Updated: April 30, 2016
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So Many Noodles!

There are various types of noodles in Japanese food culture. Even in one type, numerous styles exist.

So Many Noodles!

Noodles are noodles, I hear you say. True, noodles really are noodles. There are noodles, and then there are noodles! No matter how you look at it, Japanese people enjoy their noodles, so for fun, let's have a little look at some different types of noodles that people like to eat in Japan.

Although noodle dishes are endlessly varied in Japanese cuisine, the noodles themselves fall into four main categories: Ramen, Soba, Sōmen, and Udon. It's great to get familiar with these, because if you're lucky enough to be visiting a Japanese restaurant, or Japan itself, you'll have a better idea of what you're ordering and what to expect when your food arrives. Let's learn about the different types one by one:

1) Ramen

Almost everybody knows ramen! Ramen noodles have taken the world by storm, and convenience foods like Pot Noodles and other instant ramen dishes can be found in almost every corner of the globe. The real thing is a lot yummier than instant products, but then that's very true of most things! Ramen came originally from China (where their name “la mian”, means pulled noodle), and until sometime in the 1950's ramen were often called “shina soba”, or China Soba, to differentiate them from other noodles, but in post-World War II Japan, when times were tight and belts were tighter, ramen really began to come into its own as the “working man's meal”, and ramen shops proliferated. In fact, there are an estimated 80,000 ramen shops in Japan today, with 4,000 in Tokyo alone! In case you are not very familiar with ramen, it is almost always served as a soup dish with different broths and a variety of toppings. Different regions in Japan have different styles of making ramen soup dishes.
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Hokkaido ramen has a broth which is flavored predominantly with miso or shio (highly salted meat or fish broth, rendered from bones and scraps, plus seaweed and other ingredients boiled together and then filtered clear). Ramen from Hokkaido also tends to feature mung bean sprouts. The freshness of the sprouts offsets the earthiness of the miso or shio and the noodles very well.
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Tokyo ramen is probably the most common and most popularly eaten of all the ramen soups and is relatively simpler than ramen from other regions. The broth is most flavoured by soy sauce, and has a bright earthy flavor that's sharper than the miso or shio ramen from Hokkaido. You could say that Hokkaido ramen makes you think of snow, dark earth and evergreen trees whereas Tokyo ramen makes you think of city lights, bright grass in green parks and bustle.
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Kyūshu ramen actually uses hosomen noodles, which are actually thin udon noodles (a type of sōmen) – they are slippery, with a chewier texture than ramen. These are usually paired with tonkotsu broth, which is made from pork bone and is a milky white color. Although hosomen are “colder” noodles than ramen, the pork bone broth is very rich and warming. It is typical to add beni shōga – red pickled ginger flavored with salt and shiso (perilla) leaves in the same way umeboshi pickled plums are made. This is the same red ginger you may have eaten with yakisoba. It's bright, tart and slightly hot flavor brings out the almost creamy richness of the hosomen-tonkotsu base.

2) Soba

“Soba” is the Japanese word for buckwheat, and soba noodles are made from buckwheat flour (either 100% buckwheat flour, or very often 20% wheat flour, 80% buckwheat), however, any thin noodle can sometimes be referred to as soba, as well, regardless of the buckwheat content. Soba noodles have an interesting place in history because as Tokyo people became more wealthy during the Edo period (1603-1868), they ate expensive white polished rice almost exclusively (in contrast, poorer people and farmers ate brown rice and millet). Eating only denatured white rice causes a B vitamin deficiency called beriberi, which is fatal if left uncorrected. Because buckwheat is a good source of B vitamins (especially thiamin), people found that they could eat white rice and be well if they also ate soba noodles on a regular basis!
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Unlike ramen, which are almost exclusively eaten hot in soup, soba noodles (while also good for soup!) are also eaten cold or chilled in the summertime, or fried up hot, as in the case of yakisoba. Many people enjoy warming themselves with a hot bowl of soba noodles in winter. A dashi broth made with soy sauce is most common, with additions and toppings of seaweed, seasonal vegetables, and meat. In this way, the health-giving and versatile soba changes with the seasons of the year.
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3) Sōmen

Sōmen noodles are very thin white noodles made from wheat flour. Because sōmen noodles are cut very thinly and then stretched, they can become very sticky and fragile when they are cooked, and might fuse together if you are not careful.
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For this reason, sōmen are most often eaten cold, because as soon as they are cooked, you can plunge them into cold water to keep them from sticking and breaking. That is not to say that you won't find sōmen in hot soup dishes too, but they are a little less common that way than other noodle choices.
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Sōmen noodles are very slippery when cold, and this has given rise to something fun you can try when you visit Japan in the summertime: nagashi-sōmen (flowing noodles). Some restaurants will set up a kind of bamboo guttering system across the length of their premeses, fill it with ice cold running water, and dump sōmen into it to flow past the customers. It is like a fun party game to try to catch all the sōmen before they reach the other end of the restaurant! You might want to practice your chopstick skills before trying, though! If you don't feel up to the challenge of catching your noodles with chopsticks, however, you can always order a refreshing cold udon salad instead. They are very nice when served in a vinegar sauce and topped with refreshing salad-style vegetables. If you are making them at home, you can make a simple plain style cold somen with a soy sauce based dipping sauce (it's delicious with a bit of sesame oil), and some chopped raw leek or spring onion and grated fresh ginger, which is a popular at-home summer dish in Japan.

4) Udon

Udon noodles are made from wheat, and are the “fat cousins” of the other noodles we have met so far. Although they are wheat like other pasta from elsewhere, udon noodles tend to be very white, almost translucent (like skimmed milk is) and have a satisfying chewy texture unlike any other noodle. They are often served in delicious broth during cold weather with lots of toppings, like other noodles in Japan. If you visit a Japanese or oriental supermarket in your home town, you can often find fresh udon in the chilled section, and make your own delicious udon creations! You can also find semi-dried udon or even dried udon flavored with other ingredients like konbu, barley, even citron! The broth used in udon noodle dishes varies quite a lot between east and west Japan, depending on the strength of the soy sauce used in making it.
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Maybe because the noodles are big, satisfying and very warming when eaten hot, udon is for many people an ultimate comfort food, forming the basis for many different hot-pot style dishes. People seem to get really creative with udon – if you happen to be in the Hokkaido region, don't miss out on the different varieties of hearty curry udon! Because udon is very filling, even by itself, you are a little less likely to find it cold in summertime, but cold udon dishes do exist, and are popular. Cold udon usually have a bright-flavored dipping sauce or toppings to keep them refreshing during the hot season. Nori-topped cold udon are popularly served with a dashi dipping sauce and wasabi or grated ginger. You can also find cold udon soups made with soy sauce and citrus juice, topped with daikon radish, which is particularly refreshing.

Four main categories of noodle

With these four main categories of noodle, Japanese make literally hundreds, if not thousands of varieties of delicious dishes for every season. So next time you're hungry, why not explore them by trying a few Japanese noodle dishes! Happy eating!
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