You probably already heard of Japanese noodle types like ramen, maybe also soba and udon. But have you heard of somen, hiyamugi and tokoroten? Do you know about the different broths, toppings and dishes? Japan has an abundance of different types of noodles and noodle dishes – without even counting the regional variations! This article gives you a simple overview of the noodle types that you should at least have heard of when next visiting Japan.
Japanese Noodle Types
Bringing it down to an easily graspable number: there are about eight different Japanese noodle types. This number excludes noodle dishes and regional variations of certain types like Okinawa Soba or Sanuki Udon, for example. Find below the list of all eight types:
Let’s start with the one you might have already heard of and/or tasted yourself: Ramen. It actually originates from China and was brought to Japan only about a 100 years ago! Today it is synonymous with Japanese cuisine along with the likes of sushi and yakitori.
Ramen noodles are made of water, salt, wheat flour and alkaline mineral water (“kansui”/鹹水) which makes the noodles extra bouncy. Sometimes they also include eggs which gives them a yellowish color instead of white. They can be thin or thick depending on which style of ramen you eat.
The broth includes Japanese dashi (出汁) which forms the base for many other noodle broths as well. It is Japanese fish stock underlining a broth’s savory flavor or umami (旨味). Next to dashi, ramen broths can include many other ingredients like pork bones, vegetables and soy sauce. The most common ones or the “Big 4” are shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), tonkotsu (pork bones) and miso ramen. Various toppings like negi (green spring onions), menma (bamboo shoots), chashu pork, seaweed and egg can be found in all types of ramen. However, some types and regional variations have special toppings like Sapporo’s miso ramen with corn and butter.
Next to traditional ramen, there are also other types like tsukemen (dipping ramen) or tantanmen (soupless ramen). Hiyashi chuka (冷やし中華) is a summer dish where ramen noodles are cold with colorful toppings like summer vegetables.
Soba noodles made the journey from China to Japan much earlier than ramen at around 700 AD (some records stretch even further back). People didn't commonly eat it in Japan until the 1600’s though.
Also known as “buckwheat noodles”, you can probably imagine what its main ingredient is. However, buckwheat isn’t the only ingredient. Nowadays, it can be quite a challenge to find soba noodles with 100% buckwheat (only junwari soba noodles are). Most soba noodles are a mix of buckwheat and wheat flour, water and – depending on the restaurant – ingredients like eggs, red algae, yams and so on. They are quite thin and often have a greyish brown color.
Broths are light to complement the earthy flavor of the noodles by mainly just adding dashi, soy sauce, kelp (“kombu”/昆布) and bonito fish flakes (“katsuobushi”/鰹節). Toppings are similar to the ones added to other noodles dishes: negi, seaweed, duck meat and tempura, for example. Soba is not only served hot, however. When served cold, it is separated from the dipping sauce called tsuyu (mix of water, soup stock & mirin).
The dish above is mori or zaru soba and it’s the most basic kind of soba dish. Other dishes include tempura soba (served hot or cold), kake soba (served in hot broth similar to tsuyu) and sansei soba (hot broth served with wild vegetables as toppings). Be careful with dishes like yakisoba, chuukasoba and Okinawa soba, however. Although you might assume that soba noodles are used in these dishes, it actually includes Chinese wheat noodles instead.
Udon is not as old as Soba, but it also got to Japan around the 700’s and later. They are much thicker and chewier than soba and also don’t have the brown coloring; instead, they are white. This is due to its main ingredient simply being wheat flour, water and salt (for the bounciness again). So, instead of a distinct earthy flavor like soba, the taste of udon is quite neutral.
A more subtle taste invites more flavorful broths. Despite more traditional broths served similar to soba (dashi, soy sauce, water, mirin), more modern udon broths can be quite different. Curry udon (カレーうどん) is one of the most well-known ones in that regard. It’s characterized by its thick, curry-like broth. Also, toppings can look very different from the ones used for soba and ramen. Some shops serve them in an unconventional combination (although traditional toppings are common as well).
For udon there are also plenty of ways to serve it. Kitsune udon, for example, can be served hot and cold together with aburaage (thin sheets of fried tofu) as a topping. Nabeyaki udon are udon noodles in nabe (hot pot) together with broth and vegetables. Lastly, like mentioned earlier, sanuki udon is a famous regional udon variety from Kanagawa prefecture. It uses a specific type of wheat traditionally grown in Kanagawa.
Now, with the big three out of the way, it is time to go out into the more unfamiliar areas of the noodle world! And what we first encounter is somen. People believe that somen originally derives from Chinese sakubei (a type of Chinese sweet); and that its birthplace in Japan is Sakurai city in Nara prefecture. However, other East Asian countries like South Korea serve it as well.
It is the thinnest out of all other Japanese noodle types with less than 1.3 mm diameter. Thus, people also often refer to them as Japanese vermicelli. Their main ingredient is wheat (the reason for their white color), but vegetable oil stretches them out further. They are mainly served chilled together with tsuyu dipping sauce and therefore, they are a typical summer dish in Japan. Somen served warm is usually called nyumen and is a popular winter dish.
A famous way of eating somen is Nagashi-somen. The cook places the noodles in bamboo fumes in which very cold water flows down. People then need to fish the noodles out of the water and dip them in the dipping sauce.
While on the topic of refreshing noodles served in summer, Hiyamugi is another popular type. Texts dating back to the 14th century first mention them. Apparently, the Shokoku-ji temple complex began producing them back then. Its thicker than somen (1.3 mm to 1.7 mm diameter), but not as thick as other noodle types.
While somen still has a variant served hot, hiyamugi is purely served chilled. Its dipping sauce is called tsukejiru and consists of dashi, soy sauce and mirin.
This noodle type is very different from the ones mentioned so far. Instead of the main ingredient being wheat or buckwheat, it's tengusa or ogonori (red seaweed/algae). It was introduced to Japan during the Nara period (710 – 794) and became popular as a snack during the Edo period (1603 – 1867).
It looks transparent like jelly, but it’s chewier. You can eat it both hot and cold with a sauce made of soy sauce, vinegar or pepper, nori (seaweed) and sesame. Some people (mostly in the Kansai region) also eat it as a desert with kuromitsu (black sugar syrup, similar to molasses).
These so-called glass noodles are originally from China again. Many Asian countries have their own variation of it; Japan’s is Harusame or literally “spring rain” (春雨). This noodle type also does not include wheat/buckwheat, but starch instead. In Japan specifically, potato starch is the most common ingredient (sweet potato/tapioca/canna/bean sprout starch being alternatives).
While served either cold or in hot broth like other Japanese noodle types, Harusame salad is another popular dish (Japanese appetizer). It can also find its place in hot pot as well. When cooking Chinese and Korean dishes many Japanese people use these noodles. From my experience, many Western people also use glass noodles for these dishes – or at least I do!
Last, but not least, we probably have the healthiest noodle type in front of us: Shirataki. Like the last two noodles, it also has a translucent appearance as it is made from konjac yam (“konnyaku”/こんにゃく). Therefore, it is very low in calories and carbohydrates as well as rich in fiber. But the benefits don’t stop there: as they include no wheat or eggs, people with gluten and other allergies can safely eat these noodles as well. Talk about a healthy noodle!
Unfortunately, they don’t really have much flavor on their own. That’s why they are a side dish more often than not and mainly give texture to dishes like sukiyaki (hot pot) and nikujaga (potato & meat stew). Speaking of, their texture is chewy, sometimes even rubbery. If roasted, the noodles lose their bitterness and become more pasta-like in texture. In that state it is also used in soups and noodle broths.
Finally, we went through all of Japan’s noodle types! But this list wouldn’t really be complete without at least mentioning instant noodles. For every type of noodle mentioned above, there’s an instant noodle version out there. It’s a big staple of Japanese noodle cuisine itself and beloved for its convenience. Some of the mentioned noodle dishes might be quite extensive in preparation. However, with an instant noodle cup, you can cut this process short by a lot, and it still tastes good.
If you want to try some yourself, visit Instant Ramen Japan and get yourself an authentic tasting ramen bowl straight from Japan!
In a nutshell (or noodle bowl?), I hope that you now have a better picture of how many Japanese noodle types there are and what dishes you can find them in. Maybe you now feel like trying some yourself!
Anyways, with the Japanese noodle world untangled for you now, why not stay tuned to discover other interesting sides of Japanese cuisine or follow us on social media? We’d love to hear from you!