Soup and noodle: the four varieties of ramen

by Henry Coldstream 6 August 2021

Ramen is the superstar of modern Japanese cooking. We take a look at the four main varieties of the noodle soup and how they differ.

Henry is a food writer at Great British Chefs.

Henry is a food writer at Great British Chefs. Having previously written pieces for a variety of online food publications, he joined the team in 2021 and helps with all editorial aspects of the site. When not writing, Henry can usually be found eating and drinking his way through London's many restaurants and bars, or cooking in his kitchen at home.

Comfort food is an important part of any cuisine. Whether it’s a hearty plate of bangers and mash in England, a big bowl of homemade pasta in Italy, or a pot of bubbling boeuf bourguignon in France, everywhere has go-to, soothing dishes which are easy to eat and made to warm the soul. Japanese food tends to get associated with subtle, pure, often cold dishes (mostly due to sushi), but the country’s world-class cuisine has just as many (if not more) warm, rich, in-your-face flavourful dishes. And while there are a whole host of different types of Japanese comfort food, the most popular dish of the lot is undoubtedly ramen.

A noodle soup centred around a rich or light broth, topped with everything from spring onions to a runny egg, ramen actually has its roots in China but was brought over to Japan in the late nineteenth century by Chinese immigrants. Over time – in typical Japanese fashion – it was refined and developed into the dish we know and love today. Ramen is now one of Japan’s most popular dishes with close to 10,000 ramen shops (or ramen-ya) in Tokyo alone. However, it’s not as simple as there being one universal type of ramen produced across the whole of Japan and the world – far from it. There are countless regional varieties of ramen, which all differ slightly in terms of ingredients and the processes used to make them. Broadly speaking, however, ramens tend to fall into one of four distinct different categories: shio, miso, shoyu and tonkotsu.

Shio ramen

The oldest and simplest type of ramen, shio ramen was first served in the late nineteenth century in the city of Hakodate and is the closest relation to the Chinese noodle soups ramen originated from. Shio literally translates as ‘salt’ in Japanese, which might seem a little confusing given that most types of ramen have a pretty pronounced salinity to them. However, what defines a type of ramen traditionally is something called its ‘tare’, which is the seasoning that forms the base of the flavour profile. While other varieties of ramen such as miso and shoyu will still be somewhat salty, the tare used in making them isn’t salt itself but another ingredient, namely miso and soy sauce. In shio ramen, salt itself is at the core of the dish. This has led to shio ramen developing a reputation over the years as being relatively simple to make but far trickier to master as there aren’t any strong flavours at play.

Without doubt the lightest-bodied and lightest in flavour of the four types of ramen, its clear broth tends to be made from chicken or vegetable stock, although sometimes pork bones will be added and briefly boiled to impart further flavour without making it too cloudy. This is usually complemented by thin, straight noodles and toppings ranging from Japanese-style braised pork belly, known as chashu, to ajitama which are gooey-yolked marinated eggs. The simplicity of shio ramen has led to a level of experimentation with it, with chefs taking advantage of the fact that its milder flavour can be lifted with the addition of bolder toppings such as an umami-rich roasted tomato — something which can be seen at famous ramen chef Ivan Orkin’s restaurants.

Miso ramen

Created by a restaurant owner named Morito Omori in 1955, miso ramen is still somewhat of a new kid on the block. Inspired by a Reader’s Digest article he read on the popularity of miso, Omori began experimenting with using miso paste in the ramen at his restaurant in the city of Sapporo in Hokkaido, and the rest as they say is history. It’s the most distinctly flavoured ramen due to the slightly nutty umami hit provided by the fermented soy bean paste, and the broth itself is also thicker and creamier than other varieties.

Typically made from a rich chicken or pork stock combined with either yellow or brown miso paste, the colour of the broth in miso ramen can vary. Its slightly sweet yet tangy flavour and creamy texture tends to be paired with medium-thick noodles, while classic toppings of miso ramen include chashu and fried vegetables such as beansprouts and menma (bamboo shoots). Traditional Sapporo miso ramen is very much regarded as the original miso ramen and is made with red miso paste, pork broth, garlic and ginger and commonly comes finished with butter and corn – two Hokkaido specialities.

Shoyu ramen

Of the four main ramen types there aren’t any with as much regional variation as shoyu ramen, which forms the base of countless different adaptations of the noodle soup across Japan. If a menu doesn’t specify the type of ramen on a menu, it’s usually fairly safe to assume that it’s shoyu that you’ll be getting, particularly in Tokyo where it’s regarded as the standard style. With soy sauce (shoyu means soy sauce in Japanese) sitting at the heart of the broth, shoyu ramen packs a similar umami punch to miso ramen but tends to be less creamy. Clear brown in colour, it’s closest to shio ramen in terms of richness but has an added tang from the soy sauce, which gives it a slightly more complex flavour profile.

Almost always served with thin, wavy noodles, the light broth of a shoyu ramen tends to be made with chicken stock and, of course, a generous amount of soy sauce, while toppings might include spring onions, menma, kamaboko (a type of Japanese fish cake) and nori. Despite most shoyu ramens being adorned with the classic chashu, some varieties replace this with thinly sliced beef. Kitakata is one of the most popular regional styles of ramen in Japan and has a shoyu base; first created in a noodle shop in the city of Kitakata in Fukushima, it uses noodles which are distinctly thicker than those used in other shoyu ramens and sometimes replaces chashu with char siu pork – a nod to the dish’s Chinese roots.

Tonkotsu ramen

Tonkotsu differs from the other types of ramen as it is defined by its pork-bone-based broth rather than its tare. However, over the years it has become such a popular style of ramen that it’s now regarded as a category of its own. It’s said that tonkotsu ramen was invented in Karume on the island of Kyushu when the owner of a street stall accidentally left the pork bones bubbling on too high a heat and the broth developed a cloudy appearance. However, when he tried this ramen, he realised it was incredibly creamy and packed full of rich flavour, so started selling it. Quickly, the tonkotsu ramen phenomenon spread throughout Japan and across the world, with everyone wanting to try this thick, incredibly rich broth.

While early tonkotsu ramen tended to be made a shoyu base, nowadays you can find shio tonkotsu ramens and even miso tonkotsu ramens, all of which differ slightly in flavour but have the same milky texture. This texture is achieved by boiling the pork bones for so long that the gelatine, fat and collagen melt down into the broth, giving it a unique, meaty flavour. Traditionally the thin noodles found inside a tonkotsu ramen are left slightly firm in the middle, with many ramen shops in Japan even allowing customers to choose their preferred level of firmness. Standard toppings on a tonkotsu ramen include ginger, spring onions, eggs and most importantly chashu pork, which provides an important contrast in texture against the creamy broth.