Ramen vs Udon vs Soba – Japan’s food scene is on another level, as many travellers to this wonderful country can attest. With condensed cities housing thousands of food options, to lone villages served by single multi-generational restaurants, every eating experience is a unique and wonderful one.
There are many staples that are rooted in Japanese food culture, with noodles playing a huge part in defining it from history many centuries ago to where it is now. The Japanese boast an immeasurable number of traditional noodle dishes that are all equally as wondrous and appealing as each other, but to cover them all would take more than just an article!
Instead, we’d like to concentrate on the three most popular types of noodles that the Japanese people use, and highlight the most popular Japanese dishes which use these noodles: Ramen vs Udon vs Soba.
As all noodles generally take on a similar shape and colour, we get that it might be confusing to differentiate between them. We’ll explain their basic composition, how they’re different to each other, and what dishes they’re commonly used for.
We bet you’ve eaten at least one of the dishes we’ve described below! And if not, well what are you waiting for? Get to know the differences between Ramen vs Udon vs Soba now!
What are Ramen Noodles?
Ramen noodles are unquestionably Japan’s most iconic types of noodles. They’re depicted everywhere, from Japanese dramas to pop culture such as anime and manga, to being sold as instant versions at super markets, and ramen restaurant chains are even opening up halfway across the world!
Ramen noodles are wheat-based noodles characterised by their pale-yellow colour, thin squiggly shape, and firm chewy and bouncy texture; a similarity shared with udon. Soba noodles, on the other hand, are not chewy at all. Because of what it’s made of (and we’ll go into that more specifically a bit later), soba noodles tend to break easier and have less spring in them.
The ramen broth is commonly flavoured with soy sauce, salt (shio), miso, or pork bone (Tonkotsu). Typical toppings include scallions, charshu pork slices, boiled egg, nori, and bamboo shoots. You will find that meats are typical proteins in ramen dishes, whereas tempura and such are typical proteins for udon and soba. However, nowadays there are all sorts of ramen, udon and soba dishes that serve almost every protein you can think of.
The versatility of ramen noodles means that each region of Japan actually boasts its own version of ramen, made up of regional-specific seasonal ingredients.
A popular region-specific ramen would be the Hakata ramen, a ramen dish that hails from the western Fukuoka prefecture in Kyushu island. Hakata ramen broth is a Tonkotsu broth that is cooked in a boiling manner, which lends the soup a rich, full-bodied look, texture and taste = super heavy but flavoursome!
Another popular regional specific ramen would be the Hokkaido/Sapporo style ramen. In this version, the soup is made super rich and oily, using pork bones and miso. When served, you will see a glimmering layer of oil at the top of the ramen bowl. Because of the cold climate of the northern island, people demanded something heartier and warming, and so serving ramen in this manner ensured that the noodles and toppings underneath that layer of oil were kept warmer for longer.
As you consume more and more of these three types of noodle dishes, you will find that ramen dishes are often the heaviest meal to consume out of the three.
Whilst soba and udon dishes are served in a lighter manner (e.g., in a lighter broth or with the broth on the side), ramen tends to be served in extremely flavoursome, umami-drenched broth. This serves to bring out the flavour of the ramen noodles to its maximum capacity.
Ramen noodles have long been the natural favourite and most popular amongst the three by many people. It’s been around for centuries and is so accessible that you can literally cook a delicious ramen meal for yourself from an instant pack bought from the supermarket.
Some will argue that packet ramen tastes just as good as restaurant ramen!
What are Udon Noodles?
Udon noodles are the most different looking and tasting of the three. Udon noodles are also made with wheat, but that is where the similarity with ramen noodles ends. It comes in a white colour and is much thicker than both ramen and soba noodles. It’s also got a chewy texture, much chewier than ramen.
Most udon dishes are relatively simple and light compared to ramen, even if their noodles are composed of very similar contents. Because the texture of udon noodles is thicker and thus is more filling, the concept of toppings on udon dishes is usually sparing. The broth that usually accompanies udon is generally quite clear, whereas with ramen, you expect to see oils and darker colouring due to the various ingredients involved.
Similar to soba noodles, udon noodles can be eaten hot or cold; this is usually dependent on the weather. An example of cold udon would be Zaru udon noodles, which are chilled and served straight to the table on a bamboo mat, accompanied by a light dipping broth.
Other popular udon dishes include tanuki udon, which is when the udon is served in a hot brother with leftover deep-fried tempura batter pieces, kitsune udon, which is when udon is served in a hot broth with aburaage (fried tofu), and tempura udon, which is self-explanatory!
The most traditional dish to enjoy udon noodles with would be the kake udon. This hot dish consists of a pure and simple kakejiru stock, flavoured with dashi, mirin and soy sauce. Toppings for kake udon would typically consist of chopped scallions, with the furthest extent of toppings possibly including a fried tofu slice or tempura, but never anything more than that.
As you can tell from our udon explanation, most udon dishes simply do not overload their toppings. This is vastly different from ramen, when a basic bowl would include at the minimum 3-4 different toppings amongst a very rich and flavoursome broth!
What are Soba Noodles?
Last but most certainly not least, soba noodles. What are they? Soba noodles are arguably the least known on this list, but we bet that they have legions of loyal eaters!
Made from a mix of predominantly buckwheat with wheat flour, soba noodles are believed to be the healthiest out of the three. It’s no surprise soba noodles are part of our list of healthy Japanese food!
It is thinly shaped, similar to ramen noodles, and comes in a grey or brown colour, depending on the type of buckwheat and how much of it is used. Because of the predominant use of buckwheat, it is the least chewy out of the three types of noodles.
Soba noodles are important in Japanese culture as they are generally eaten around New Year’s Eve by Japanese families. The long length of the noodles symbolises longevity of life, and the ease of cutting through the noodles symbolises the release of past hardships in time for a fresh start.
Much like udon noodles, Soba noodles are popular as both a hot dish and a cold dish, and are often served with light, tasty broth with little or no toppings. There are many traditional soba noodle restaurants located throughout rural Japan, each with their own distinct recipe passed down from generations.
One of the most sought-after soba noodle dishes is tensoba, which is basically tempura soba. Hot tensoba is equally as popular as cold tensoba; both are usually served with tempura shrimp or satsuma age (fried fish cakes).
Matcha soba is also a popular one to try amongst travellers. It’s a dish that originates from Uji, a city located south of Kyoto, known for their abundance of matcha tea and matcha flavoured foods. Matcha soba is made from combining buckwheat and matcha tea powder, resulting in green-coloured soba noodles. Matcha soba noodles are usually eaten cold, served with wasabi and tsuyu dipping sauce.
Wanko soba is yet another super popular soba noodle dish which originates from Iwate Prefecture. Eating wanko soba is an entirely new experience altogether! They are usually served in small bowls, each with one small serving of noodles. The goal is to slurp the noodles as quickly as possible because your bowl will be repeatedly refilled until you place the lid on your empty bowl.
Lastly, sanuki udon, which hails from the Kagawa prefecture, is a thicker, even chewier version of udon noodles that we insist you try if you ever get the chance. The firm yet springiness of sanuki udon, soaking in a hot simple dashi broth topped with tempura on a cold and snowy winter’s day is just perfection.
That’s it for our match Ramen vs Udon vs Soba! Japanese noodles are honestly on a league of their own. Between chewy tasty ramen, squiggly thick udon, and healthy soba, there are probably hundreds of different dishes you could try whilst traversing through Japan. With the cold and hot options available, there’s literally an option suitable for every season!
Upon finishing this article, we’re curious to hear if you have a favourite out of the three? Let us know in the comments!