Japanese Noodles 101 – Different Varieties & How to Eat Them
If you don’t know your kitsune udon from your nagashi somen then read on to learn about the main kinds of Japanese noodles and the most popular ways to eat them.
What kinds of Japanese noodles are there?
In this article, we’ll introduce the following types of Japanese noodles, covering the most popular dishes you’re likely to encounter both in and outside of Japan:
- Seaweed Noodles
- Okinawa Soba
You can also learn about which types of noodles are best if you have special dietary requirements such as gluten free or vegan, why the Japanese slurp their noodles loudly, and other interesting noodle facts!
Ramen noodles are a popular Japanese dish originally imported from China. An early mention of ramen was in a Chinese book called Shidaifang Jiezi from the 1880’s. It described ramen as “a kind of wheat-flour cake, made either into noodles, or into small cakes boiled, and much esteemed by the lower classes.” Whilst it is not clear when the first ramen noodles were created, since the end of World War II their popularity in Japan has grown exponentially, making them one of the nation’s most loved dishes. In the 1950s, instant ramen noodles were also invented in Japan, a quick and tasty snack that can be eaten almost anywhere.
As one of Japan’s most popular, affordable, and widely available dishes, you can find ramen restaurants in almost every town. Many ramen restaurants use a vending machine system to place and pay for orders. You choose what kind of ramen dish you want by pushing the corresponding button before making payment. Once the payment has been made you will receive a ticket which you should then hand to the staff inside who can place your order and show you to a seat.
Ramen noodles are often categorised according to their broth base, with the most popular kinds being shoyu ramen (soy-sauce based), miso ramen, shio ramen (salt-based), and tonkotsu ramen (broth made with pork bone). Popular ramen toppings include sliced pork, bamboo shoot, dried seaweed, boiled egg, green onion, bean sprouts, and fish cakes.
Other types of Japanese ramen include:
- Tsukemen: also known as “dipping noodles”, this type of ramen consists of noodles and soup served separately. Although it depends on the ramen restaurant, the noodles are usually served cold while the soup is thicker than that used for conventional ramen. It was first invented by the late Kazuo Yamagishi, who managed a ramen restaurant called Taishoken. It is said that the origin of tsukemen was as a broad meal for staff that comes with leftover noodles and soup.
Abura Soba: also known as “soupless ramen” or “mazesoba (mixed noodles)”, this ramen has toppings on top of the noodles with a thick type of soy sauce on the bottom of the bowl. You have to mix it well before eating so that the noodles and other ingredients are coated with the sauce. You can drizzle it with ra-yu (chili oil) and vinegar according to your preference. Despite its name, which is literally translated as “oil noodles”, it is less greasy and has fewer calories and salt content than ordinary ramen.
Tantanmen: originating from Chinese Dandan noodles, tantanmen has a spicy soup. Compared with the original Szechuan variation, tantanmen is milder in pungency because its soup is blended with sesame paste and soy milk to give it a slight sweetness and nutty aftertaste. Its typical toppings include seasoned ground meat, green onion, and pak choi (Chinese mustard).
Champon: this is a standard local dish in Nagasaki, a prefecture in the Kyusyu region. It refers to a ramen that comprises noodles, tonkotsu- and chicken-based soup, meat, vegetables, shrimps, and fish cakes. Champon is a hearty noodle dish thanks to its rich amount of toppings and is plainer than ordinary tonkotsu ramen, so it is reasonably easy to eat. Champon noodles from a Japanese fast-food chain Ringer Hut are tasty, affordable, and worth a try; it is also well known that this restaurant made champon famous on a national level.
How to prepare and eat ramen noodles
Choose your toppings and broth base before you begin. To prepare the ramen noodles, add them to boiling water and cook for two to three minutes. Whilst the ramen is cooking prepare the soup broth separately in a bowl with hot water (approximately one cup) and add more water as necessary to adjust the taste to your preference. Finally, put your soup and noodles together in a bowl, then add your toppings to finish.
Eat your ramen noodles immediately after cooking so they don’t get soggy. If they are very hot, try the Japanese method of slurping, it helps to cool the noodles as you eat them!
Udon noodles are a traditional Japanese dish made from wheat flour and water. They are said to have first been introduced to the Japanese island of Shikoku during the Heian period (794-1192) by a famous Buddhist priest called Kūkai and grew quickly in popularity as they are easy and inexpensive to make.
Today the small prefecture of Kagawa is considered the home of udon, although they are widely eaten throughout Japan with many cities having created their own variations of udon dishes. Some of the most popular variations of udon dishes include curry udon (udon mixed with Japanese curry sauce), kitsune udon, (dashi broth, topped with fried tofu), and kake udon, (hot broth topped with green onions).
Other unique udon dishes you may like to try include:
- Kishimen: a local type of cuisine of Aichi Prefecture, kishimen is actually not much different from udon, except that its noodles are flatter and thicker than their normal counterparts. These flat noodles are softer than normal udon noodles, so children and the elderly can chew them easily. The reason kishimen is popular among Aichi locals is that kishimen noodles can absorb the soup more than udon noodles, thus meeting the preference of locals for a stronger flavor.
- Yakiudon: this is a soupless, pan-fried udon dish that is seasoned with soy sauce or mentsuyu. Its typical garnishes are sliced pork, cabbage, carrots, bean sprouts, onion, and katsuobushi (bonito flakes). Yakiudon is easy to make, loved by all generations in Japan and is convenient in terms of helping you consume leftover food in the refrigerator efficiently. Instead of soy sauce, you can season yakiudon with yakiniku BBQ sauce, kimchi (Korean salted and fermented vegetables), or garlic butter.
How to prepare and eat udon noodles
Udon noodles are thicker than other types of Japanese noodles such as soba or ramen and have a slightly chewy and salty texture. The noodles are made from wheat flour dough which is then cut into strands or rolled into small squares and either boiled or deep fried before being added to the soup or stir fried with other ingredients. They are also typically served warm with a dipping sauce and side dishes such as vegetables, seafood, meat, and tempura.
In Japanese, soba means “buckwheat”, referring to the main ingredient used to make these noodles. Buckwheat is a natural source of vitamin B2 and can help promote healthy digestion. Soba noodles first become popular in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868), and today you can eat them throughout Japan at specialist soba restaurants or buy them readymade in packets at the supermarket.
Soba noodles are also traditionally eaten in Japan on New Year’s Eve in a dish called Toshikoshi Soba which consists of soba noodles served in a hot dashi soup with finely chopped spring onions.
Soba noodles contain high levels of protein and carbohydrates which make them taste delicious without any sauces or toppings. They can be eaten hot or cold depending on your preference and are generally served with a dipping sauce such as soy sauce or dashi broth.
Some popular variations of soba dishes include mori soba, (chilled soba noodles served with a dipping sauce), kake soba, (soba noodles served in a hot soup), and tempura soba, (soba noodles in soup or with dipping sauce served with several pieces of tempura), and cha soba (soba noodles blended with matcha green tea powders).
For cha soba, there is a unique dish called kawara soba. It is a specialty dish from an onsen town in Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture. Literally translated as “tile buckwheat noodles'', kawara soba is cooked on heated Japanese roof tiles; the origin of it was an episode in which soldiers cooked meats and vegetables on roof tiles during the Seinan War in 1877, but today some locals replace the tiles with a hot plate or skillet. Cha soba noodles are boiled then cooked on the tiles along with toppings including kinshi tamago (Japanese shredded egg crepe), thinly sliced beef, nori seaweed, green onion, sliced lemon, and momiji oroshi (spicy grated white radish). It is usually consumed with a rich mentsuyu (dipping sauce for noodles).
How to prepare and eat soba noodles
To prepare soba noodles you need to cook the noodles for about four minutes or until the water is absorbed. Then, you can add your sauce which is usually made from soba dashi (a Japanese soup stock) and soy sauce. There are also other ingredients which can be added to the soba noodle dish such as sesame seeds, green onions, and mustard greens. One thing that sets this dish apart from others is that it does not use any oil in its preparation process – just water.
After preparing your soba noodles, you'll want to add a dipping sauce or a broth. One popular combination is adding soy sauce and dashi (or kelp or bonito flakes) to your soba noodles.
The name comes from the word sōmen which means “thin wheat” in Japanese. Somen noodles are a type of Japanese noodles that are thin, white, and oval-shaped. They can either be served cold or hot and have a light texture.
Somen noodles are usually eaten cold in summer because they are light and refreshing, but they can also be served as an accompaniment to other dishes. During the summer months in Japan, you can also visit nagashi somen (flowing noodles) restaurants, these are seasonal restaurants where cold somen noodles are placed on bamboo flumes that diners catch with their chopsticks before eating.
Did you know that there is another variation of somen noodles called hiyamugi? In general, somen refers to noodles with a diameter less than 1.3mm while hiyamugi has to be more than 1.3 and less than 1.7mm in thickness. Further, somen usually has a round section while hiyamugi is square-shaped. Hiyamugi is chewier and sweeter than somen because it is thicker and has a higher flour content.
Somen and hiyamugi are served cold and are suitable for eating in summer. In contrast, somen/hiyamugi noodles that are served hot are called nyumen. Nyumen is originally a local dish of Nara Prefecture, and is literally translated as “cooked noodles”. Its cooking method is quite similar to udon and kake soba: noodles are cooked in a hot tsuyu-based soup while their toppings are fish cakes, shiitake mushrooms, spinach, green onion, chicken, and more.
How to prepare and eat cold somen noodles
Cook the somen noodles for three to four minutes in boiling water and drain immediately afterwards. Put the noodles in a colander and run them under cold water. Put some ice water in a bowl and add the somen noodles. Serve with side dishes of dipping sauce, chopped onions and ginger.
Shirataki noodles are made from the konjac plant, which is native to Asian countries like China and Japan where it grows year-round. They are a low-calorie, low-carbohydrate food, often sold and marketed as “zero calorie pasta,” and can help to lower cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
Shirataki noodles have been around in Japan for nearly a century and have only recently gained popularity in the United States, but they’re quickly becoming more of a staple food and seen as a healthier version to traditional noodles or pasta. The plant produces something called glucomannan fiber, which is what gives shirataki noodles their shape and texture.
How to prepare and eat shirataki noodles
Shirataki noodles can be eaten just like any other pasta – boiled or sautéed with garlic and olive oil or used in stir fries with meat and vegetables. Shirataki noodles have little flavor by themselves, so will get most of their taste from whatever sauces and seasonings you decide to use with them.
Despite the name, yakisoba noodles are not the same as soba noodles, and are made from wheat flour or egg instead of buckwheat. Similar to Chinese style noodles, yakisoba is a stir fry style dish, usually served with slices of pork or seafood and vegetables such as cabbage, onions, and beansprouts, and seasoned with a sauce that resembles Worcestershire sauce.
Yakisoba noodles first began to appear as a fast food in Japan following World War II. At that time, only beef was used in the recipe, but over the years other meat varieties have become available, including pork and even vegan versions. Yakisoba is a particularly popular street food at Japanese festivals where you’ll see vendors cooking them up on teppan iron plates. You can also find yakisoba pan in convenience stores; these are yakisoba noodles served in a hot dog bun.
Another popular variation of yakisoba noodles is shio yakisoba (salt-based yakisoba). Although its toppings are the same as its sauce-based counterpart, it is seasoned with salt, pepper, Chinese seasoning or powdered chicken broth, and garlic paste. You can add a squeeze of lemon to bring a refreshing aftertaste to the shio yakisoba.
How to prepare and eat yakisoba noodles
Stir fry the meat and vegetables in a pan, skillet, or wok, and once ready, add the noodles and mix together with yakisoba sauce. When the noodles are cooked, serve immediately and garnish with dried seaweed and pickled ginger.
Harusame is a type of transparent noodle that is normally made from the starch of mung beans, satsumaimo (sweet potato), corn, or potato. It is said that Japanese harusame is made with either or both potato and satsumaimo while the Chinese variation is made with mung beans, but these vary between brands. Unlike wheat-based noodles, harusame has fewer calories and less sugar, and is free of gluten.
Dry harusame noodles have a white color but become translucent when cooked. Further, they have a distinctive chewiness and springiness, so they are suitable for making a low-calorie filling dish. Although harusame noodles are bland in terms of taste, they absorb sauces, soups, and other seasonings well, so they become tastier when served with soupy dishes and marinades.
How to prepare and eat harusame noodles
Harusame noodles are actually versatile noodles that can be used as an ingredient of stir-fried dishes, soups, salads, and as a substitute for other noodles served with soup or tsuyu sauce. You can boil the noodles before cooking them with other ingredients, but it is recommended that you cook them with other ingredients and soak them in seasoning to give them a richer flavor.
Seaweed plays a significant role in Japanese culture: you will encounter it often when appreciating Japanese cuisine. However, did you know that there are noodles made from seaweed? These noodles are made with a water-soluble fiber that is extracted from seaweed, and they normally have little or no calories, fat, or carbohydrates. They have a unique crunchy or slick texture, and you can eat them by simply adding them to dishes without washing or rehydrating them, although this feature varies between products. In this section, we will introduce three types of Japanese seaweed noodles.
Tokoroten: this is made from extract of red seaweed like tengusa or ogonori. When this seaweed solution becomes cool and solid to form a block, it will get cut into noodles with a special cutting tool called tentsuki. Interestingly, the ways tokoroten noodles are consumed vary between regions: in the Kanto region they are seasoned with vinegar and consumed as an appetizer while in the Kansai region they are seasoned with brown sugar syrup and eaten as a dessert. It would be fun to try both and discover which style meets your preference.
Kanten: although its ingredient is the same as tokoroten, its process is different. When seaweed extract is in a block, tokoroten refers to it when it is processed as noodles while kanten is freeze-dried. Although dried kanten is slightly inferior to raw tokoroten in terms of chewiness and springiness, it can last longer than tokoroten. You can still enjoy kanten’s original texture and flavor by putting it back in water, so you don’t need to be overconcerned! Kanten is normally consumed as a type of confectionery.
Hyottsuru: these are actually wakame noodles and are the local specialty of Nagasaki prefecture. Wakame seaweed is processed into jelly-paste, and then formulated into noodles. Fully made of this seaweed, hyottsuru noodles are low-calorie, rich in minerals, gluten-free, and vegan-friendly. Their deep-greenish color makes dishes colorful, and they are an ideal substitute for wheat-based noodles to achieve a healthier diet.
How to prepare and eat seaweed noodles
In the case of kanten noodles, rehydrate them before serving. However, if you are planning to add them to soupy dishes, it is okay to add them to the soup without placing them back in water as this allows the noodles to absorb the soup and this makes them tastier. In contrast, tokoroten and hyottsuru are usually prepared raw but are ready to eat, so simply mix them with dishes or add your favorite seasonings. If you feel their odor is too strong, lightly rinse them with water.
Kuzukiri Japanese plant-based noodles are made from the starch of kudzu (Japanese arrowroot) root. Similar to seaweed noodles, the ingredient is dissolved, molded into block form, and then thinly sliced into noodles. These translucent noodles have a light flavor, a jelly-like texture, and offer a pleasant feel in your mouth. Kuzukiri noodles are perfect for summer dishes, especially sweets.
Although there are various theories regarding their origin, it is said that kuzukiri noodles are developed by a Kyoto-based Japanese sweets shop called Kagizen-Yoshifusa. Originally, they delivered kuzukiri to neighboring temples and shrines as well as Japanese restaurants only, but when its popularity rose among ordinary customers, kuzukiri began to be sold in stores, then eventually became one of their in-house cafe’s signature desserts. Since that time, you can find kuzukiri noodles at most Japanese cafes and sweet shops.
How to prepare and eat kuzukiri noodles
Although kuzukiri noodles go excellently with kuromitsu (brown sugar syrup) and kinako (roasted soybean powder), which is the most common way to consume them, you can also add them to savory dishes. For instance, replace kuzukiri with pasta, ramen noodles, or udon noodles to have a low-carb, guiltless diet. If you wish to eat more but also desire to avoid excessive calorie intake, kuzukiri noodles are the best option: simply add them to soup, salad, or any dish and you can instantly create a filling meal.
Hoto noodles originate in Yamanashi Prefecture, and are similar to udon noodles because they are both wheat-based noodles; however, they are recognized as different noodles. One of the largest differences between udon and hoto is that the former includes salt and will mature while the latter is salt-free and will be cut immediately after the dough is kneaded. For these reasons, hoto noodles are softer and less elastic than udon. Another distinctive feature of hoto noodles is that they do not have to be shaped like noodles. In other words, even if the hoto dough is round like a dumpling, it is considered to be “hoto noodles”.
There is also another variation of hoto noodles called “azuki hoto”, which is quite similar to oshiruko (sweet red bean soup with mochi rice cake). This dish is eaten on special occasions such as the New Year’s holidays, O-Bon (an annual Buddhist event to commemorate and remember deceased ancestors), and local festivities. Simply braise the noodles and azuki paste until the soup becomes thick, and you can experience a sweet and heartwarming treat.
How to prepare and eat hoto noodles
Unlike udon, you do not need to cook hoto noodles in advance. Low in elasticity, the noodles get cooked quickly and become mushy when heated. This makes it perfect for simmered dishes as their starch dissolves into the soup in the pot, which plays the role of thickener and sweetener. This thickened soup pairs well with starchy vegetables including pumpkin and potatoes as well as meat, making these ingredients even more delicious.
For azuki hoto, prepare ready-to-eat azuki paste or beans and boil them, before adding hoto noodles, and bring them to the boil again. The more the azuki soup evaporates, the sweeter and thicker its flavor becomes. You can add more sugar if you want a sweeter taste.
Okinawa Soba Noodles
Okinawa soba features thick noodles and robust soup that is made from broths of pork bone and bonito flakes. This dish was originally served as palace cuisine in the Ryukyu Kingdom (a predecessor of Okinawa) from around the 16th century. In the Meiji Era (1868~1912), it was disseminated to and eaten by wealthy people, but eventually it became widely consumed among commoners across Japan.
Despite its name, its noodles do not include soba buckwheat at all. The reason behind this mystery is due to the locals’ efforts to preserve their traditional dish: in 1976, just after Okinawa’s reversion to Japan, the Japanese Fair Trade Commission instructed Okinawan locals not to use the word “soba” for Okinawa soba because of its absence of buckwheat. In response to this, they made a campaign to save the designation, and eventually Okinawa soba got approved as a registered trademark. Typical Okinawa soba consists of handmade and relatively-flat noodles, rich soup, and garnishes including braised pork belly, sliced fish cakes, green onions, and beni-shoga (Japanese red pickled ginger).
How to prepare and eat Okinawa soba noodles
Boil the whole pork belly block, and slice it thickly. Then slowly-simmer it with seasoning made of sugar, soy sauce, awamori (Okinawan distilled spirit), and dashi. Cut a kamaboko fish cake into slices while chopping green onion into small pieces. Meanwhile, bring a pot of water to the boil, and add pork- and bonito-based dashi, salt, and soy sauce to create the soup. Transfer the cooked noodles to a ramen bowl, pour the soup on it, and add toppings to the noodles. You can also add a seasoning called kōrēgusu (Okinawan hot chili sauce made of awamori spirit) to create Okinawa soba with a sharper aftertaste.
What Japanese noodles are gluten free?
For gluten free options, soba and shirataki are your best choice of Japanese noodles. Shirataki noodles are made from the konjac plant, which looks like a yam. The noodles are made from the konjac starch and mixed with water before being shredded into noodles. Soba noodles are made from buckwheat flour, which is gluten free, however some ready-made soba noodles also include wheat flour, so be sure to check the ingredients before you buy.
Harusame are another type of gluten free Japanese noodle, usually made from potato or sweet potato starch. Once cooked they turn translucent, so are often referred to as Japanese glass noodles, and are used in dishes like salads and soups.
What Japanese noodles are vegan?
You can find vegan variations of most Japanese noodle dishes, and the noodles themselves are usually made of vegan friendly ingredients. Any non-vegan ingredients usually lie in the soup or broth, and meat and seaweed are used quite often as a topping. For example, ramen broth often uses pork bone, whilst dashi stock is also a common ingredient in many noodle soups containing bonito (fish) flakes.
Why do people in Japan slurp their noodles?
If you’re from a western country and have visited Japan, you may have noticed that many people slurp their noodles loudly in restaurants. Whilst it may take a little getting used to, there are actually good reasons behind this custom. Slurping enhances the flavor of the noodles and allows you to eat the noodles immediately before they start to soften by inhaling cool air at the same time. Next time you eat Japanese noodles, give slurping a try and see how it affects the taste!