A Guide to 9 Types of Japanese Noodles
Japanese people love noodles! They eat noodles all day, even for breakfast. What’s more comforting than slurping a bowl of noodles at a standing noodle bar on the railway platform while you wait for your train to arrive?
There is a variety of Japanese noodles, each enjoyed for their distinct characteristics — the taste and springiness of ramen, the pleasant swallowing sensation (known as nodogoshi) of udon, or the ritual of slurping soba at year’s end to bring good luck in the new year.
Noodles are not only food, but also an essential part of Japanese culture. And if you’ve had a few good experiences eating these noodles, you can personally confirm how drastically the flavors, aromas, and textures can differ from one type to another. It’s what makes Japanese noodles such an exciting food. This article will guide you to the most common types of Japanese noodles you can buy and cook at home.
The broadest category of Japanese noodles are made with wheat flour, water, salt, or other additives, such as lye-water (alkaline). The following noodles are a few different types of wheat noodles.
Udon Noodles (うどん)
Udon comes in a variety of sizes and thicknesses. They’re sold fresh, precooked, frozen, and dried. There are many regional varieties. The two popular types of udons are Sanuki and Inaniwa. The thinner udons go by their own names —kishimen, somen, hiyamugi and more — even though they are part of the udon family.
Sanuki Udon (佐貫うどん)
Sanuki udon is a regional specialty of Kagawa prefecture. It is one of the most dense and thickest noodles (1.7 mm or more). It’s prized by the Japanese for its chewy bite. Udon making techniques came to this region from China during the Tang dynasty (6–9th century AD). In the early days, udon artisans made noodles by stomping on the dough and then cutting it by hand. In modern times, udon is made mostly by machine.
You’ll often find Sanuki udon precooked and frozen. The purists, however, still believe that stomping on the dough creates a better chew (known as koshi), which is characteristic of udon. The popular way to eat Sanuki udon is straight with a seasoned broth or a dipping sauce. Sanuki udon is often the centerpiece of hot pots. They can cook for a long time and not get mushy. These noodles can also be served hot with curry sauce.
Inaniwa Udon (稲庭うどん)
Inaniwa udon is a regional specialty of Akita prefecture. They are thin and flat noodles (1.3 to 1.7 mm) that are hand-pulled, tenobe style, and then dried. Because of the hands-on method, they are not produced in mass quantities like Sanuki udon. They have a translucent quality when boiled and are known for giving you a smooth nodogoshi, or throat sensation when you swallow the noodles. Inaniwa noodles are often served with a bonito and kombu seaweed dashi-based soup or dipping sauce.
Kishimen is a regional specialty of Aichi prefecture. These thin, flat noodles (1.3 to 1.7 mm) also belong to the udon family. They are thinner than Inaniwa noodles and sold mostly dried. They are often served in a dashi-based soup seasoned with tamari or miso.
Hiyamugi (冷麦 )
Hiyamugi is a thin round udon noodle (1.3 to 1.7mm) made in various parts of Japan. In order to distinguish itself from Somen noodles, there are a few colored noodles (green and pink) that are mixed in with the white dried noodles. Children feel lucky when they can have the colored noodles. Hiyamugi is swappable with somen.
Somen (素麺 )
Somen is the thinnest round noodle (under 1.3 mm) made in Kagawa prefecture and other parts of Japan. It is similar to angel hair pasta in its thinness. It can be enjoyed hot or cold, but especially cold in the summertime with a soy-based dipping sauce with scallions, grated ginger, and pickled plum (known as umeboshi).
Ramen is a Chinese-inspired noodle made of wheat flour, salt, water, and lye water (known as kansui) that turns the noodles wavy and springy, and gives it a nutty aroma and natural yellow coloring. The yellow pigment of the flour comes alive when the kansui is added to the dough. Although many manufacturers sell fresh and dried ramen in the United States, the most common version in Asian grocery stores is instant ramen, which are pre-cooked, deep-fried, and compressed into a brick to become shelf-stable.
The best way to eat ramen is fast while they are springy and chewy. Any lingering in the broth will turn them into limp, mushy noodles. Ramen is paired with tare (soy sauce base) sauce and broth. The classics are Tonkotsu (pork bone broth) ramen, miso ramen, shio ramen, and shoyu ramen. Ramen is often served with chashu pork, a marinated soft-boiled egg, seasoned bamboo shoots (called menma), and lots of chopped scallions. You can also use ramen in a cold noodle salad, such as hiyashi chuka, with a ginger sesame dressing.
Instant Ramen are pre-cooked (boiled and deep-fried) ramen noodles which are dried into bricks. They are reconstituted with boiling water into chewable noodles.
Buckwheat flour is made from buckwheat seeds (sometimes called groats or kernels) which have origins in Central Asia. Although it has the word “wheat” in its name, buckwheat is not technically the same thing as traditional wheat. Because buckwheat is often treated in the same way as wheat and other grains, it is sometimes referred to as a “pseudograin.” In addition to noodles, buckwheat is also used to make other foods like buckwheat pancakes.
Soba noodles are thin (1 to 1.3mm), long (about 24 cm), and beige noodles and are relatively high in protein and fiber. Japanese people consider soba as food medicine. They’re famous for a distinctly nutty, savory buckwheat flavor and chew. Japanese people make pilgrimages to artisan soba shops during the “Shin Soba,” a new crop season in the fall when the freshly harvested and milled buckwheat flour is available.
Most soba noodles you will find in the U.S. are precooked and frozen or dried. The standard commercial soba is around 30% buckwheat and 70% wheat to qualify as soba, but wheat is often the primary ingredient. Some are blended with seaweed and starches as binding agents.
Buckwheat is water-soluble, so it needs to be cooked quickly and preferably eaten quickly. Soba is often served cold and straight with a dipping sauce, chopped scallions, wasabi, and grated daikon radish. Soba is also served hot in a broth like Kamo nanban (soba with duck in a hot broth), or cold as a soba salad with grilled vegetables and a lemon miso dressing.
Additional Types of Noodles
Shirataki Noodles (白滝) or Tofu Shirataki (豆腐白滝)
Shirataki noodles are opaque, round, long, and gelatinous noodles made from konjac, a Japanese root vegetable. The starch from konjac is made into a paste with water and then extruded into noodles and steamed into what resembles shirataki, or “white waterfall” in Japanese.
Shiratakis are virtually free of calories and don’t have any flavor of their own but take on the flavor of whatever sauce you cook them with. It is sold pre-cooked and packaged in water. The water in the package has a funky smell so I always blanch the noodles before using them in my cooking.
Shirataki are enjoyed for their chewiness — they’re almost rubbery in texture. They often come in green and gray and are speckled with seaweed. It is white when made with tofu. They are the star of sukiyaki (Japanese beef hot pot) and often used in stir-fries to add volume and texture to the dish.
Dried vermicelli noodles, also called glass noodles, are made from mung bean and potato flour. It is a flavorless noodle that can be used in stir-fries, salads, and soups for added texture and volume. Harusame is also popular in Chinese-style salads, served with julienned cucumbers, carrots, egg ribbons, ginger, and sesame dressing.
Kuzukiri noodles are made from kudzu root flour. The root flour has been treasured for restorative qualities and is often used as a gelling and thickening agent to make sauces. It also makes an elegant noodle called kuzukiri, which is transparent like harusame noodles and sold mostly dried. These noodles are used in hot pots or served as a dessert with Okinawa brown sugar syrup.
The Broth, Dipping Sauce, and Toppings
As a general rule, soups and dipping sauces are made with dashi, a broth made with a mixture of dried seafood (fish flakes, dried sardines, and konbu seaweed) and dried shiitake mushrooms. It’s also seasoned with tare, a sauce made with soy sauce, sake, mirin, and sugar. Noodle toppings are regional and seasonal.
Can I Swap One Noodle for Another?
If you can’t find what the recipe calls for, yes — Japanese noodles are for the most part swappable. (Although most ramen-lovers will argue that ramen can’t be substituted because it tastes best when served in a seasoned bone broth.)