plastic noodles
There are four major kinds of Japanese noodles: Somen, Udon, Soba and Ramen. Udon and soba are traditional Japanese-style noodles. Different parts of Japan are known for different noddle specialties. Kyushu and Hokkaido are known for their ramen dishes. Nagano is famous for its soba.

Many Japanese list udon or ramen noodles as their favorite form of fast food. Unlike European pasta, which is pressed out by a machine, Japanese noodles are kneaded, often by hand, and then stretched and pulled into thin threads or rolled or sliced into flat ribbons.

Noodles were introduced to Japan from China during the Chinese Tang Dynasty (A.D. 619-007) and were mentioned in a Japanese etiquette book written in A.D. 927. At first the were eaten primarily by the upper classes. In the 15th century they starting becoming popular with ordinary Japanese. Today, most of the noodles consumed in Japan are made with wheat imported from Australia.

Many people insist that the best way to eat noodles is to slurp them directly into your throat without chewing them. In the city of Oita they have an event in which noodles are floated down a long split-bamboo container and people pluck them out with chopsticks. There are also eating contest in which contestants down hundreds of small bowls of noodles in a matter of minutes.

Japanese noodles are becoming more and more popular in the United States and elsewhere in the non-Asian world. Trendy ramen restaurants have opened up in New York City and received god reviews and are filled with customers. Exports of udon, somen and soba noodles to the United States arere increasing at rate of about 25 percent a year. Japanese noodles are also being purchased by other Asians, Udon is popular in Taiwan; Udon zarusoba is popular with Korean-Americans and high-end udon varieties are being snapped in affluent restaurants in Hong Kong. In Singapore and the major cities of China, Japanese noodles can be purchased at supermarkets.

There are four major kinds of Japanese noodles: Somen, Udon, Soba and Ramen. Udon and soba are traditional Japanese-style noodles. Different parts of Japan are known for different noddle specialties. Kyushu and Hokkaido are known for their ramen dishes. Nagano is famous for its soba.

Udon and Somen

making somen
Udon are dense, chewy, white noodles made from wheat. Traditional udon from Shikoku is made from high-gluten wheat flour and sea water, which produces a dough so stiff that it is covered in cloth and jumped on rather than kneaded. After being rolled and folded it is cut into thick strands.

Some udon makers still use their hands to work the moistened flour into dough. The rice grown on the Sanuki plain around Takamatsu in Kagawa Prefecture is said to be the best for making udon. But when wheat yields from that region began to decline the slack was made up by Australian wheat farmers who grew a special strain of wheat for the Japanese udon market that was more consistent and easier to use than Sanuki strains. This strain is now widely used.

Shimizuya is a 400-year-old udon restaurant in Shibukawa Gunma Prefecture owned by a 17th-generation descendant of the founder. Using a technique that is essentially unchanged since when the shop was opened, wheat flour, salt and water are thrown together in a process called ogone (rough mixing) and kneaded in a one-meter-diameter tub. The dough is then placed on a work table where it is spread out and flattened by employees using their feet. After being set aside for 24 hours the dough is divided into 750 gram chunks stretched using the feet and rolling pins. The sheets are hung to dry and then cut into noodles with a knife.

Seichi Ogawara, the 17th-generation proprietor of the restaurant, told the Daily Yomiuri that the rough mixing is the key to good udon and for that reason he does the mixing himself. Experience in mixing the dough “is more important than anything else,” he said, “the delicate combination of salt and water has to be changed carefully in accordance with temperature and humidity. In mixing, one has to concentrate on the touch of fingertip and palms on the dough.”

Somen is made from soft, stretchy wheat dough that is pulled into thin strands and hung to dry. Packaged in bunches, somen comes in a variety of colors and is usually served cold in the summer time.


Soba are noodles made from buckwheat flour and sold both fresh and fried. Many restaurants make their own soba, which is kneaded, rolled and cut. Some soba is made with a binder such as egg white or sour gluttonous yams. The variation of color and texture are regulated by different proportions of whole grain to lighter grain wheat flours.

The best soba is made with buckwheat kernels ground with special mill. Buckwheat from Hitachi-Ota in Ibarakai Prefecture is regarded as the best in Japan for making soba. The buckwheat is grown using traditional slash-and-burn methods, which is said give it a sticky rather than powdery texture. It is ground using custom-made granite millstones, which cracks hulls called hosho, producing irregularly-spaded powder pieces that ideal for making soba because they stick together better.

It is also said best soba is made with flour that is left outside over night with 2 percent of the flour being newly harvested and the remainder being flour from previous years, which are said to taste better. Soba made with roughly-ground buckwheat is darker in color than other sobas.

Kinds of Soba

making soba
Soba come in theee gradations: 1) rin, which has been compared to angel hair; 2) seiro , which is smooth but heavier that run; and 3) inaka, which is deliberately rough and chewy.

Soba can be served hot or cold and is offered with a variety of dips, broths and condiments whose ingredients include dashi, grated yam, wasabi, scallions, uni, and duck soup. Among those favored by Westerns are those made with sesame that have a nutty taste. Most of the dips and broths are clear or translucent and have clean, sense-awakening flavor.

Zara soba is a kind soba that dipped into sauce as opposed having sauce poured on the noodles. Buckwheat is also made into tea in Japan. Some Japanese are so allergic to buckwheat that if they ingest the smallest amount they die.

Many restaurants offer both udon and soba prepared in various ways or served in soups with a light fish-flavored broth various ingredients. Soba is often served cold without and dipped in a soy-sauce-based sauce. Among the most widely available noodle udon and soba dishes are kake (plain noodles in broth), kitsune (noodles with fried tofu), tempura kake (noodles with tempura shrimp) and tsukimi (noodles with raw egg). Nagano is famous for soba, especially Shinshu soba.


ramen restaurant
Ramen is a kind of Chinese-style wheat or buckwheat noodle dish made with a rich broth made from pork bones and thin slightly chewy noodles garnished with toppings such as sliced pork, seaweed, hard-boiled eggs, fish cake, scallions, mushrooms. The dish originated in China. The name ramen comes from, the Chinese words for hand-pulled noodles.

Ramen is served in every Asian country and comes in hundreds of different forms. In Japan it is usually topped with slices of pork. It is believed to have been invented in China in 1665 but the Japanese were reportedly the first ones to add it to soup.

There are an estimated 60,000 to 70,000 ramen shops in Japan, including Chinese restaurants that sell ramen dishes. These have traditionally been regarded as working class eateries. In recent years some upscale ones have opened that use organic vegetables and have fancy interiors. There is a ramen museum in Yokohama and cooking shows that specialize in ramen.

tsukemen is a kind of ramen in which boiled noodles are dipped into a separately-served broth before eating. People often wait in lime for 40 minutes or more---sometimes overnight---to get onto the Tokyo restaurant of Kazuo Yamagishi, the man who invented the dish.

Described a ramen restaurant in Tokyo a Washington Post reporter wrote: “the shop serves patrons on stools around a U-shaped counter in sparsely-decorated, tight quarters. The service is polite but streamlined. Your order is taken before you grab a seat. The focus is on eating, not chatting. The firm noodles, slightly thicker than spaghetti, sit under a mound of bean sprouts and several thick slices of pork. The broth is a marriage of two styles: shoryi and tankatus. The latter providing a deep pork taste. As your chopsticks pluck noodles from the bowl, globules of fat bob up and down in the rich brown broth.”

In August 2010, a popular ramen shop, Rokurinsha in Shinagawa Ward in Tokyo, decided to close down because it was too popular. People routinely lined up for hours for to eat their noodles and neighbors complained about the customers blocking traffic, smoking and talking loudly. The shop opened in 2005. Its tsuke -men, thick noodles dipped in a rich sauce, had been the object of several television reports and magazine articles.

English-language blogs:

Nagoya: Japan’s City of Noodles

Shoji Ichihara wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “All across Japan, it would be difficult to find a city that has more noodle dishes than Nagoya--the home of nationally known dishes such as miso-nikomi udon, kishimen and curry-soup udon. Writer Toshiyuki Otake, who lives in Nagoya, visited restaurants serving noodles, or "men" in Japanese, before writing Nagoya Men (1,470 yen) featuring about 80 restaurants. [Source: Shoji Ichihara, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 17, 2012]

I met Otake at Yokoi, a restaurant famous for an ankake (hot starchy sauce) spaghetti dish called mirakan (900 yen). "Nagoya probably has many strongly flavored noodle dishes because the city is known for using hatcho miso (a type of reddish-brown bean-based miso paste with a strong umami flavor)," Otake said. "[Because of this,] Nagoya noodles have evolved into an addictive, one-of-a-kind taste.” [Ibid]

Otake's probably right. When I slurped up the mirakan, the spiciness of hot peppers hit my mouth followed by the flavor of the rich, starchy meat sauce. Yokoi's Sumiyoshi branch was busy serving businessmen in their 30s and 40s at lunchtime when we visited. The restaurant is said to be a favorite of many celebrities including singer and actor Masaharu Fukuyama and violinist Taro Hakase. I asked Otake what inspired him to write about Nagoya noodles. "My book is not merely a guidebook. I wrote it to express my deep love for Nagoya. It would make me happy if readers also discover such a passion through my book," Otake said.

After finishing our spaghetti, we decided to have kishimen (thin, flat noodles) at Maruichi, which is famous for its noodles handmade by a kishimen master. Maruichi opened in 1897. The fourth-generation owner Tsuneaki Shimizu said, "Our noodles are not too hard or too soft, so they have a perfect texture." The kishimen was surprising. Despite being thin, flat and almost transplant, Shimizu's noodles are stretchy. [Ibid]

I was allowed to enter the kitchen to watch Shimizu's technique. The dough he was kneading was heavy and firm. "I make hard dough that's difficult to knead, but I work to flatten it to produce a delicate thinness that maintains the right texture," Shimizu said. In addition to these restaurants, Nagoya Men also features restaurants that serve spicy Taiwanese ramen flavored with red peppers and ketchup-flavored teppan spaghetti served in cast-iron skillets. [Ibid]

Instant Noodles in Japan

eating ramen
Around 100 billion packet of instant noodles, using nearly 7 million tons of wheat flour, are sold worldwide every year. The largest consumers of instant noodles in 2007 were: 1) China; 2) Indonesia; 3) Japan (5.3 billion packets); and 4) the United States.

The largest consumers of instant noodles in 1996 were: 1) Indonesia (7.97 billion packets); 2) Japan (5.3 billion packets); 3) South Korea (3.73 billion); 4) the United States (2.0 billion); 5) Thailand (1.34 billion); 6) the Philippines (1.04 billion); and 7) Taiwan (840 million packets). [Source: International Ramyun Manufactures Association (IRMA)]

One of the cheapest and easiest-to-make forms of food available, instant noodles are particularly popular with unmarred salarymen and students. The average Japanese person eats 46 packets of instant noodles a years and 600 varieties are available from vending machines. [Source: Los Angeles Times]

In one survey, Japanese were asked to the food they thought represented Japanese cuisine in the 20th century: 79 percent selected instant noodles. In another survey Japanese named instant noodles as the most important invention of the 20th century, ahead of the walkman and karaoke machines.

Instant noodles is now a multi-billion dollar industry. More than 95 billion servings of instant noodles were consumed around the globe in 2010, according to the Japanese instant noodles manufacturers' association. Some expect sales to increase to 200 billion packages in the not too distant future.

Noodle Museums, See Ramen Museum in Tokyo, See Instant Noodle Museum in Ikeda, Osaka.

Inventing Instant Noodles

dressing up like ramen
The first instant noodles ("Chikin Ramen") were invented by Japanese businessman, Momofuku Ando, in a backyard hut in 1958 and sold in bags. The Japanese equivalent of Colonel Saunders, Ando became the "noodle king" and founded of the Nissin Food Products Company.

Ando was born in 1910 in Taiwan under Japanese occupation and established a seafood company in 1948. He came up with the idea for instant noodle safter observing long lines of people waiting outside noodle shops to buy black-market ramen in Osaka after World War II. He discussed his idea with researchers who thought his idea was a pipe dream.

Ando once said, “Peace prevails when food suffices” and entered the food business with a belief that peace would prevail if everyone had enough to eat. He got the idea for the instant making process---made by frying and drying noodles and packaging them in plastic-wrapped bricks---watching his wife frying food and discovering that deep-frying noodles left them porous so they turned soft but still tasted good. "I put them in a bowl, then I poured hot water from a pot," he told AP. "And oh, what can I say? There was the noodle. I felt joy’I'd hit upon the idea."

When instant noodles were first marketed many dismissed them as an impractical luxury item: at ¥10 they were six times more expensive than a fresh bowl of noodles at local neighborhood noodle stall. In 1962 a new version came out with the broth that goes with the noodles in a separate package.

In a tribute to Ando when he died in 2007 at the age of 96,Lawrence Downs wrote in the New York Times, “Ramen noodles have earned Mr. Ando an eternal place in the pantheon of human progress. that unlike the Honda Civic, Sony Walkman and Hello Kiddy, Ando invented ramen noodles “All by himself” while “looking for a cheap, decent food for the working classes...Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. Give him ramen noodles, and you don’t have to teach him anything.”

Cup-of-Ramen and Cup O’ Noodles

Cup-of-ramen is sold in styrofoam cups and is ready in three minutes after adding hot water. The first cup-of-ramen was developed in 1971 by Ando after hearing about Americans and Europeans pouring water over instant noodle blocks and eating them in cups. The cupped version consists of a pre-cooked slab of noodles in a waterproof styrofoam container.

Cup-of-ramen was a big success. It hit the market at a time when people were looking for ways to save time and eat on the run. It sold well in new markets as it could be eaten with a fork as easily with chopsticks and the taste was tailored for local tastes. By 1989, more cup-of-ramen were being sold than ordinary instant noodles. In

Lawrence Downs wrote in the New York Times, “Instant a dish of effortless purity. Like the egg or tea, they attain a state of grace through a marriage with nothing but hot water. After three minutes in a yellow bath, the noodles soften. The pebbly peas and carrot chips turn practically lifelike. A near weightless assemblage of plastic and foam is transformed into something any college student will recognize as food, for as little as 20 cents a serving.”

World wide instant noodles in a cup is eaten by 100 million people a day. They now account for more than 60 percent of the instant noodle market. Some convenience stores in Asia seem like they are half filled them. Sales of Nissin’s Cup O’ Noodles is 25 billion units a year.

After spending decades doing experiments and research to develop noodles that could be eaten in space Ando developed Space Ramen, a noodle dish that doesn’t splatter in zero gravity, at the age of 95. Space Ramen was taken aboard a space shuttle flight in 2005 and was eaten by Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi. On seeing the noodles consumed in the shuttle, Ando said, “I’m so thrilled to have seen our noodles make it into outer space. It’s really a dream come true.” About 1½ years later he died at the age of 96.

Instant Noodle Business in Japan

There are more than 20 instant noodle makers in Japan and maybe hundreds worldwide. The basic ingredients of instant noodles are flour, oil, a little salt, MSG, ginger, garlic, soy sauce and extract from pork and chicken for flavoring and other ingredients.

Processing the noodles takes about an hour. A machine kneads the flour into dough, flattens it and cuts it into long strips. The noodles are steamed, then dipped into boiling oil. In 1997, a total of 716 different types of instant noodles were sold (220 in packets and 496 in cups).

The instant noodle market is very volatile. If you go into a convenience store you will see a wide variety of different kinds. If you go a couple of weeks later you will find that many of the varieties that were there before are gone and have been replaced by new varieties.

A spokesman for the noodlemaker Kanebo Food told the Japan Times, "Even the hot products have a life span in convenience stores of about three months. They hit their peak around the second month, and on the forth month it's time for them to be dropped.”

Ando helped establish the World Instant Noodle Association, which now has about 60 members and is committed to delivering noodles to victims of disasters such as earthquakes, floods and typhoons. After the Kobe earthquake in 1995, ramen was one of the first forms of food to be made available to people whose houses had been destroyed. In 2004 and 2005, the World Instant Noodle Association delivered instant noodles to victims of the tsunami in Indonesia and Hurricane Katrina.

Nissin, World's Large Noodle Maker

Nissin, the company founded by Ando, is the world largest noodle-maker, with annual sales of $3.2 billion. The company produces 4 billion packs and cups of instant noodles a year, and controls 40 percent of the Japanese market and 10 percent of the world market. Nissin means "purity by the day."

Nissin creates about 400 types of new noodle products every year and runs 25 plants in eight countries, using shrimp from India and cabbage from China. December, January and February are regarded as the best time for introducing new flavors, which over the years have included cheese-curry, spicy-hot and green tea.

Nissin Foods Holdings' president is Koki Ando, Momofuku Ando’s son. In 2007, the high price of wheat forced Nissin to raise the rice of Cup O’Noodle and Chicken Ramen for the first tine in 17 years. In 2005 Nissin supplied vacuum packed instant noodles or "Space Ram" to a Japanese astronaut aboard a US space shuttle.

Image Sources: 1) Ray Kinnane 2) JNTO 3) Japan Zone 4) exorsyst blog, 5) Japan Visitor, 6) Photomann vending machine website

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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