Who doesn’t love a good noodle dish? The Japanese are not alone in their love of elongated carbs, but they may offer the most diversity in noodles per square kilometer or foot. Noodle shops are plentiful, even in the sticks. Japanese noodle shops worth their salt are also highly specialized. Noodle discovery is not a one-stop experience. You must decide which type of noodle, variety of flavors and specific broth you crave. This post will focus on a general overview of the main Japanese noodles and their popular varieties. It is a practical post for foodies, visits to Japan or authentic Japanese restaurants anywhere, and for cooking at home after a run to the Asian market.
Before I overwhelm you with all the options, I will start with a brief overview of noodle basics and culture in Japan. This will give you enough information to eat any noodle in Japan and avoid any offensive pitfalls. When eating noodles, there are three things to keep in mind that are counter to American culture. First, slurping your noodles is acceptable and often necessary. (Please note this only applies to Asian noodle dishes. Do not slurp your spaghetti in an Italian restaurant in Japan.) Soup noodles are too hot and slippery to eat without slurping. You will be one hot mess, literally, if you don’t slurp. The slurping of others is loud and it may be an unappetizing adjustment to the American ear. Learn to adjust and enjoy your noodles.
The second thing is the placement of your chopsticks and soup spoon when eating noodles. Tap into your inner O.C.D. because the placement of chopsticks is very important in the Japanese culture. This is especially true if you are dining with anyone you want to impress, like a potential in-law, work contact, or cute date. Do not stick your chopsticks or spoon in the bowl between bites. The image of chopsticks sticking out of the bowl or food is similar to funeral customs and offerings of food to the deceased. It also resembles the incense burned to honor the deceased. Thus, it is inappropriate and offensive to stick your silverware in the bowl. Instead, chopsticks can be placed on a little stand provided or laid across the bowl, so they rest on the rim of the bowl.
Thirdly, you may lift your bowl to drink the soup and even to get the noodles closer to your mouth. While I would avoid doing this in formal settings.
On to the noodles! So just went I thought I knew all the Japanese noodle types, I just discovered a new one. There are a plethora, and each region has its own special style and flavor for noodle dishes. This post will give you a general overview of noodle types you can apply in any area of Japan or in Japanese noodle shops in the U.S.
There are four main types of noodle in Japan: somen, soba, udon, and ramen. You can order any type of noodle in a hot soup broth or cold noodles with dipping sauce (zaru style), though the cold version may only be offered in warmer months. Sometimes noodles are available stir-fry style, known as “Yaki” noodle.
Somen noodles are thin white noodles made from wheat. They look similar to spaghetti or angel hair pasta and are similar to thin soup noodles used in Chinese soup noodles. Somen noodles are not typically served in a restaurant exclusively for somen. Rather, somen noodles are incorporated into dishes at Japanese restaurants and are popular in Japanese homes.
Soba noodles are thin buckwheat noodles. The buckwheat gives a slightly nuttier flavor and more nutrition than the other noodle options. Soba noodles are usually a blend of white flour and buckwheat flour, ranging from 20 to 80 percent buckwheat. There are soba noodles made of 100 percent buckwheat, but they are rare and more expensive. You will almost never find them in a soba restaurant. The 100 percent soba noodles are firmer because they are purely whole grain. Most people prefer a blend of flours for a more traditional noodle consistency. Cold soba is delicious and easy for summer months. You simply buy dry soba noodles, zaru soba dipping sauce available in most Asian markets, and ginger or wasabi if you like. Cook the noodles and then rinse with cold water. You can also add a couple ice cubes to really cool them down. Then dip in the sauce and enjoy. If you eat soba in a restaurant in Japan, look for a place that makes their own soba noodles. They will have a little area with a wood board and rolling pin where they make the noodles.
Udon noodles are chubby, chewy noodles made from wheat and tapioca flour. They are the most difficult to eat because they are very slippery. Udon is often served with tempura, There is a popular chain restaurant in Japan that makes fresh udon starting at 300 yen (around $3) and the. You walk through a buffet of fried toppings that will quickly inflate the price of your noodles. It is a good option for those on a budget and with self control in the fried buffet temptation line.
Ramen noodles are my personal favorite and I regularly hunt down ramen joints wherever I go , including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Honolulu, Kyoto, Tokyo, and now the Japanese Alps. I will post more about ramen soon with photos. For now, ramen is a thin yellow wheat noodle served in broth or with a side of broth. There are four main varieties: salt (shio), soy sauce (shoyu), miso (fermented soybean paste) and tonkotsu (a rich broth made from pork bone and pork fat). Ramen shops usually specialize in one of those ramen types but often offer two or more types of ramen. I highly recommend ordering the specialty soup of the shop as quality can vary between the different offerings. More to come soon! Happy eating!