Ramen 101: The Most Popular Varieties You'll Find in Japan
Japan is home to more than 32,000 ramen shops, many of them packed, with lines snaking out the door. What has become the country’s unofficial national dish—defined as a wheat noodle soup—originated centuries ago in China, with the moniker "ramen" serving as the Japanese adaptation of "lamian," Chinese wheat noodles.
According to the Yokohama Ramen Museum, ramen traveled from China to Japan in 1859, and since then the soup has gone from a cheap, fast meal option to a dish worthy of Michelin stars. In Japan, tiny ramen shops with just a handful of counter seats are tucked into subway stations, atop rickety stairs in unassuming apartment buildings, and sandwiched between storefronts throughout the city. Diners often sit shoulder-to-shoulder, slurping noodles and watching as the ramen shokunin (master) rapidly flash-cooks noodles in boiling water while, as if choreographed, ladling scalding soup into bowls.
While four main ramen styles have emerged (as listed below), it’s important to understand that ramen is extremely regional in Japan, and countless more styles exist. For example, on the southwestern island of Kyushu, those who reside there eat tonkotsu (pork) ramen. But more specifically, every prefecture on the island—and sometimes even specific cities within prefectures—prepares its own, more nuanced take on the noodle soup. While there’s really an infinite world of ramens, we’ve put together a generalized guide to the most common styles.
Japan’s most popular ramen types
Ramen is typically classified by broth flavor, with three especially common categories: shoyu (soy sauce), shio (salt), and miso. A fourth, tonkotsu, references the broth’s base ingredient, not flavor. However, as ramen has evolved over the last 30 years, contemporary ramen chefs deviate from these categories to create soups spiked with everything from clams to blue algae.
Shoyu is the Japanese word for soy sauce, and this lighter-style ramen—which can appear clear-brown or darker and cloudy—is flavored with exactly that. It’s the single most commonly found type of ramen, and was invented in 1910 at a ramen shop named Rairaiken in Tokyo’s Asakusa neighborhood. Although soy sauce might sound like an everyday ingredient, chefs who serve shoyu ramen don’t use the kind of soy sauce one might have at home. Instead, they make their tare, or base sauce, using a secret blend of ingredients like dried seafood, dried mushrooms, and herbs. The tare is often mixed with a chicken broth base.
Shio (or salt) ramen is frequently made from a chicken broth base, but can also call for pork or seafood. This lighter-bodied, lighter-flavored ramen that’s also lower in fat and oil is often clear in appearance and is the saltiest of the group.
As its name suggests, miso ramen is flavored with the fermented soy bean paste of the same name, which can be made from soybeans, rice, or miso, and colored white or red. This umami-rich style of thicker and complex ramen originated in Japan’s Hokkaido prefecture, but it has since spread all over the country.
One of the richest ramens out there, tonkotsu—which was born in Fukuoka Prefecture on the island of Kyushu—eventually spread across Japan, with every prefecture, and sometimes even specific cities, inventing their own style. Tonkotsu is a viscous, creamy, and complex ramen made from simmered pork bones. The bones break down and release collagen while cooking, meaning that tonkotsu can be so thick that it coats the back of a spoon. Tonkotsu shokunin often fortify their already rich broth with pork and/or chicken fat.
A popular sub-category of tonkotsu ramen is hakata ramen which, too, originated in Fukuoka. This super milky-white, extra-rich tonkotsu is often served with thin, hard noodles and minimal toppings. The reason being, the shop that invented hakata ramen was just a stand without chairs, and serving quick-cooking thin noodles made sense for fast customer service. Other Kyushu regions serve thicker noodles and different takes on the tonkotsu broth.
Of course, countless ramens exist that don’t fit into the above categories. And one of the most common types is what we today call tsukemen, previously known as morisoba. Tsukemen chefs serve separate bowls of a rich and creamy pork soup alongside chilled, thick, and chewy noodles. The diner dips the noodles into the soup, then slurps.
Another riff on ramen—which is typically served hot—is chilled hiyashi chuka. Usually, chefs only serve this Chinese-inspired broth-less ramen style during the summer (but in the Sendai region it's available all year round), composed of chilled ramen noodles with various toppings, dressed with a soy or sesame-based sauce. And then there is abura soba (served warm) and mazemen (served warm or cold), which are similar takes on soupless ramen, tossed in an oil-based sauce
Types of Noodles
Beyond the broth, the second key aspect of ramen is noodles. Some ramen shops serve thick and chewy noodles, while others offer thinner, less-glutenous specimens. Noodles are usually long and can be straight, or wavy in shape. Some shops make their noodles à la minute in front of customers, while others buy from an outside producer. Ramen noodles, also called soba (not to be confused with buckwheat soba noodles), are made from wheat flour, egg, salt and kansui mineral water. And it’s this alkaline mineral water that gives ramen noodles their unique chewiness, flavor, and color. Some ramen shops allow customers to customize their noodles by selecting thickness (thin, regular, thick), or doneness (regular, firm).
While ramens usually come with specific toppings, chefs often allow customers to add extra toppings. Common additions include extra orders of thinly-sliced, fat-marbled braised or roasted pork (chashu), bamboo shoots, seaweed, scallion, bean sprouts, fish cake, boiled egg marinated in soy sauce and mirin.