When dining with neophytes at a Japanese noodle bar, the question always comes up. What are the various types of noodles, and which one will I like? The short answer, try them all. Or just order what I order!
So, basic flour and water, like most pasta, right? But in Japanese noodle cooking, the broth is the key. Stories abound, as some Japanese artisans trace their secret recipes back a century or more. And noodle apprenticeships can last decades!
In Japan, there is a fellow who travels around the entire country, doing nothing but reviewing ramen! As I recall, he averages about two bowls of ramen each day. You can find his story in “Rice, Noodle, Fish”, a great read for those of you who love Japanese food. I use the book as a reference quite often, right Jon?
Noodles, Japanese style, can be served cooked, cooled, even iced, in soup or stir fry, and dry with a dipping sauce. But again the sauce or broth is the key.
Probably the most common Japanese noodle is the mighty ramen. Often a friend of poor college students, and inveterate travelers such as myself on a sojourn across Russia on the Trans Siberian Railway. Ramen is basically thin, wheat noodles, with kansui, a watery combo of potassium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate. The broth is usually both fatty, rich, and meaty. Except for the cup of noodles version. If you must buy dry, packaged noodles, buy the Sapporo Ichiban brand.
Our area actually has a few fresh ramen restaurants, for a real treat. Otherwise, the dried packaged noodles are your other option. Rarely have I found fresh ramen noodles in a market, other than Seattle or Tokyo. The local place is called Noodle Q, at Ashlan and Fresno Streets. You can actually see them making the noodles, fresh, on most days.
If you make your own soup broth at home, I strongly suggest roasted pork bones, simmered for hours, along with spices. Once the noodles are cooked, pour the hot broth over the noodles, add fresh vegetables, bean sprouts, char-sui, or lop chong. If you use the packets of dry powder (very salty) inside the ramen package, I strongly suggest using just half of it.
Moving to the less familiar, is the thicker udon noodle, and favorite of my brother. My grandparents actually made udon at home when we were kids. And I probably did not appreciate it. Udon are made from white wheat, into long strips giving them a chewy texture. My preference is very chewy, not soft. Fresh packaged udon is easier to find in the stores. Use some of the broth mentioned above. Most common accompaniments are boiled egg, kamaboko, green onions, and even takuan.
Less popular here, but almost ubiquitous in Japan are soba noodles, thin, buckwheat noodles. Soba can be served both hot or cold. The hot version can be in a broth, or even fried with meat and vegetables. The cold version is much simpler, with a lighter dipping sauce of soy, mirin, sake, and dashi. It is often a side dish to tempura or teriyaki in a bento box.
Even less common is somen, a very think wheat noodle, used in both hot and cold dishes. My favorite version comes in an ice bath, with a hot dipping sauce. An American version uses somen noodles in a cold salad with ingredients like ham, peas, green onions, and other greens.
The new, low carb favorite is shirataki noodles, made from konyaku. These noodles are often found in either sukiyaki or a hot pot, like shabu shabu. I much prefer the solid cakes of konyaku for my stews, for added fiber. Bottom line, not high in calories, do not require cooking, and take on flavors quite easily.
Now, are you not glad you asked about Japanese noodles? They make a great lunch. And from personal experience, travel easily to the other side of the world. Just one hint on instant Japanese noodles, buy the best ones on the shelf, and avoid the cheap ones from China.
My best noodle joints: almost anywhere in Japan, Sam Sato’s in Wailuku, Hamura Saimin in Lihue, Momofuku in DC, n/naka in Los Angeles, Wing Fat in San Mateo. Or perhaps the Asadachi in Shibuya??