Ramen vs. Soba vs. Udon

For many foreigners, it’s hard to tell the difference between similar foods from various cultures around the world. Some people just see a bunch of different looking noodles, while others can tell that they are clearly distinguishable. In case you’ve ever wondered just what makes ramen different from soba and udon, here’s a comprehensive look at how each of these delicious noodles is unique from one another.

Ramen

Known around the world as noodles that are served with meat and vegetables in a hearty broth, ramen is favored by anyone who can get their hands on fresh or instant varieties of the dish. Strangely enough, it’s said that ramen actually originated in China and made its way to Japan sometime around the end of the 1800s. Many would say that the true taste of ramen, however, has come to fruition with the careful guidance of Japanese chefs.

Ramen has become a world-famous food and has especially taken off in America. In California, over 200 ramen shops opened during the year 2012 alone. These ‘Ramen Booms’ grew increasingly more common across the country, and now almost anyone anywhere in the U.S.A. can enjoy a bowl of delicious, savory ramen without having to travel to Japan.

 

What is Ramen?

Ramen is defined as a Japanese dish comprised of ramen noodles, broth, and toppings. Each of the components can be mixed and matched to suit the needs of the consumer or chef. The ramen noodles themselves are made from wheat flour, though there are a few varieties that are made from rice flour. If you’re interested in finding ramen that’s gluten-free and safe for celiacs and those with gluten sensitivity or intolerance to eat, check out our article, “Gluten-Free Ramen” for more information!

Varieties

As there are only a few main components to every ramen dish, it may be hard to believe that there are multitudes of varieties and combinations of ramen dishes. The noodles themselves can be thick, thin, flat, round, soft, hard, curly, or straight. Toppings commonly include meat, vegetables, dairy, sauces, oils, and seasonings. Finally, the broth itself can be meat or fish-based but is most commonly flavored with soy sauce or miso. Each area in Japan has their own signature ramen dishes, but almost every bowl of ramen can be modified to fit anyone’s preference.

Ramen also has three specific ‘types’. The most commonly recognized type of ramen is hot ramen, which is where the broth is hot and the noodles are eaten while still warm. The second type of ramen is cold ramen or hiyashi chuka, wherein the noodles are served cold without a broth. Vinegar or other sauces are poured over the noodles, and the entire dish is accented by thinly sliced meat or vegetables. The third type of ramen is called tsukemen, and is basically a deconstructed bowl of ramen. Perfect for those who don’t like broth, the tsukemen dish includes dry, warm noodles and a sauce to dip them in.

A bonus variety of ramen that many people have come to love worldwide is instant ramen! If you can’t have fresh ramen, you can at least enjoy a flavorful substitute that’s almost as good as the real thing! Instant ramen comes in either packages, cups, or bowls, and is generally made by adding water to dried noodles. Instant noodles come in a large selection of flavors, but if you want authentic Japanese instant noodles, check out our subscription page and sign up to get them delivered straight to your home!

Common Dishes

The four most common ramen dishes are shio ramen, tonkotsu ramen, miso ramen, and shoyu ramen.

Shio ramen is the oldest and generally well-known type of ramen. The broth is often very clear because the base ingredients are not boiled for very long. This allows the natural flavor of each and every ingredient to shine through. Boasting the lightest, most salty broths, shio ramen is perfect for anyone seeking a flavorful mouth of true Japanese ramen.

Tonkotsu ramen is known for its broth, which takes anywhere from eight to 60 hours to prepare. The broth is often very dark colored, and the meal itself is heavy and rich with flavor. If you want to read even more in-depth information about the process and taste of this delicious ramen, read our article, “Tonkotsu Ramen”!

Miso ramen is loved by almost anyone who enjoys simple, creamy ramen. Miso is infused into the dish, and ingredients such as eggs, pork slices, and spring onions commonly surround the noodles. The main ingredient is so popular and delicious, that miso is also commonly added to other ramens to enhance their flavors.

Shoyu ramen is basically just a standard bowl of ramen with shoyu (soy sauce in Japanese) added. The chefs often have a heavy hand when adding the shoyu, as the taste is necessary to enjoy the full flavor of this dish. The clear brown broth is light, and the soy sauce is nicely accented by the chicken and vegetable broth-base.

 

Soba

After reading all about ramen, what more could there be in regards to Japanese noodle varieties? Unlike it’s more popular counterpart, soba is not made out of wheat flour. Instead, buckwheat (which is actually Soba in Japanese) is used to create these delicious, thin noodles. Though its name suggests that it is indeed also wheat, buckwheat is actually a fruit seed like rhubarb and sorrel. This means that the noodles are 100% gluten-free!

What is Soba?

As stated above, soba is a variety of Japanese noodle made from buckwheat. Starting in the Edo Period, soba noodles have been thinly sliced and served either cold with a dipping sauce or in a hot soup. Noodles can also be dried and preserved to be stored for future use. Soba noodles contain all eight essential amino acids and has complimentary nutritional benefits of white rice and wheat flour without possessing gluten.

There are specialty soba meals and even one variety of soba that’s more like an all-you-can-eat experience instead of a simple meal! Wanko soba is a single portion sized serving of soba in a bowl. Once you finished your serving, servers will put another into your bowl again and again until you cover your bowl to signal that you are finished. Some people have eaten more than 100 servings of soba in the spirit of competition!

Varieties

Though buckwheat is grown and harvested mainly in Hokkaido, soba from Nagano is considered to be the most famous in all of Japan. Interestingly enough, this famous soba contains two parts wheat to eight parts buckwheat, which the locals say is how it gets its unique and delicious flavor. Soba is said to be different from region to region, and as such, each area in Japan has its own unique taste and flavor of the noodles.

Along with region, there are different preparation methods used to create soba. The noodles can be flavored with green tea powder, seaweed, yam flour, mugwort, or wheat. Country soba is thicker than most other varieties and is made with whole buckwheat. There is also a thinner, lightly colored soba called Sarashina soba that’s made with refined buckwheat. Only Towari and Juwari soba are said to be 100% buckwheat soba.

Common Dishes

The two most common soba dishes are hot and cold soba. Cold soba is served without broth and sometimes with toppings added, or wrapped in seaweed, or served like a salad. Hot soba is served similarly to ramen, though the most popular ingredients are sliced the long onion and mixed chili powder. Each of these dishes has several varieties and differing ingredients, meaning that you don’t have to just stick to the boring, plain noodles!

If you’re more interested in soba dishes, some of the more popular ones are: cha soba, kawara soba, izumo soba, togakushi soba, wanko soba, and hegi soba.

Udon

So you’re now well versed in ramen and soba. What else could there possibly be? What else does Japan have to offer? The answer is: udon! These thick, delicious noodles are sizably larger than their soba and ramen counterparts and have their own unique taste and flavors. Not surprising, the demand for readily available udon in countries other than Japan has seen a rapid growth over the years and is likely to continue until everyone can easily access these delicious meals.

What is Udon?

Made from wheat flour, udon is more commonly related to ramen than it is to soba. Unlike ramen, udon is not usually adorned with copious amounts of toppings, as the dish is generally kept simple and clean. The noodles themselves are already thick and filling enough without adding more ingredients into the mix. The origins of udon are mainly speculation with little evidence or facts, but we can all be grateful that someone had the bright idea to make such satisfying noodles in the first place.

Varieties

Just like soba, udon can be enjoyed hot or cold with different toppings and broths to suit a consumer’s needs. Almost every prefecture in Japan has its own style and variety of udon, and there have been many arguments over which is best. Hot udon is generally served as a soup with an assortment of ingredients added. The broths are usually meat or fish based, and the style of the noodles doesn’t often change.

Common Dishes

There are many udon dishes in Japan, but we’d like to go over some of the more common ones that are eaten on a daily basis in the land of the rising sun.

Kake udon is hot udon in a broth with scallions and kamaboko. It’s simple, fast, satisfying, and delicious. Many tourist find its the first udon they try when coming to Japan, and is very popular among locals and tourists alike. Tempura udon is another hot udon that sports prawn tempura or tempura fritters in the broth with the noodles. Much like the kake udon and many other udon dishes, the simplicity of the dish is one of its most fascinating features.

Curry udon, though unusual looking at first, is quite popular and more filling than other udon dishes. It involves either putting curry powder into the broth or by simple pouring pre-made curry over udon noodles. A heavier, more filling dish, curry udon is as tasty as it is wholesome. Yaki udon, on the other hand, takes the udon noodles out of the bowl and tosses them onto a frying pan. After thoroughly cooking, the noodles are put back into a light broth of either soy sauce or some other broth.

Zaru udon is prepared by cooling cooking udon noodles before placing them to eat in a decorative basket. These are generally served with a dipping sauce, tsuyu, that is meant to enhance the flavor and experience of the cold noodles. Salad udon is exactly what it sounds like. By putting fresh ingredients on top of cold udon and topping it off with any dressing, this delightful dish is both light and refreshing.

Which One Is Best?

That’s completely up to you to decide! Whether you like thick or thin noodles, heavy or light broth, or hot or cold food, there’s a little something for everyone in the world of Japanese noodles!