Japan is one noodle loving country. Walk down any street in Tokyo and you’re bound to come across two or three noodle joints, captained by chefs who know how to cook the stuff well. In Japan, restaurants will typically serve only one type of dish, so if you’re at a soba joint for example, expect only soba, but expect it to be done right.
Usually, when we think of Japan and noodles, we instantly think of ramen (see what I did there?) But there are actually a few more varieties than just the yellow stuff we get in packages and cups that made those all-nighters in college infinitely more enjoyable. I’m here to break down the three most popular types of noodles in Japan.
Let’s get started!
We’ll start off with something most of you are fairly familiar with. Ramen is popular across the country, and each region has its own variety. A typical bowl will look like this:
Legitimate ramen noodles are wheat-based and are darker yellow than store bought ramen, but so much tastier. They should be long, springy, and cooked al dente, to a firm chew. They pair well with the sodium dredged soup that enhances the taste of the ramen noodle.
If there’s one thing that makes ramen stand out among other types of Japanese noodles, it’s the broth. With dozens of varieties of delicious broth ranging from the rich and hearty to the light and refreshing, it’s possible to live in Japan for a few months and not eat the same ramen twice. The most popular broths are a simple shoyu (soy sauce based broth) and shio (salt based broth) but other types such as miso, tonkotsu (pork bone based broth) and even curry broths have gained significant popularity with large swathes of Japanese people. Ramen is usually topped with a piece of nori, a slice of roast pork, bamboo slices, and half a boiled egg. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can add a wide variety of other toppings, like corn, green onions, and even butter.
This is my personal favourite. Udon is a simple noodle dish that will usually look something like this:
You go into an udon bar and order at the counter. The chef will immediately prepare your bowl of noodles right in front of you, and then you walk down further to a tempura bar, where you can add all sorts of deep fried goodies.
Udon noodles are much thicker than ramen noodles. They’re white in color because they’re made from wheat flour. Udon should also be firm and al dente; you should be able to bite these noodles cleanly apart.
Udon broth is fairly uniform and simple. Though new varieties have been springing up in recent years (like the ubiquitous curry broth), the classic style, kakejiru, flavoured with soy sauce, dashi, and mirin, is still the most common and most popular udon broth. What really sets udon apart from the other noodles is the addition of toppings. You can eat it plain, or you can open up your world to a deep fried tempura smorgasbord, which I highly recommend. The combination of crispy and chewy will blow your mind.
Udon can also be served fried with sliced veggies and meats, in a style called yaki udon.
For us in the West, we’re probably exposed to soba the least, but this is an unassuming noodle dish offering a refreshingly light flavour that is a must try. Look for it on your next trip to Japan or try asking if they serve it at your local Japanese restaurant.
Soba noodles are around the same thickness as ramen noodles, but the two are very different. Soba is made from buckwheat flour which gives it a distinctive brown colour, and has a much softer, less elastic texture. They are excellent at soaking up broth, flavouring every millimetre of the soba noodle.
Soba is usually served chilled on a bamboo tray, but you can also order it in soup. Chilled soba will come with a fairly strong broth made of soy sauce, dashi, and mirin, served on the side in a tiny little cup. The idea is that you will pick up a tiny amount of soba and dunk it into the broth, absorbing all that precious flavour, before putting it in your mouth. Some restaurants will also provide a kettle of hot water, so when you’re finished with the soba but have leftover broth, you will water down the broth and drink it up like a soup.
A popular dish in Japan, yakisoba, is the stir-fried version of soba. At some places, you can even get tempura on the side. Personally, I like it served plain as day, as a nice, light meal.
There you have it! You’re practically a Japanese noodle connoisseur now. And remember, noodles are long but life is short, so get out there and eat your heart out!