Why is Everyone in Love with Japanese Noodles?
A staple in Japanese cuisine and culture, noodles can be found in every corner of every city across Japan. From the bright lights of Tokyo to the calm quarters of Kyoto, there are so many different types of noodles being served up in everything from vending machines to Michelin starred restaurants. Japanese noodle dishes aren’t only delicious but they are super versatile. You can slurp hot soups, chow down on chilled summer bowls, or delight in dipping sauces. Noodles are nothing short of iconic in many Asian cultures and in Japan, there’s a ton of different varieties. Here we take a closer look at two of the major hitters when it comes to Japanese noodles – Ramen and Udon.
Ramen is believed to be adapted from Chinese wheat flour noodles. If we trace a line back in history, there are a couple of theories as to the oldest record of Chinese noodles in Japan. One is that it was found in 1697 when a scholar from the Ming Dynasty introduced noodles to Tokugawa Mitsukuni, a prominent Daimyo of Mito. Historians have expressed they believe this to be nothing more than an origin story. Noodles were probably introduced by immigrants later on in the 19th century as this was when ramen started to make a splash in Japanese cuisine.
The first dedicated ramen shop popped up in 1910 and the popularity grew in the postwar boom as restrictions on flour and food vendor rules loosened. This also coincided with Japanese troops returning from their posts in China. What had traditionally been a simple dish of cut noodles and salt and bone broth began to be crafted into different regional varieties and today, ramen is synonymous with Japanese culture. Tokyo alone boasts over 5,000 ramen shops.
Instant ramen hit the shelves in 1958 when Momofuku Ando from Nissin Foods invented what has been hailed as the greatest Japanese invention of the 20th century. In grocery stores across the world, you will find instant noodles with a just add water ethos.
Ramen noodles come in many shapes and sizes, they can be curly or straight, thick or thin and long or short. But one of the common factors in the ramen noodle is that it’s made with kansui, an alkaline solution that gives the noodles their golden chewy texture. When you mix kansui with flour it creates a hint of ammonia which adds to that distinct flavor of ramen noodles.
Beyond the noodles, ramen broth is usually made up of hot water and pork bones, chicken bones, beef bones, kelp, bonito, and miso. It's also sometimes made with soy sauce depending on the tare and how salty the flavor is. Tare is another important aspect of ramen as it's one of the primary ways to season the dish. It's added to the bottom of the bowl before the soup so it sits at the base and seeps into the soup. Tare can either be paste or thick sauce and can be shoyu, shio, or miso.
Ramen is rich in umami flavors – the smooth chewy noodles submerged in a fragrant broth and topped with everything from crunchy bamboo shoots to creamy boiled eggs, earthy scallions, and tender chashu. There are a few different main varieties of ramen dishes and different toppings. We take a closer look at five different types of ramen…
Shoyu translates to soy sauce in Japanese and this makes up the base in this light fragrant style of ramen. Shoyu ramen is a hugely familiar dish in Japanese cuisine and because of this, it serves as the prototype for other takes on ramen too such as Tokyo ramen and Kitakata ramen. Shoyu ramen is often made from pork or chicken broth and tends to come topped with nori (dried seaweed), green onions, chashu (pork slices) and menma (bamboo shoots).
A salty broth (shio means salt in Japanese) and long straight noodles make up the bulk of Japan’s oldest style of seasoning in ramen. It was created to appeal to the tastes of traveling merchants. Shio ramen is lighter and clearer in both taste and color compared to other ramen styles. The broth is the star of this show and is often made from chicken or pork.
Thick wavy noodles meet rich miso and toppings like butter, corn, menma, chashu, and fried vegetables in this hearty Hokkaido take on the ramen dish. Miso is usually a thick paste made from fermented soybeans, rice or wheat, and koji. The pork or vegetable broth has a tangy deep flavor and is super versatile meaning it can welcome a whole host of toppings.
Translating to ‘dipping ramen’ this style of ramen dish was invented in Tokyo in 1961. It consists of a bowl of soup or broth and a separate bowl of noodles. As the name suggests, you take the noodles which are typically served cold and dip them in the hot broth or soup before slurping them up. The soup tends to have a strong and intense flavor that coats the noodles in tasty moisture. Additional toppings can also be served alongside this dish such as nori, chashu, menma, and boiled eggs.
Tonkotsu ramen soup
Tonkotsu means pork bone in Japanese and this Kyushu style of ramen has a cloudy rich broth made from boiling pork bones for hours until they seem to melt away. The fat, gelatin, and inosinic acid of the bones give this broth a thick umami flavor. Tonkotsu ramen noodles are usually thin and the dish comes topped with simpler toppings like ginger, garlic, green onion, and chashu sesame.
The thickest of the Japanese noodles, Udon, is made from wheat flour. It’s believed to have taken its long strip shape during the Edo period although this noodle seems to have hazy origins. It is believed to have been carried over from the Tang dynasty in China by a Japanese Buddhist monk. An alternative version says it came from the Song dynasty when another Japanese monk introduced his homeland to the milling techniques he had learnt in China.
Udon noodles are made from milled flour, water, and salt. They are paler in color than ramen noodles and tend to be subtle in taste. One of the most important things to note about udon noodles is that (unlike ramen) they aren’t made with egg, meaning that udon is an awesome noodle choice for vegans. Udon noodles also tend to be springier thanks to gluten structure. Good udon noodles are often cooled down in cold water before being served up to make sure they retain their bounce and don’t succumb to stickiness. Udon noodles can be served hot and steaming in a noodle soup or they can be served chilled and with dipping sauce depending on preference or the season.
The broth too is different from ramen. Udon has two main types of broth each coming from a different part of Japan. Kanto style udon comes from the east and Kansai comes from the west. Kanto udon soup tends to be saltier and darker whereas Kansai is lighter and usually made with dashi. Udon dishes are usually topped with aburaage, tempura, green onions, eggs, kamaboko (sliced beef), among other things. Here we take a closer look at the different varieties of udon dishes out there.
One of the most traditional ways of serving up udon noodles is in Kake udon. A simple stock called Kakejiru is made from mirin, soy sauce, and dashi. This dish is clean and simple and often topped with chopped green onions, grated ginger, and chili flakes or shichimi spice mix if you prefer. It can be upgraded to something more complex by adding tempura, meat, vegetables, etc.
Udon noodles are stir-fried up in a hot wok with sliced meats or vegetables to make this sizzling summer dish. Popular choices include carrot, cabbage, prawn, or pork. A barbecue sauce is added while cooking and then Yaki udon is topped with the zing of pickled ginger and bonito flakes.
Topped with fried tofu, this dashi broth udon noodle soup is a delight. Kitsune means fox in Japanese and there are a few theories as to how this dish got its name. Whether it's because the aburaage (deep-fried tofu pouch) is a foxy color or because some folktales say that aburaage is a fox’s favorite food – who knows. Kitsune udon can be served steaming in the winter or chilled in the summer. It’s thick udon noodles, a clear dashi broth, and aburaage seasoned with soy, mirin, and sugar.
Kyoto’s classic udon soup also takes its name from an animal. Tanuki is a reference to the native racoon dog. This dish is made up of thick udon noodles and a thick broth with plenty of ground ginger and green onions. It’s also served with the scraps that come from frying tempura giving a satisfying crunch to this steamy soup.
Thick udon noodles are served up in a steamy hot broth and topped with crispy tempura pieces (either kakiage or shrimp). The broth is simple and savory with rich umami flavors thanks to the dashi, soy sauce, and mirin. You can also top with fish cakes, scallions, and shichimi spice to add even more depth.
The name gives a hint at just how hearty this udon dish should be. Stamina udon should be super nutritious and is often made with meat like pork, shrimp or chicken, and vegetables like carrot, cabbage, and green onions. It can also be topped with a fish cake and even raw eggs and is served with a tsuyu dipping sauce on the side.
Winter comfort food is perfectly captured in this soul-warming curry udon dish. The combo of thick noodles, dashi stock, and curry roux marries traditional cooking with a modern twist. The curry sauce should be a little thin and you can garnish with scallions and serve hot and steaming.
Taking its name from the bamboo tray on which this dish is served, Zaru udon takes the noodles, cooks them, chills them, and serves them alongside a dipping sauce called tsuyu made from intensely concentrated dashi sauce, mirin, and soy sauce. Toppings include ginger, scallions, and even a hint of wasabi.
The Major Differences between Ramen & Udon
The big main difference between udon and ramen is that ramen is made with egg while udon is vegan. Although Nona Lim ramen is also vegan friendly as we don’t use egg in our noodle production. Another of the major differences is the use of kansui in ramen to give it that authentic taste and color. But aside from this, there’s a whole heap of differences simmering beneath the surface of these two noodle types too. From taste to texture, color to style, take a look at some of the ways in which ramen and udon differ…
- Ramen noodles are chewy and yellow as they are made with kansui or egg.
- Udon noodles are pale, mild, and delicate and are vegan friendly
- Ramen noodles are thinner and can be either wavy or straight
- Udon noodles are thicker and are often straight
- Ramen broth is thicker and richer and is often made from bold flavors like miso and pork broth
- Udon broth is lighter and simpler and has a more subtle flavor as it is more soy sauce or curry-based
- Ramen has a whole host of toppings that can be heavy such as pork, bamboo shoots, eggs, etc
- Udon toppings tend to be cleaner and more delicate like green onions, tempura, kamaboko, etc
What's the healthiest?
While both dishes brim with flavor, Udon could be considered the healthier of the two noodle type dishes as it tends to have cleaner, simpler toppings and has lower sodium as it doesn’t use kansui (the alkaline solution that gives ramen its unique flavor). However, it really depends on how the noodles are cooked as homemade ramen is healthier than instant store-bought ramen which may be higher in sodium and calories. Nona Lim ramen broth is also super healthy as it's made from bone broth or you can opt for the spicy miso version which is great for vegans.
Other Types of Japanese Noodles
There are so many different kinds of Japanese noodles out there and even under each noodle category there are lots of sub-categories too. We have a couple more classic and popular noodles to share with you for those who feel inspired to try them all.
Soba are buckwheat noodles crafted from buckwheat flour making them naturally gluten-free. These noodles are thin and firm and are believed to date back to the 17th century. Because of their fabulous firmness, cold soba is super popular but it can also be served hot too. There are tons of different soba dishes, one of the most famous being Yakisoba. It’s also traditional to eat soba on New Year’s to symbolize a clean break from any former hardships.
A super-thin wheat noodle that is popular in the summer months, somen is stretched out rather than cut to help it achieve its thin round shape. Somen can be eaten chilled with a dipping sauce. In fact, somen is usually eaten cold as it’s so thin it’s the best way to keep the noodles firm.
Full of fiber and with very few calories, Shirataki is made from konjac yam and has a translucent color. This noodle takes its name from the Japanese word for white waterfall. Shirataki can be dry roasted or cooked up in hot pots and simmered for a long time as either way it holds its shape.
Easy Ramen Recipe
If all this has you stirred up to get some ramen on the go, we have a swift and simple recipe to satisfy that craving. Grab one of our ramen noodle packs and mouth-watering miso broths to have a steaming bowl of fresh and delicious noodles in no time.
- Pour the miso broth into a pot and simmer for 2-3 minutes
- Bring water to a rolling boil in a pot.
- Add the ramen noodles and gently separate with a chopsticks
- Let cook for two minutes before draining
- Add the ramen to the miso broth
- Finish with your choice of toppings; boiled eggs, bamboo shoots, soft tofu, and sesame seeds.
Are you team udon or raring for ramen? Share your favorite noodle in the comments with us along with the dishes you adore the most.