Though many contest its origins, historical credit for the noodle must be given to Asia, where in China, a 4,000-year-old bowl of noodles was found by Chinese scientists at the Lajia archaeological site over a decade ago.
The modern-day culinary staple was only introduced to Japan during the Middle Ages, when Buddhist missionaries brought flour back to Japan from China. Soon, noodles became an essential part of the Japanese diet, second only to rice.
If you’re traveling to Japan, you will surely encounter a wide variety of noodle-eating opportunities. To make sure you can talk the talk, we’ve given you the breakdown of some of the country’s most popular varieties so that you can order — and eat — like a local.
Though ramen is a modern favorite, the history of this particular wheat flour noodle dates back to the 19th century, when Chinese tradesmen brought ramen soup to Japan. Many are familiar with the long, curly noodle’s distinctly yellow appearance and chewy texture, which comes from kansui, a key ingredient that is a mixture of baking soda and water. You can find some of Japan’s best ramen at Tokyo’s Tsuta, the first ramen restaurant in the world to receive a Michelin star.
Considered the most artisanal of all Japanese noodle types, soba can be made with buckwheat flour. As thick as spaghetti with a flatter, more pressed shape, they can be prepared for both hot and cold dishes. You can find soba in broth, as in kake soba (meaning broth poured over soba), or covered by tororo, a paste-like cream made of grated yams. One of the best soba restaurants in Japan is Tokyo’s beloved Kanda Matsuya, which has been in business since 1884 and continues to serves customers lined up around the block.
Udon is a white, chewy noodle made of wheat flour. Much thicker than soba, it is prepared in both hot and cold dishes. Udon may be dipped in sauce or slurped with soup (yes, you are encouraged to slurp, as the Japanese think doing so makes the food taste better). You can even drink the broth directly from the bowl. Some busy train stations have standing restaurants called Udon-yas, where you can order a meal ticket from a vending machine, give it to the staff and enjoy your meal at the counter before catching the next ride.
Shirataki have long been praised as “miracle noodles” for their low-carb offering. They are spaghetti-like and composed of 93 percent water and 7 percent glucomannan, a fiber that comes from the root of an edible Japanese plant called konjac. Shirataki’s water content gives it a translucent quality — in fact, the world translates it to mean “white waterfall.” For those choosing to go calorie- or gluten-free, shirataki noodles are famously served as substitutes to wheat noodles.
In the hot summers of Japan, skinny somen noodles served cold with tsuyu, a dashi-based dipping sauce, are a crowd favorite. Records of somen travel as far back as the eighth century, where rice flour was used to make the thin, smooth, white noodle. It even became popular at the Imperial Court, where it was served on special occasions. Today, somen is more commonly made from wheat flour, as in the popular nagashi somen, which is a style of eating somen that challenges eaters to grab the noodles using chopsticks as they float past you on a water slide made of bamboo. You can catch nagashi somen during the summer months at the Kyoto restaurant Hirobun, famous for its multi-course kaiseki meal.