Ramen, the traditional food of broke college students. In American we know Ramen as the instant, cheap noodles we all grew up with. I remember the day my roommate got a book on how to level-up her ramen. I learned the ancient art of adding some scrambled egg to my ramen and thought I had taken my ramen game to a whole new playing field. Little did I know, America has ramen all wrong.
In 2014 I made my first trip to Japan. My husband spoke Japanese and introduced me to a ton of new people, places, and my personal favorite– food. Then we had Ramen. It was so far from American ramen, it was basically a totally different dish–which I would argue, has next to nothing in common with American ramen, except that they both have broth and noodles.
My first bowl of Japanese ramen had the most delicious, flavored, soft boiled egg, melty chashu pork, tender noodles, and the richest broth I’d ever had. Looking back, dozens of bowls of ramen later, it was probably just an okay bowl of Japanese ramen. For me, it still ranks as one of the most amazing bowls I’ve ever had, because it introduced me to the world of Japanese ramen.
I’ve since learned that there isn’t just one kind of Japanese ramen either. Most ramen is characterized by the type of broth it has, or the region it comes from. This list isn’t inclusive, but here are some of the different ramen types you’ll find in Japan. All of them are worth trying.
Main Types of Ramen in Japan
The main types of ramen are typically defined by the type of broth used for the ramen base. There are five main variations of ramen broth, but honestly, it’s common to mix and adapt the broths for the desired flavor, rather than remain a purist. Here are the most popular types of ramen by broth.
Tsukemen defies the traditional Japanese Ramen stereotype. It also happens to be my husband’s absolute, hands-down, favorite type of ramen in the whole world. Traditional Japanese ramen has noodles soaking in a delicious broth with toppings adorning the bowl. Not so with tsukemen. With this type of ramen, noodles are served in one bowl and dipped into another bowl with thick, rich, fatty broth. Tsukemen broth tends to be served thicker, hotter, and with a more intense flavor than traditional ramen broth. The toppings are served on the side.
Shio (Salt) Ramen
Shio ramen is known for its lighter broth, flavored primarily with sea salt. This type of ramen originated in the Hokkaido prefecture of Japan but can be found throughout the country. The broth has a mild, sea salt flavor that is lighter than most other ramen broths.
A more recent addition to the ramen food scene in Japan, this broth type also originated in the Hokkaido region. It uses a miso base for the soup and is a richer broth base for your noodles to swim in.
By far the most popular ramen broth base outside of Japan. Tonkotsu ramen has a pork-bone-based broth that is rich and fatty. It’s probably my personal favorite for ramen and is certainly one of the richer ramen broths out there. It’s also good as an intro ramen if you’re new to the ramen game.
Shoyu means “soy sauce” in Japanese. The primary seasoning in this broth is, you guessed it, soy sauce. This type of ramen gets its roots from the Tokyo area of Japan, but is also popular throughout the country, and is typically easy to find outside of Japan as well. It has all the salty deliciousness of a rich, fermented, soy sauce, which also serves to enhance the flavors of the meats and vegetables that accompany the dish.
Regional Variations of Japanese Ramen
Japan has an intense dedication to their regional foods. Ramen is no different, and each region lends its own flair to their ramen. Here are some of the most famous ramen types by region.
Sapporo Miso Ramen
Sapporo is known for being the coldest region of Japan and the choice of what to include in their ramen reflects that. The ramen in Sapporo often features seasonal seafood and the broth is very hearty, salty, and typically topped off with a thick slice of butter. Sapporo also traditionally includes a spoonful of corn to finish the bowl, you know, to make it healthy…
Also from the northern region of Japan, this ramen has a slightly fatty shoyu (soy sauce) based broth and fairly simple toppings. Pork, ajitsuke tamago (marinated egg), bamboo, and even fish cake have a place in this delicious bowl.
Hakata Tonkotsu Ramen
The most popular ramen broth outside of Japan is tonkotsu. This thick pork bone broth appears in this immensely popular ramen style that comes from the southernmost part of Japan’s main island. The broth is thick and rich and the noodles will always be served al-dente to ensure they don’t get soggy on you. No one likes soggy noodles.
While some ramen is rich and hearty, Kitakata ramen, is the perfect example of subtle flavors blending together to create a well-balanced dish. It consists of a shoyu-based broth, simmered with dried fish and pork to temper the flavor. The toppings are also fairly simple and it often includes a thicker, curly type of noodle.
Another shoyu based ramen comes from the Hiroshima area and has some very distinctive ingredients. Comprised of seafood, homemade, flat noodles, and characteristic floating chunks of fat that adorn the bowl. This is not a ramen to be missed.
Nagoya “Taiwan” Ramen
Despite its name, Taiwan ramen did not originate in Taiwan. It was born of a Taiwanese chef who combined the Taiwanese dan dan noodle dish and Japanese ramen in a fusion noodle bowl. This dish is known for its intense, spicy flavor, ground pork, chives, garlic, and bean sprouts. If you’re into spicy noodles, this is the ramen to try.
Another Chinese inspired ramen dish is champon. It most commonly consists of fried seafood, pork, and vegetables with a chicken broth base. It’s not what you would think of for a traditional bowl of Japanese ramen, and there are many variations on the presentation and broth depending where you go.
Hakodate is known for being a fairly simple bowl of ramen, with a perfect balance of flavor. Typically, it includes a shio (salt) broth, pork, bamboo shoots, and green onions. What it lacks in beauty, it makes up for in flavor.
This tonkotsu based ramen is traditionally lighter on flavor than other tonkotsu ramens. In addition to pork bones, this ramen also uses the pork skull with eyes and brain. While it might sound gross, it actually lends a creamy sweetness to the broth that the bone and marrow alone can’t provide. Kurume ramen has traditional ramen toppings and thin, straight noodles.
As the name suggests, this soup bears some semblance to soba noodles, but these noodles aren’t made from buckwheat. The broth and pork toppings are much like regular ramen, with some interesting additions like; seaweed, bonito flakes, and pickled ginger.
This southern Japanese ramen from Kyushu has a tonkotsu broth base that is often enhanced with others flavors like seaweed, anchovies, and chicken. The variety of flavors give the broth a distinctive and complex flavor. Thin noodles are preferred in this dish and simple toppings of pork, egg, and green onions complete the bowl.
A lesser known type of Ramen hails from a small town in the Japanese Alps called Hida Takayama. The Ramen in Takayama is a simple version of the dish that focuses on quality flavors in the broth and meat. It usually consists of a light shoyu-based broth, flavored with beef or chicken. The toppings are simple, usually chashu pork and green onions, however, some locations choose to add the regional beef, known as Hida Gyu instead. Hida Gyu is known for its excellent quality and it’s worth paying extra to try it.
Japanese ramen is a far cry from your dorm room days in college. There’s an incredible array of flavors and regional variations to explore and enjoy. Get out, try some new ramen, and figure out which one is your favorite.