Ramen, Soba, and Udon. This delightful trio of Japanese noodle dishes is popular the world over. But what exactly are the differences between the three? We break it down for you!
Soba - The Eldest Child
Soba is the OG. It may have been brought from China as early as 500 BC (Japan's Jomon period). We have more reliable records of soba appearing after this - after 700 AD or so.
But soba as we know it today (buckwheat noodle form) wasn't widely consumed in Japan until the 1600s.
So what are soba noodles made of? They're mostly water and buckwheat flour. Since this includes buckwheat skin, the noodles are brownish gray in color. But most soba noodles have wheat flour in them too.
In fact, only "junwari soba noodles" are 100% buckwheat. Make sure to ask for these if you have a wheat allergy. Besides buckwheat and wheat flour, soba restaurants may blend eggs, yams, red algae, or other ingredients into their noodles.
Soba noodles have a particularly earthy flavor to them. Complementing this, soba broth is relatively simple, light, and refreshing. Soba broth is normally soy sauce and Japanese dashi - edible kelp (kombu) and bontio fish flakes (katsuobushi).
Soba can be served hot or cold. When cold, the noodles are usually served separate from the broth (dipping form).
There's a wide range soba toppings. The list includes spring onions (negi), seaweed, nameko mushrooms, duck meat, tempura...and so on and so forth.
There are many regional varieties of soba with their own toppings as well. For example, "Kitsune Soba" features deep-fried tofu.
Note: Lower in calories, Soba Noodles are healthier than Udon or Ramen Noodles!
Udon - The Middle Child
Udon can also be traced back to China, likely coming to Japan after soba did. Noodle records more clearly indicate that udon was in Japan after the 700s.
Bright and white in luster and color, udon noodles are made from wheat flour...not buckwheat flour. Furthermore, udon noodles are generally quite thick and slippery - more so than soba. Since salt is added during prep, they also have more bounce to them.
That distinct earthy flavor in soba noodles is not to be found in udon noodles. Think of udon noodles as more neutral. This has opened the door for more punchy broths (below).
A lot of the time, traditional udon broth is similar to soba broth. That is, soy sauce and Japanese soup stock (dashi) form the base, along with ingredients like mirin and sugar.
However, you do get more punchy, modern udon broths these days. This works because neutrally-flavored udon noodles don't clash with a heavier broth. In soba, a heavier broth would be too much next to the flavorful buckwheat noodles.
Curry udon is the most popular offshoot of traditional udon. It features a thick, Japanese curry style broth. Udon can also be served hot or cold.
With udon toppings, you'll see parallels with soba. This is everything from green spring onions (negi) to seaweed. But a modern udon broth can call for more modern toppings.
For example, how do you feel about cheese as a topping (above)?
Note: There are many regional styles of udon. The most famous style is arguably from Kagawa Prefecture (Sanuki Udon).
Ramen - The Young Rebel
Here we go...ramen is my area of expertise! Ramen is the youngest of the three, being only a little over 100 years old. Many consider 1910 to be the ramen's big starting point.
Given its relatively short history, ramen is also the least traditional-leaning of the three.
Just like udon, ramen noodles are made from water, salt, and wheat flour. But there's one ingredient in ramen noodles that isn't found in udon (or soba). This is "kansui", or alkaline mineral water. Kansui gives ramen noodles extra bounce and elasticity.
For the most part, soba noodles are thin and udon noodles are thick. Ramen noodles can be either. In addition, they're usually white or yellow in color. The yellow hue can come from adding eggs.
Like the above two, traditional Japanese dashi is popular for ramen broth. But ramen restaurants use a lot more than just dashi. Borrowing from Chinese cuisine, extra ingredients include chicken bones, pork bones, and vegetables like carrots or onions.
Someone once described ramen as a balance between something wild and something delicate. Ramen soup does hit harder than soba or udon in terms of taste. But below the surface, you have traditional Japanese elements that add a refined subtlety as well.
Lastly, ramen too is served hot or cold. Hiyashi Chuuka is a cold style of ramen served during Japan's hot summer months.
For toppings, you'll often see spring onions, bamboo shoots (menma), seaweed, boiled chashu pork, or egg. Regional styles of ramen have specific toppings as well. Sapporo style miso ramen can feature stir-fried bean sprouts or even butter and corn.
Tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen from the island of Kyushu is all about using wood ear mushrooms (kikurage) instead of bamboo shoots.
Note: Depending on area, locals might be eating one of the three (soba, udon or ramen)...or even another noodle dish!
I hope this breakdown on Japanese noodles was helpful and insightful. I plan to expand this topic in the near future - stay tuned!