4 Types of Ramen Every Noodle-Lover Should Know About

published Mar 1, 2024
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
noodles being pulled up by chopsticks in pink bowl of shoyu ramen
Credit: Photo: Ryan Liebe; Food Styling: Brett Regot

Imagine yourself in Tokyo, strolling down a narrow alley where you find an old, cramped 1930s hole-in-the-wall ramen shop. There are two items on the menu: ramen or chashumen (ramen with extra chashu, or braised pork). With only a single row of stools along the bar, a line snakes out the door. A mirror lines the wall behind the stools, opposite of the busy cooks behind the bar. Using the mirror, a cook calls out to the line of customers, taking orders — a half a dozen or so at a time — by memory. 

As you inch toward the front of the line, you get ready to shout your order. But what kind should you get? Ramen with extra menma (seasoned bamboo shoots) and nori? Chashumen with leeks and garlic? Eventually, a seat opens up and as soon as you sit down, a steaming bowl of ramen is placed in front of you. You take a sip of the soup and think, yes, it was totally worth the wait.

Although it is considered Japanese food, ramen is among a collection of dishes — like curry, tempura, and yakisoba — that are not originally from Japan, but have been folded into the cuisine over time. Originally brought to Japan by Chinese immigrants following the end of Japan’s 200-year isolation period in 1858, ramen shops slowly popped up in the Yokohama and Tokyo area. When The Great Kanto Earthquake hit in 1923, ramen gained widespread popularity as people scattered across Japan in its aftermath and opened shops in other regions.

There is no standard recipe for ramen. Instead, there are five elements that come together to create what we recognize to be ramen: noodles, stock, tare, fat/oil, and toppings. Ramen has become a vehicle to express originality and creativity because of its loose structure. It continues to evolve, influenced by regional differences in climate, local cultures, and food trends.

The Most Common Types of Ramen 

There are a few ways that ramen is classified: by tare, stock, and style. 

  • Tare: Classifications by tare include shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), and miso ramen. 
  • Stock: Tonkotsu ramen is defined by exclusively using pork stock. 
  • Style: Other types of ramen like hiyashi chūka, tsukemen, and mazemen, which I include below, reflect differences in style.
Credit: Thyra Parthen/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Shio Ramen

Shio ramen may seem basic, but the light, clear broth is the star, as it is unadorned by the additional flavors of soy sauce or miso. Because of its relative simplicity, it provides a good canvas for highlighting other ingredients, as in the case of yuzu shio ramen or ume (pickled Japanese plum) shio ramen. Just like shoyu and miso ramen, the stock can be made with any combination of meat (chicken, pork, etc.), seafood (kombu, dried sardines, etc.), and vegetables. 

Noodles: The noodles are thin and can be straight or wavy.

Toppings: The toppings vary, but chashu, menma, boiled spinach, ajitsuke tamago (marinated egg), and chopped raw onion are typical.

Credit: Photo: Ryan Liebe; Food Styling: Brett Regot

Shoyu Ramen

Shoyu ramen is said to have origins in Tokyo in the early 1900s. A ramen shop called Rairaiken (which is no longer operating) is credited for popularizing ramen among the general public and inspired other shops to proliferate in the area. The soup is clear and brown and has a darker, deeper flavor profile than shio ramen. 

Noodles: The noodles are of medium thickness and are wavy.

Toppings: Although there are many versions of shoyu ramen, toppings can include bean sprouts, boiled spinach, scallions, menma, naruto (fish cake), chashu, and ajitsuke tamago.

Credit: sasazawa / Shutterstock

Tonkotsu Ramen

Like many happy accidents, tonkotsu ramen (also called “Hakata Ramen”) was born out of a mistake. In the 1930s, the owner of the ramen shop Nankin Senryo in Fukuoka left his stock to boil for much too long, creating a cloudy broth. Because a clear, flavorful broth was typical at the time, he was inclined to toss this batch out. Luckily, he took a sip before discarding and marveled at his accidental invention. The collagen had emulsified the fat and water, creating a rich, unctuous broth. 

Noodles: The noodles are typically thin and straight. 

Toppings: The toppings typically include chashu, beni shoga (a ginger condiment), sliced wood ear mushrooms, sesame seeds, and scallions.

Credit: Koichi Yoshii/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Miso Ramen

Given miso’s importance in Japanese cuisine, it may be surprising that it wasn’t until the mid-1950s that the owner of Aji no Sanpei, located in the frigid Hokkaido climate, created this new style of ramen. Miso ramen is fortifying and hearty. Its salty richness pairs well with crisp vegetables like bean sprouts and sweet corn. A pat of butter, which is very often added, further mellows out the saltiness. Miso ramen can also be called “Sapporo ramen.”

Noodles: In miso ramen, curly noodles with medium thickness are used to hold up to the hearty soup. 

Toppings: Beyond veggies like corn and bean sprouts, additional toppings may include chashu, menma, green onions, garlic, and ajitsuke tamago.

Other Types of Ramen

Aside from regional ramen (like Yokohama ramen, Kyoto ramen, and Tokushima ramen), the soupless mazemen, and other ramen that deviate from tradition (seafood ramen, chicken paitan ramen, vegan ramen, Italian-influenced tomato ramen), the two categories of ramen that are worth mentioning are hiyashi chūka and tsukemen. 

Hiyashi Chūka

Sometimes called reimen, hiyashi chūka is a cold noodle dish served during the hot summer months. The tare is either soy sauce-, sesame-, or miso-based and has a sweet, vinegary flavor. The toppings, tare, and noodles are mixed together before eating.

Noodles: Typically, a medium, high-hydration curly noodle is used.

Toppings: Hiyashi chūka is typically topped with any combination of the following ingredients: chashu, ham, shredded chicken, kanikama (fish cake), cooked shrimp, jellyfish, kinshi tamago (thinly sliced egg crepe), wakame, cucumber, and sliced tomato. A smear of karashi (Japanese hot mustard) is usually placed on the side of the plate to mix in, if you wish. 


Although there are different origin stories, it is largely believed that tsukemen was invented in Tokyo by Kazuo Yamagishi in the mid-1950s. This style of ramen serves the soup and noodles separately. The toppings are placed in a dish by themselves, on top of the noodles, and/or in the soup bowl. The plain noodles are dipped into the hot soup and slurped, just as you would cold zaru soba or zaru udon. The soup is concentrated because they only get a quick dip before eating. 

Noodles: In a traditional ramen, the focus is on the quality of the soup, but the thick noodles are the highlight in tsukemen. 

Toppings: Because tsukemen can be meat- or seafood-based, the toppings vary by restaurant but are usually the same as a traditional ramen. It really depends on the type and the shop, but chashu, egg, menma, green onions, or leeks are typical.

What to Know About Ramen Noodles

Ramen noodles are made from wheat, water, and an alkaline salt solution called kansui. Kansui makes the ramen noodles elastic, which gives them a springy chewiness as well as a yellow-ish color. Depending on the desired texture, the amount of kansui is adjusted. 

The dough is then shaped using a noodle machine and made curly or straight. The type of ramen (shio, shoyu, miso, tonkotsu, etc.) determines which noodle type is used. The noodle thickness and shape is determined by the type of soup and how it clings to the noodles. For example, tonkotsu ramen has a thick viscosity and is rich, so a thin, straight noodle is used in contrast. The noodles are cooked until firm, as they will continue to cook in the soup after serving.