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Called men (麺) in Japanese, noodles are a staple in Japanese cuisine. Often viewed of as convenient food, the many types can be enjoyed chilled with dipping sauces, in soups, stir-fried or in salads. This article will guide you through every type of Japanese noodle you may encounter, though of course, there are countless regional varieties to each type of noodle.
Everyone loves ramen (ラーメン), perhaps the most famous of Japan’s many varieties of noodles. The thin and often curly or wavy wheat-based noodle is a little yellow in color. Made of wheat flour, salt, water, and kansui, or a form of alkaline water, the dough is risen before being rolled. The noodles are thought to be imported from China and are sometimes also called chuka soba (中華そば), meaning “Chinese soba.”
Often ramen is enjoyed in a soup made from chicken or pork stock, kombu, katsuobushi, niboshi, shiitake mushrooms, and onions.
Tonkotsusoup is usually cloudy white colored and is a thick broth made from pork bones.
Shoyuramen is a basic soup with clear brown broth, made with some type of stock and plenty of soy sauce. Menma, or marinated bamboo shoots are common for toppings, as is green onions, kamaboko, boiled eggs, and bean sprouts.
Shioramen is a little lighter in color, a yellowish broth made with salt and broth. The flavor is lighter as well and the soup generally uses straight noodles rather than curly ones.
Misoramen is also popular, especially famous in Hokkaido, and may use butter and corn, cabbage, sesame seeds, and garlic.
Udon (うどん) noodles are the thickest of the Japanese noodles. The white, wheat-based noodles are often enjoyed chilled and dipped in sauce, or served in a broth soup. In their simplest form, the noodles are eaten with thinly sliced green onions and perhaps a slice of kamaboko.
Kitsune udon, or “fox udon,” is topped with sweetened aburaage, while tanuki udon, or “raccoon udon,” is topped with tempura batter flakes. Tempura udon is topped with tempura, or sometimes kakiage. Chikara udon is topped with mochi. Stamina udon usually is topped with meat, egg, and vegetables.
Yaki-udon is stir-fried in a soy sauce based sauce, prepared similarly to yakisoba.
Udon is also popular for use in various nabe dishes. In Nagoya, the noodles are simmered in miso soup for miso-nikomi udon.
Hoto udon is popular in Yamanashi, the thickest of them all and usually cooked in a thick miso soup with many vegetables.
Buckwheat noodles, called soba (蕎麦), are usually made with a mixture of buckwheat and wheat flour. If you’re celiac, be sure to look for 100% buckwheat noodles, which are one of the only Japanese noodles you may be able to eat.
Many soba variations are similar to udon ranging from chilled to served in a soup. Zaru-soba is chilled and served on a bamboo tray with little bits of nori seaweed and green onions, then dipped in tsuyu.
After eating the noodles, many people enjoy drinking the sobayu (蕎麦湯), or the water the soba was cooked in, mixed with the leftover tsuyu.
Popular cold soba toppings include tororo, a puree of yamaimo and grated daikon. Tempura is popular for warm soba, as is sansai (山菜), or “mountain vegetables,” or duck.
Soba is traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve in Japan, a tradition that is practiced to this day in most of Japan. Called toshikoshisoba (年越しそば), there are many meanings behind the practice, such as prayers for a long, thin life.
Although it contains the word soba, yakisoba (焼きそば)is not made with buckwheat noodles but wheat flour noodles that are stir-fried. The noodles are more similar to ramen noodles, and is usually prepared with small pieces of pork, vegetables such as cabbage, onions or carrots, and flavored with yakisoba sauce, salt and pepper. Topped with aonori (green seaweed powder), beni shoga (red picked ginger), katsuobushi (bonito flakes) and mayonnaise, yakisoba is a staple street food often seen at matsuri and yatai in Japan.
Sōmen (素麺) are very thin white wheat flour noodles, usually served cold. Popular especially in the summertime, sometimes the noodles are served in warm soup in the winter, called nyumen.
Usually it is served in a very simple style, chilled in ice after cooking and dipped in tsuyu, usually a katsuobushi-based sauce with some onion, ginger or myoga.
A fun summertime way to serve sōmen is nagashi-sōmen, or flowing sōmen. The noodles are placed in long bamboo flumes. Diners “catch” the noodles as the sōmen pass by, dipping in their tsuyu and feasting.
A little thicker than sōmen and thinner than udon, hiyamugi (冷麦) noodles are similar to both and somewhere in between the two in size. It is served in similar manners as sōmen or udon. Sometimes they are not only white but mixed with pink or green colored noodles.
Hiyamugi are wheat noodles between 1.3 millimeter and 1.7 millimeter in diameter. Anything thicker is udon and anything thinner is sōmen.
Konnyaku “noodles,” or shirataki (白滝)has risen in popularity outside of Japan recently as a weight-loss food because of its lack of calories. The thin, translucent noodles are made from konjac yam, and is full of dietary fiber while low in carbohydrates and calories. It doesn’t have much flavor on its own, so it’s very versatile in cooking.
Although the shirataki noodles can be prepared in similar ways as other noodles, traditionally they are most commonly used in sukiyaki, nikujyaga, and other stewed dishes.
Glass noodles made of potato starch are called harusame (春雨) in Japan. Similar to Chinese glass noodles, harusame is used commonly in salads or in hot pot dishes. They are also often used to make Japanese adaptations of Chinese and Korean dishes and is the most commonly-found type of glass noodles in Japan.
What’s your favorite Japanese noodle?
If you want to try make your own noodles, check out our Spring in Japan course, and learn how to make delicious noodles, while also getting to experience Japanese culture with people from all over the world.