Noodles form an essential part of the Japanese diet and provide a base for various meals. Whether it’s thick, creamy udon, steaming shoyu ramen, or a bowl of refreshingly chilled somen, Japanese noodles are a great way to explore different ingredients without the guilt that often accompanies Western-style pasta. Understanding what the different types of Japanese noodles are made of, what their health benefits are and which toppings go best with them will bring you one step closer to creating an authentic washoku meal right in your own kitchen.
The Health Benefits of Japanese Noodles
Especially when it comes to your health, the benefits of Japanese noodles are well documented. Soba (buckwheat) noodles in particular have nutritional qualities not found in other pastas. Buckwheat is uniquely high in proteins, minerals, dietary fibre, and micro-nutrients that support liver function, blood pressure and cardiovascular health. Wheat noodles also have plenty of good quality protein, are low in fat and high in complex carbohydrates. Udon in particular is renowned for its digestibility, making it perfect for cold weather and illness.
5 Different Types of Japanese Noodles
RamenIt may be difficult to call ramen a type of Japanese noodle, since the curly, yellowish staple of washoku is actually of Chinese origin. Ramen noodles are made from wheat and usually contain a special ingredient: kansui, a mineral-rich salt water that lends the yellow colour to the noodles. Curled noodles are especially good in a delicate broth, as they draw the soup up better than thin ones.
Ramen soup stock (dashi) is meat- or fish-based, and flavoured with miso, shoyu or salt (shio). Whether it’s the rich tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen of Kyushu, the hearty miso ramen of Hokkaido, or the light chicken broth of Tokyo, every region has its own style.
There is one noodle dish never served in soup, and that is yakisoba – literally, ‘fried noodles’. Yakisoba noodles are thin and curly but, contrary to the name, are made from wheat rather than buckwheat.
Typically grilled with cabbage, carrot and onion, other ingredients can be added as desired: chicken or beef, peppers, bean sprouts, mushrooms, broccoli – the more vegetables you add, the healthier it becomes. The other key ingredient is yakisoba sauce, the sweet, tangy taste of which probably helps explain the popularity of yakisoba stalls at matsuri, or Japanese festivals.
The thick, chewy texture of udon noodles is due to the heavy-duty kneading the dough undergoes – with feet, no less, as noodle-makers stomp on the (covered) dough. The resulting softness of these wheat noodles makes them light on the stomach.
Simplicity is the keyword for udon; the most common style is kake udon, served hot in tsuyu broth and sprinkled with sliced green onions. Plain udon noodles readily absorb flavours, making them an ideal base for strong ones. They are also eaten cold, tossed in a stirfry or topped with tempura – there are plenty of variations.
The secret weapon of the Japanese diet, soba noodles are made from buckwheat, the excellent health benefits of which are outlined above. 100% buckwheat soba is a great gluten-free option, although most contain some wheat flour.
Served in a bowl of thin tsuyu (soy sauce-based) broth, hot soba comes in many variations, whether the Okinawan speciality of stewed pork or the simpler kake soba. Soba is also popular as a cold dish with dipping sauce and vegetables to garnish. But it’s hot soba eaten at the New Year that is most famous; the long thin noodles, called toshikoshi soba, signify the hope of a long life.
The chief difference between somen and other types of wheat noodles is that they are extremely thin, stretched that way with the aid of vegetable oil. Somen is usually served cold, a great way to cool down in the heat of a Japanese summer. Sometimes they are served plain with ice, or tossed with raw vegetables, and always with tsuyu dipping sauce. When served in a hot broth of meat and vegetables, somen is called nyumen.
Japanese Noodle Toppings
The final touch on any bowl of Japanese noodles is the toppings. While some are popular for certain dishes only – corn on ramen, tempura on udon, pickled ginger on yakisoba – several are common to most Japanese noodle styles.
Negi (Spring Onions)
Sliced green onions garnish most types of Japanese noodles. The negi, or Japanese onion, is known in English as the spring onion, Welsh onion or scallion. Negi is an essential part of Japanese cooking, and in noodle dishes is sliced thinly on top.
Egg is another popular topping. You will often find half a boiled egg in a bowl of ramen, but there are other methods too, particularly the tsukimi (moon viewing) style, where a raw egg is cracked into a bowl of udon or soba.
Nori (Dried Seaweed)
The Japanese diet consists of seaweed (nori) in several forms, and noodles are no exception. It is not unusual to find a square of nori (dried, flat seaweed) on top of a steaming bowl of noodles, but other forms include aonori (seaweed flakes) sprinkled over yakisoba and wakame (soft, sweet seaweed) on udon or soba.
Shichimi Togarashi (7-Spice Chili Powder)
Togarashi chili powder is more than just ground up chilli peppers: various ingredients are added, often sesame seeds, pepper, citrus peel, ginger, garlic, poppy seeds, hemp seeds, nori and shiso (Japanese basil). The blend depends on the cook, region or manufacturer, but no matter what it’s a delicious addition to a bowl of steaming udon or yakisoba.
Tsuyu (Dipping Sauce or Broth)
Tsuyu (properly called mentsuyu) is a versatile sauce that brings the umami flavour to so much Japanese cooking, and when it comes to noodles it is essential. As tsuketsuyu it perfectly accompanies cold noodles as a dipping sauce, and as kaketsuyu it provides a delicious base for a hot broth.
The essential ingredients of tsuyu are soy sauce, mirin and sake but others such as sugar, kombu (dried seaweed) and bonito flakes, or dried tuna flakes, can be added. There are even specialty sauces found only in certain parts of Japan, like this Goma-Kurumi Miso Tsuyu from Nagano that combines the goodness of sesame seeds and walnuts together in one tasty package and can be bought straight for the source here at Washoku Explorer. Whatever the version, tsuyu sauce provides a delicious and truly Japanese way to eat noodles.
How to Make Japanese Noodles a Part of Your Washoku Diet
Just as tsuyu forms an essential base for noodle dishes, noodles themselves are vital to a healthy washoku, or Japanese diet. The variations are endless, so your tastebuds never get bored. And the exceptional nutritional quality of soba in particular, not to mention commonly used accompaniments—soy sauce, seaweed, ginger, fish stock, vegetables—make Japanese noodles a great choice every day.
Find more nutricious Japanese ingredients for your kitchen by visiting Washoku Explorer’s product pages, where you will find only the highest quality ingredients by Japan’s regional producers.