There are many variations of toppings, but the simplest of all is called kake udon and is topped only with scallions, or nothing at all, while paired with a broth made from dashi, soy sauce, and mirin (japanese cooking saké). Other variations include udon with tempura (天ぷら) or kare udon (カレーうどん), curry udon. One of the most popular will be kitsune udon, the fox udon, with deep-fried tofu pouches (油揚げ, aburaage), which are from Osaka! Our local champion.
Now you’re thinking: “wait! It says soba, you’ve already talked about that”. And indeed I did, however, yakisoba (焼きそば) are not made from buckwheat like their homonym, but from wheat flour. They are more similar to ramen in terms of taste and texture. The word yaki (焼き), means to grill, or to fry. As you can imagine, those noodles are stir-fried.
They are typically served with thinly sliced pork, and a mix of cabbage, onions and carrots. Often you’ll see them prepared with the same sauce as okonomiyaki (お好み焼き). You may consider this the secret ingredient.
Yakisoba are mouthwateringly satisfying, and the perfect comfort food after a tough day out!
You can top them with some delicious green seaweed power, aonori, some beni shoga (red pickled ginger), katsuobushi (bonito flakes), as well as classic standard mayonnaise to savor this Japanese street food staple.
Summertime sōmen (素麺). Nothing can beat that on a hot, humid, heavy, dreadful Japanese summer day. Occasionally you can find them in a soup during the winter month, and they will be called nyūmen (煮麺). But… when it’s cold outside, wouldn’t you want to go straight for the ramen?
Sōmen are typically chilled on ice right after they’ve been cooked, and you’ll see them seasoned with yuzu, and a katsuobushi-based sauce with some onion, ginger or myoga.
They are very light and refreshing, and make for a perfect light meal. They are so light, in fact, that they have to be cut thinner than 1.3mm in diameter. They are originally from China, and made with wheat flour. These noodles have spread all over Asia in the past, and you can find many tasty local variations.
Especially in Southeast Asia and Korea, they have become local specialties.
Hiyamugi (冷麦) simply means chilled wheat. If you’re starting to see patterns in translation, you might be onto something. The Japanese language likes to name things for what they are.
These are said to be quite old, and texts written by 14th century monks already mention hiyamugi in relation to udon noodles back in the days.
Just like sōmen they are usually served cold in summer. It is common to see the noodles in a bowl that floats on chilled water with ice.
We’re getting into the grayzone. Shirataki are made from konnyaku, konjac yam in English, which is a root based ingredient. Konjac has become a health trend in recent years for weight-loss due to its low calorie count.
Literally meaning white waterfall, if you buy those at the supermarket, they usually come with a packet that contains the liquid from the drained noodles. On their own, they are nearly flavorless, and you’ll find them often in soups and hot pots, nabe.
Harusame (春雨), literally meaning spring rain. They are glass-noodles made of potato starch. They are a nice addition to a salad, or to dip in your soup.
In Japan, this type of noodles is often used to cook dishes from China or Korea. Easy to cook and prepare, they are ready in a few minutes. If you don’t have a lot of time to prepare your meals, you’ll want to have a few in your kitchen.
They are quite versatile, and you’ll find a lot of easy recipes online!
We’re getting very technical here. Tsukemen is actually a variation of previously mentioned noodle dishes, and literally translates as dipping noodles. It is a dish attributed to the late Kazuo Yamagishi in 1961, a restaurateur in Tokyo.
As opposed to ramen, they are served on a separate plate, and then dipped into broth before eating. The broth often has a stronger flavor and more intense aroma than a regular ramen broth.
Originally, the noodles were the same wheat flour noodles as ramen, and they are also prepared with kansui, which gives them the yellow color. However, udon, or soba may now also be used. The dipping broth can be either hot or cold, depending on your preference or the season.
Tsukemen is a local favorite, and you can find specialized restaurants that will only serve variates of the dish.
This is more of a local specialty, and found in Yamanashi prefecture. It’s a noodle soup made with flat udon noodles stewed in a delicious vegetable and miso soup.
It’s got an interesting backstory to it. Farmers ran out of rice, and the locals decided to turn to wheat to counter the food shortages. Interesting to know, is that the volcanic soil of the prefecture close to mount Fuji had always made rice farming difficult.
Traditionally, the dough for the noodles is kneaded by hand in a wooden bowl. One ready, it’s hung to try. Compared to udon, hōtō needs a tougher texture, which is done through the higher gluten content of the noodles.
It’s a hearty and satisfying meal. Many local families have developed their own variants, and it’s common to see families preparing their own dough at home. One has it that a secret ingredient is to add pumpkin to the miso broth.
One more for the road. This dish goes by many names. You may have heard of aburasoba or monjasoba. It’s a dish that was invented back in the 1950s in the city of Musashino.
Like others on the list above, it’s a dry noodle dish that comes with sauce on the side. In fact, maze means mix in English, and the noodles are mixed with a soy sauce specially prepared for it.
In fact, noodles are nearly 4 000 years old! 4 000. In ancient China, the first noodles were made from millet, a cereal type grain. Back then, it wasn’t part of the fast-food scene, but rather a luxury item that few were able to enjoy.
However, the one and only instant ramen noodle has been invented in Japan. Momofuku Ando is to thank for this brilliant creation. It was then first sold by his company, Nissin, in 1958. Today, instant noodles have been voted “the best invention of the 20th century”. You can visit the Nissin Cup Noodle Museum in Osaka, and make your own cup to take away!
Like with every dish in Japan, you’ll find regional varieties in addition to the main ones known nation-wide. Cuisine is often part of local pride, and every prefecture, city, or even town, will boast their own recipes to you. Even overseas, Ramen restaurants in NYC or noodle shops in Los Angeles will have their original variations.
To sum it up, Japanese noodles have originally been a dish imported from China, and then adapted to local taste. Many varieties have emerged, and today, a lot of restaurants claim to have a unique type of noodles. Whether made from wheat, or buckwheat, the origin of the raw material, the preparation process, the ingredients and the broth give our taste buds an infinite amount of flavors and aromas to discover.
Make sure to give a try to all those delicacies on your next trip. Here’s a list of some famous places you might want to add to your to do list.
If you can’t make it to Japan anytime soon, how about you let us prepare some nice noodle collection for you? Discover our monthly noodle selection in our Ramen Pack, which includes regional specialties as well as original manufacturer creations and collaborations. The flavors never cease to amaze us, and we hope they will get your taste buds excited too!