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Japanese Noodles: Ramen vs. Udon vs. Soba

Japanese Noodles: Ramen vs. Udon vs. Soba

Noodles are also an important part of Japanese cuisine. Not only are they a Japanese staple, but different types of noodles are also enjoyed for certain celebrations and during specific seasons.

Ramen, soba, and udon noodles are some of the most recognizable Japanese noodles. These noodles are amazing when enjoyed fresh, but they can also be found dried in supermarkets and convenience stores.

So, the ultimate showdown: ramen vs soba vs udon. What are the differences between the three, and how do you enjoy them?

From hot soups to chilled noodles, there are tons of dishes associated with each of Japan’s noodles. Check out this guide to three of our favorite types of Japanese noodles and the different dishes that highlight them.

All About Ramen

What is ramen? Arguably the most famous Japanese noodle, ramen is also one of Japan’s most iconic and popular foods. The exact origins of this noodle are debated, but it’s widely agreed that ramen was Japan’s version a Chinese noodle dish.

Ramen is a thin, pale yellow, wheat-based noodle known for its firm texture and curly/wavy shape. The noodles are typically found in soups made with meat (like chicken, pork, etc.) or fish-based stock, although vegetarian versions are available too. The most important thing to know about ramen is that it is not an egg noodle— just wheat flour, salt, water, and kansui, or lye water.

The ramen broth is flavored with additions like soy sauce or miso along with edible kelp called kombu or dried seaweed called nori. Ingredients like katsuobushi or bonito flakes add fishiness while shiitake mushrooms add earthy, umami flavors. Other toppings include scallions or green onions, narutomaki or fish cake, as well as proteins like sliced meat and halved boiled eggs.

Each region of Japan has its own version of ramen, highlighting regional and/or seasonal flavors, like Kyushu's tonkotsu, or pork bone broth ramen, and Hokkaido's miso ramen. And there are even different styles of ramen wheat noodles depending on the characteristics of the broth. A thick noodle pairs better with a miso broth than a shoyu or soy sauce broth, which pairs well with thin noodles

Ramen was originally sold via food stalls and ramen shops, but versions of the dish can now be found in restaurants around the world, ranging from affordable to high-end.

Instant ramen is another popular version. Dating back to 1958, instant ramen noodles have become a globally-recognized product that’s still popular today. All you need to do is add boiling water, and you'll have a simple and delicious snack or meal in minutes.

All About Soba

Made from a mix of wheat and buckwheat flour, soba noodles are thin in shape and grayish or brownish in color, depending on the amount of buckwheat used. The exact ratio of buckwheat to wheat flour varies a bit between makers. Soba noodles are typically served either hot in a broth or cold with a dipping sauce called tsuyu.

One important dish featuring soba noodles is Toshikoshi Soba, which is eaten to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Japan. The length of the noodles represents longevity and, because the noodles are easy to cut, signifies letting go of past hardships.

There are many other popular buckwheat soba noodle dishes. First, there’s Tempura Soba, also called Tensoba, which can be served as a hot soup or cold noodle dish. Both variations are topped with tempura-fried shrimp or fried fish cakes called satsuma age, depending on the region.

Experience Japan right from home

Next, there’s Matcha Soba, a dish that comes from Uji, a city located south of Kyoto that’s famous for their matcha tea. These noodles are made by mixing buckwheat with matcha tea power, which gives the noodles a green hue. Matcha soba noodles are mostly enjoyed cold, with wasabi and tsuyu dipping sauce as popular sides.

Another type of soba noodle is Wanko Soba, which originates from Iwate Prefecture. Eating Wanko Soba is a unique experience, because the noodles are served one small bowl at a time. The goal is to eat the noodles quickly, since your bowl is repeatedly refilled until you are full.

All About Udon

The thickest of Japan’s noodles, udon, are white, wheat-based Japanese noodles. Depending on the season, udon noodles are either served cold with dipping sauce—when it’s warm outside—or in hot dishes and soups—when it’s cooler.

To enjoy udon noodles in their purest form, go for a traditional dish called Kake Udon. This version of udon features a simple stock called kakejiru. The broth is made using three iconic Japanese ingredients: dashi, mirin, and soy sauce. Chopped scallions are a popular topping. Sometimes, fried tofu and/or tempura are also added.

Just like ramen, the flavor profiles of udon soup broths vary region-to-region across Japan. Although, one notable trend is that broths are typically darker in eastern Japan thanks to the use of dark soy sauce, also called koikuchi shōyu. In contrast, broths tend to be lighter, due to the use of light soy sauce or usukuchi shōyu, in western Japan.

Three other popular udon dishes are Kitsune Udon, or “fox udon,” Chikara Udon, and Curry Udon. Kitsune Udon is a meatless soup that’s topped with fried tofu. Wondering what this soup has to do with foxes? According to Japanese legend, fried tofu is supposed to be a fox’s favorite food. Chikara Udon also has an essential topping. This dish, also called “power udon,” is a dashi-style noodle soup that’s topped with mochi, which is meant to melt into the warm broth. Curry Udon is a spicy and comforting dish made with Japanese curry roux. Another udon dish worth mentioning is Yaki Udon; unlike the previous ones that have broth, Yaki Udon is a stir-fried dish with meat and vegetables.

One other wheat noodle dish popular in Japan but relatively new elsewhere are somen noodles. Hiyashi Somen, a cold noodle dish, is eaten during the Tanabata Festival.

Who doesn’t love noodles? Between curly ramen, buckwheat-y soba, and thick udon noodles, it’s difficult to choose a favorite. Of course, there’s no need to have only one. With all the hot and cold varieties of each of these types of Japanese noodles, there are endless possibilities for your next snack or meal.

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