Japanese noodles: a guide

Japanese noodles: a guide

by Great British Chefs 11 October 2018

Not all noodles are the same, and in Japanese cuisine they are an integral part of everyday eating. Thankfully, they’re also incredibly easy to cook and naturally healthy. Take a look at the different types of noodles used in Japanese cooking and how they form the basis of dishes.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Noodles have to be one of the most versatile foods on the planet. Added to rich soups, tossed through stir-fries, stirred into salads or simply served cold with a flavourful dipping sauce, they’re one of those ingredients that make Asian dishes so popular. And in Japan, you’ll find some of the best varieties in existence.

Being such an important and traditional ingredient, noodles come in many shapes and sizes. Some are made from varieties of wheat, some from rice and others from vegetable starches or pulses. They can be thick, thin, flat, round or like strands of hair, with textures ranging from firm and chewy to gelatinous and delicate. What links them all together, however, is that in Japan they’re almost always the basis for healthy, nourishing meals which are easy to prepare at home. Varieties made from rice, konjac flour, potato starch and soybean are also gluten-free, and all of them are vegetarian (with the majority vegan, provided they’re made without egg). You can also find organic varieties of many noodles in the shops, which give them an environmental edge.

Take a look at the most common varieties of noodles produced in Japan and see why they’re suited to different sorts of occasions, dishes and appetites. Cooking Japanese recipes at home is much simpler than many of us might think, but the key is choosing the right ingredients to suit your dish – and noodles are the foundations for many of Japan’s most celebrated culinary exports.

Ramen

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Arguably the poster boy for Japanese food in recent years, ramen is almost as popular as sushi outside of Japan. The noodle soup champions umami above all other flavours, and is traditionally made with a pork bone broth before other ingredients are added. The noodles at the heart of this dish are traditionally Chinese (which is why ramen is a relatively recent addition to Japan’s culinary canon) and made from wheat, salt and water. What makes them unique is the addition of kansui, the name given to alkaline mineral water which is added to the dough and responsible for making the noodles subtly yellow and firm.

Ramen noodles are at their best when freshly made, which when cooked are bouncy, firm and perfect for submerging in broth. However, packets of instant noodles in shops contain a type of highly processed dried ramen which is formed into a dehydrated block of ribbon-like noodles which can be brought back to life with boiling water. Proper ramen noodles, be they fresh, dried or frozen, however, are completely different from the instant noodles sold under the name ‘ramen’.

Udon

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These white, thick, round noodles are universally loved across Japan, with a chewy, satisfying texture that’s perfect when you’re after something hearty. They’re made with wheat, salt and water (but don’t contain kansui like ramen) and can be found both dried and frozen. The process of working the dough takes an immense amount of strength – traditionally, Japanese cooks would use their feet to knead the dough and work the gluten to get enough elasticity into the mixture (although machines now do the hard work for them).

On their own, udon noodles taste relatively neutral, but the beauty of them are in their firm texture and the way they act as a medium for other flavours. Served hot, udon noodles are usually placed in a soup or turned into yaki udon, a stir-fry. You will also come across plenty of cold udon noodle dishes in Japan too (especially in summer), where they’re served with a dipping sauce and various vegetables and garnishes. While ramen noodles are often associated with bold, brash, in-your-face umami flavours, udon are generally used for subtler dishes. Delicate broths which are perhaps more balanced and lighter than punchy ramen soups are used.

Soba

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Wheat-based noodles only became common in Japan in the past few centuries, as rice was the choice crop for farmers ­– but soba noodles were the exception. Made from buckwheat (although today often made from a mixture of buckwheat and regular wheat), they have a nutty, earthy flavour and are seen as the healthiest of all the traditional Japanese noodles, as they’re rich in fibre and vitamins. They’re thinner than udon – roughly the same width as spaghetti – and are brown rather than white or yellow in colour.

Soba noodles, like udon, are enjoyed both hot and cold depending on the season in Japan, with the most common dishes either hot noodle soups or plates of cold soba served with a dipping sauce of soy, dashi and mirin (plus plenty of delicious garnishes). It’s traditionally eaten on New Year’s Eve, and the Nagano Prefecture is renowned as growing the best buckwheat and making the best soba noodles in the country.

Konjac

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Konjac noodles (also known as shirataki) are like no other noodle, being made from the flour of konjac yams (which grow across Southeast Asia). The flour is mixed with water and limewater, boiled then chilled until solid, which is when it is stretched or extruded and cut into long, thin, jelly-like strands. The high water content means these noodles have virtually no calories and are pure fibre – there’s no fat, carbohydrates or protein in them – meaning they’re incredibly healthy.

The delicate and light texture of konjac noodles means they’re usually sold in bags of water to keep them from breaking or drying out. They don’t require cooking and won’t stick together when cold – in fact, it’s the texture of these noodles which makes them popular; they have hardly any flavour at all of their own, which makes them perfect for absorbing other dressings, dips and sauces.

Konjac noodles first rose to fame outside Japan as a health food, as they are gluten-free and pretty much pure fibre, but today they’re regarded as a delicacy. Producers infuse the noodles with different flavours such as seaweed or oats and use organic ingredients to create them, turning them into an artisanal product that’s revered for both its health properties and taste.

Sōmen

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Think of sōmen noodles as the thinner, lighter, more delicate cousin to udon. They are made in the same way with the same ingredients, although they contain a tiny amount of vegetable oil which helps to make them as thin as possible. They’re usually available to buy dried, and most commonly appear as part of chilled summer salads with a flavourful dipping sauce (although they do appear in hot soups too).

Sōmen noodles are much less common outside of Japan when compared to udon, soba and ramen, but if you spot them do give them a try. They’re like a wheat-based version of rice vermicelli, and perfect for when you want something light and healthy that’s not too heavy.

Harusame

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Also known as glass or cellophane noodles, harusame noodles are made from potato starch rather than flour and are completely transparent once cooked. One of the best noodles to add to salads, they are flavourless but absorb flavours beautifully. Their slippery, slightly gelatinous texture is prized in Japan, where they are also added to various stews that need bulking out in a healthy way. They contain no wheat, are gluten-free and vegan, and are sold dried – just a few minutes in boiling water will bring them back to life.

Soybean

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As the world becomes more aware of healthy eating, food intolerances and allergies, noodle producers have responded by creating new types of noodles. One of the more innovative developments of this new movement is soybean noodles, which are gluten-free, vegan and high in protein and fibre. Some are made with edamame (young, soft soybeans) which turn them green, others with fully mature soybeans which give them a more neutral flavour. They are cooked and eaten in the same way as regular wheat noodles, but the fact that they’re gluten-free and healthier means more people can enjoy them.