May 19, 2024

A guide to Japanese noodles, from soba to somen

Don’t freak out, but are you having trouble remembering things? Sweet cripes on toast, how many times a day do I lose my cellphone?

And names — don’t get me started. My awesome daughter has a friend I call “not-Helen” because I can’t remember her actual name, only that it isn’t Helen — a fact I learned only after the billionth conversation that went like this:

Me: Why don’t you call Helen?

Awesome Daughter: Who?

All this brings me to Japanese noodles. For the life of me, I can’t keep all their names straight in my head. I mean, not to sound like a coot, but, when I was a kid (Here we go!) what would I have known from udon? We had noodles. That’s it. Plain, flat, buttered egg noodles. And on Italian night, spaghetti.

Today, though, I’m finally getting them straight. And, since I’m going to the trouble, you may as well come along for the ride. After all, you don’t want to find yourself standing in the Japanese market, clueless in the noodle aisle, feeling like a chump.

With so many types of Japanese noodles, it's important to know the difference for the best, most delicious results. These noodles are, clockwise from left, ramen, udon, soba, somen and shirataki. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune; Shannon Kinsella/food styling)

Knowledge is its own reward. Besides, would it kill you to know the difference between somen and soba?

Let’s get something straight, right off the bat. Japanese cuisine is very different from American cuisine and its mostly European antecedents, but Japanese noodles are still, quite simply, noodles.

They’re mostly made of flour and water — we’ll address that “mostly” shortly — and you can use them the same way you’d use any other noodle.

Drown your udon in tomato sauce if you want; I swear I won’t tell.

Having said that, if you are going to the trouble to find Japanese noodles, you probably want to create a dish that is at least nominally Japanese. What Japanese noodles have in common with each other, and what sets them apart from, say, Italian pasta, is that, generally, rather than being served straight from the pot, they’re cooked in advance and cooled. Then they’re served chilled, or reheated quickly in a soup or stir fry. One common and delicious preparation involves serving noodles icy cold with a simple but flavorful dipping sauce.

If you want to remain true to their country of origin, the important thing is to stay with Japanese flavor profiles: soy sauce, mirin, sake, dashi ... you get the picture. An easy example is to make your favorite stir fry, then throw in some cooked noodles and heat the whole thing through. Simple, right?

Here’s a look at some of the more common Japanese noodles:

Ramen: Ramen are thin wheat noodles. Their yellowish tint comes from an ingredient called kansui, an alkaline water containing potassium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate.

You’ve probably eaten at one of the three bajillion ramen restaurants that have popped up in the past few years. And it’s terrific, right? Ramen’s texture is pleasantly firm, and the broth it’s usually served in is meaty and fatty and rich.

If you want ramen at home, noodles can be found both fresh and dried. There’s also the ubiquitous instant ramen: precooked, dried blocks of curly noodles, cellophane-wrapped and accompanied by packets of scary, but tasty, chemicals.

You can make traditional ramen broth at home, though it is time consuming. Alternately, just use the noodles — fresh, dried or instant — in stir fries or soups. And don’t feel compelled to use the little packets. They can be saltier than a sailor.

Soba: These thin, straight, brownish buckwheat noodles have a somewhat nutty flavor. I used to think they were as different from Italian noodles as it gets. Now, though, the pasta shelves groan beneath the variety of gluten-free noodles made from quinoa, teff, chickpeas and who knows what else. Sawdust. Pollen. Dreams. Loud noises.

Soba can be served hot in soups or stir fries, though they’re often served cold with a simple dipping sauce of dashi, soy sauce, mirin and sake (see recipe below).

Somen: Very white and very thin, these wheat noodles are like angel hair. Not the pasta: the actual, literal hair of angels. You can use somen in pretty much any preparation and, like soba, they’re popular cold with a dipping sauce.

Perhaps you’ve seen videos of those restaurants where little knots of somen noodles reach the customers by sliding down a long, watery chute. It’s like that terrifying Log Flume ride at the 1964 World’s Fair, but with chopsticks.

Udon: Udon are long, white wheat noodles thick enough to trip a cat. Their generous girth gives them a somewhat springy, chewy texture. You can find them dried, but my advice is to seek out fresh, packaged udon in the cooler aisle, or look in the freezer section. The dried kind doesn’t always quite achieve that jaw-bouncing springiness. Udon are found very often swimming in broth, but, again, you can use them however you like.

Shirataki: Word on the street is these noodles are taking the world by storm, particularly with the low-carb crowd. That’s because they’re not made from anything we normally associate with noodles, like wheat or rice. No, they’re made from glucomannan, a dietary fiber that comes from the flowering konjac plant native to Asia. Konjac is known by many other names, like devil’s tongue, voodoo lily and, my favorite, snake palm.

Glucomannan is used as a dietary supplement to help with all sorts of human medical issues, some of which are not suited for mention in a polite food column. But they also make noodles out of it.

Along with the glucomannan, shirataki are made primarily of water, which means they have virtually no calories, and it gives them a unique mouthfeel that some have called slippery. I’ll leave you to write your own similes.

Shirataki generally are packaged in water and require no cooking, only rinsing. You can drop them in hot broth for noodle soup, and they’re perfect for cold dishes, snacks and Halloween games. Put some in the bottom of a bag and tell your kids that Mrs. Zombie Lady from next door stopped by and dropped off this treat for them.

A delicious dipping sauce is the perfect companion to Japanese noodles, and it can also be turned into a broth for soup. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune; Shannon Kinsella/food styling)

Prep: 5 minutes

Cook: 10 minutes

Makes: about 1 ¾ cups

The key to this sauce is the ratio between the ingredients. Of course, every cook will have his or her own ratio that they swear is best. Trust your judgment and your taste and adjust the ratios as you see fit. Use the chilled sauce for dipping cold noodles (typically soba or somen).

½ cup sake

1 tablespoon sugar (optional)

1 cup soy sauce

1 cup mirin

1 piece (2 inches square) kombu, optional

1 cup bonito flakes

Water as needed, see note

1. Bring the sake and optional sugar to boil in a small, heavy-bottom sauce pan.

2. Add soy sauce, mirin and kombu, if using. Heat to a boil.

3. Turn off heat, add bonito flakes and allow them to settle to bottom of pan, about five minutes.

4. Strain liquid into a clean bowl, dilute as needed with water and serve.

Note: For dipping noodles, you may want to dilute this sauce with up to an equal amount of water. You can also dilute it even more (up to three or four times), and then reheat to boiling to use as a broth for hot noodle soup. Use the broth as is, or flavor with miso, ginger or sesame oil. Along with the noodles, feel free to add shredded pork or chicken, tofu, mushrooms, green onions, boiled egg, spinach — whatever you think sounds good in your soup.

Nutrition information per serving: 26 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 5 g carbohydrates, 2 g sugar, 1 g protein, 649 mg sodium, 0 g fiber