Get in Taste: Japanese Noodles

I love food. I probably think about food more than the average person. When I travel, my destinations are almost always motivated by food. I take pictures. I look at pictures. I mull menus. I eat slowly. It’s not always healthy foods either. Sometimes I find myself getting caught up at the convenience store, just to marvel at the variety of unfamiliar snack foods. Have you ever had green-tea citrus flavored popcorn? I haven’t either…but give me time.

Without further ado, here’s a short list of some of the tastiest noodle dishes I’ve had in Japan.

Ramen

If you are like I was before I came to Japan, then you thought that Ramen was instant noodle that college students stocked up from Costco every few months.

If that is the case, you’ve been lied to.

This is Japanese Ramen. With a capital “L”:

Tonkatsu Ramen
Tonkotsu Ramen at Ippudo in Motomachi, Kobe

Made right, it is an explosion of rich and savory flavor and fresh ingredients. It is said to have first come to Japan from China as a fast, high-calorie workers’ dish sold from standing counters. Since then, different parts of Japan have taken the dish and transformed it into a distinctly Japanese staple, with their own regional specialties. The standard is Tonkotsu, which is a broth made from pork bone boiled for a very long time, best known from Kyushu. Other varieties include Shio Ramen (Salt Ramen), Miso (fermented soy bean paste), and Shioyu (soy sauce).

Negi Ramen, Osaka

Negi Ramen

This is probably a standard because it’s available everywhere and its amazing. This dish is a prime example for understanding how a Ramen shop’s quality can be measured by it’s broth. The milky rich soup, tonkotsu, is made from boiling pork bone, fat and collagen over a long period of time. This specialty of Kyushu can be very difficult to prepare, requiring perfect timing and temperature conditions.

Kikuni Tako Ramen (Braised pork belly and octopus leg), Tokyo

Kakuni Tako Ramen

I don’t usually like to mix seafood and meat, but I remember the ingredients working together wonderfully in this dish. Though it’s definitely not a light meal, it was a great way to savor different proteins with my noodles.

Tomato Chashu Ramen, Kobe (Ramen Taro)

Tomato Ramen

I had this in the summer time, when I didn’t really want a heavy ramen meal but still wanted hot noodles. I was skeptical, but being a huge fan of tomato anything, this ramen didn’t disappoint. The tender chashu, or barbequed pork slices, was amazing with fresh bok choy. The soup was much lighter than a tomato soup, but heavenly on it’s own.

Tsukemen (dipping ramen), Yamanashi

Tsukemen

It doesn’t look like much, but it’s because you can’t capture the tangy, savory taste of the sesame-soy dipping sauce in a photograph. Here you could order three different sizes of noodle plates, depending how hungry you were and how much you wanted to prolong the dining experience. I went to this Chinese restaurant often when I was living in little Kofu, Yamanashi.

My friend told me about a ramen in Himeji that uses real milk as it’s base. It sounds strange, but he swears it’s one of the best he’s ever had. I’m dying to try it.

Soba

Soba, a thin buckwheat noodle, usually brown in color, is growing in popularity in the west as a healthy, whole wheat alternative to pastas and white flour noodles. It can be eaten as a very simple bare-bones dish, such as Zaru Soba, where it is served cold on a bamboo basket or mat with a soy-dipping sauce, negi and wasabi. I’ve had it a lot in a light miso or soy-based brother with mountain vegetable tempura and some kind of fish cake.

Kitsune Soba, Yamanashi

Noodles-6

This soba restaurant in Yamanashi has the best hot soba dishes. I don’t know if it was the stock they used, but I found everything there to be amazing. The soba noodles were cooked perfectly and they had many varieties, from simple spring onion bowl to a more complex meat sobas.

Udon

I’m especially fond of udon as the temperature begins to drop. I love its soft and chewy texture. I find it can be eaten more slowly than the other noodles. I usually like to have it in a light soup, such as miso or soy, as kitsune (fox udon), That is when it’s served with a single square of fried tofu on top with a little negi. It’s often eaten with a few pieces of tempura or a par-boiled egg on top.

Zaru Udon, Kyoto

Noodles-5

This cold udon meal was perfect for a day of exploring the temples and shrines of Kyoto during the hot Obon season.

Shrimp Tempura Udon Set with Inarizushi

Noodles-8A delicious set lunch menu with lots of protein, fresh vegetables and a sweet tofu-wrapped rice side.

Karaage Udon (Kyushu specialty)

Noodles-9

Food from Kyushu is supposed to be amazing. I’ve never been there, but so far I’ve heard wonderful things. This came with a wedge of fresh Japanese lime.

There’s a really cute movie about ramen called Tampopo, which is a classic romantic comedy about a woman and her mission to revive her failing Ramen shop. I saw it way before I had any idea I was coming to Japan. It’s helped me a lot in understanding the painstaking work that goes into preparing these wonderful noodle dishes.

If you know of any noodle dishes you think I should try, let me know.

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