While you might think of ramen as one style of Japanese noodle dish, it actually refers to a whole variety of different styles, including traditional ramen, tsukemen and abura soba. Not only does the thickness of noodles and difference in soup stock change, but the arrangement of toppings and seasonings results in a myriad of different options. It’s become the “Warring Era of Ramen”!
In this perfect ramen guide, we’ll explain the difference between ramen, tsukemen and abura soba. We’ll also explain how to order each dish and eat them as the Japanese do, as well as share with you the top ramen restaurants to try each style of noodle dish in Tokyo.
Popular throughout Japan and abroad, ramen is the most well-known Japanese noodle dish. It features Men 麺 ( noodles), Tare タレ (Kaeshi かえし) (base flavor), Dashi 出汁 (soup スープ) (dashi soup stock), and topping トッピング (toppings) which might include sliced meats, vegetables and dried seaweed.
Traditionally ramen was classified by its ingredients, such as shoyu (soy sauce) , miso, shio or tonkotsu made with pork bones. But now, there are many variations of ramen, such as “Ie-kei”, “Jiro-kei”, “Ganko-kei”,” Setagaya-kei” and more. There are also ramen types with names such as “Ishiki Takai-kei” , which places emphasis on quality over quantity, and “Seabura Chaccha-Kei” in which back fat is cooked down and added to the soup in order to bring out a richer flavor.
In addition to its diverse array of ingredients and soup broths, ramen can also be classified by the thickness and hardness of its noodles. For example, tonkotsu ramen usually features straight, thin noodles while some ramen shops, such as Ichiran, will give you a choice of Bariyawaばりやわ (extra soft) ＜ Yawaやわ (soft)＜ Futsuuふつう (medium)＜ Kataかた (firm) ＜ Barikataばりかた (extra firm) ＜ Hariganeハリガネ (extra, extra firm) ＜Konaotoshi 粉落とし (firmest), depending on your tastes. The options for ramen are truly endless!
・How to order
When ordering ramen, you will usually have two choices - either browse the menu and order with a clerk or use the ticket vending machine. If you’re not sure and there is a vending machine installed, then use the vending machine.
In recent years, you can find many vending machines with English options and pictures, allowing you to order not only your ramen, but also your preferred toppings and drinks. After ordering at the vending machine, give your ticket to the clerk who will ask about your preferred noodle type and/or noodle hardness.
・How to eat
After ordering your ramen, you should eat it as soon as it’s brought to your table, before the noodles begin to stretch and soften. But before you slurp your noodles, be sure to taste the flavor with your spoon, just like a pro! Normally you’ll be offered a range of toppings and seasonings to add to your ramen but always try the dish first before altering the original taste.
If you’re planning on having some rice with the last of your ramen broth or thinking about ordering a second helping of noodles, known as “kaedama” be sure to leave some broth! The way each store handles this varies, but generally speaking, you can order some rice (for free or for a small fee, depending on the store) to consume with the last of your broth. Some stores may make zosui (a rice gruel) to enjoy with the remaining broth while others may offer something else.
N.B. “Kaedama” means that you want a second helping of noodles only. The price will vary depending on the store, with some offering it for free.
・Recommended shop: Oreryu Shio-Ramen
This shio (salt) ramen shop was born in Shibuya and now they have 15 stores located in Tokyo and also overseas in Hong Kong. In addition to being popular with locals, many people also come from abroad, so there are times you may have to wait in line for a seat. The menu features a bountiful variety of dishes, so you’ll want to come again and again.
You’ll probably have to join a queue of diners before purchasing your requested menu item from the ticket vending machine. Remember that when handing your ticket to the clerk, you’ll be asked about your preferred noodle hardness.
Kaedama (Noddle refill): 150 yen
A paper apron is provided free of charge
Oreryu Jyukusei Shio Ramen 680 yen
It almost appears as if soy milk has been poured into it, but this broth is made from chicken bones, genkotsu (pork femur), and green onions that are cooked for a short amount of time in a cylindrical pressure cooker. This helps it reduce down to a broth that is rich in umami (savory) and sweet flavors.
Oreryu Shio-Ramen Toppings
There are always six different toppings available, so customers can enjoy the change in flavors and different combinations by adding recommended toppings while enjoying their meals.
Recommended Toppings to Add:
1. Iwa nori (Wild Harvested Seaweed)
2. Tororo Kombu (Shredded Kombu)
3. Ume (Pickled Plum)
4. Yuzu Koshou (Yuzu Salt & Pepper)
5. Oreryu Ra-yu (Chili Oil)
6. Oreryu Ma-ninniku (Roasted Garlic)
Oreryu Shio-Ramen Toppings
While each of these toppings have a distinct flavor, once mixed in, they will not compete for your palate. Rather, you can combine the broth with each of these toppings to enjoy different combinations of flavors. It’s also a lot of fun to discover what flavors you personally enjoy and before you know it, you’ll have eaten it all up.
Oreryu Jyukusei Shio Ramen 680 yen (After topping added)
Another type of ramen that’s gaining popularity is tsukemen, which consists of separate servings of noodles and soup, with the diner invited to dip the noodles into the soup themselves. The noodles are rinsed with cold water right after boiling to help them stiffen, so you can really feel the texture of the noodles. In recent times, this has become something that not only ramen stores do, but many tsukemen specialty stores do this as well.
・How to order
Like ramen, there are two ways to order tsukemen - either with the clerk or using a ticket vending machine. In ramen shops, you can often specify the hardness of the noodles, while in tsukemen shops you can choose your noodle temperature. Normally they are served cold but you can request “Atsumori” if you prefer them hot.
・How to eat
When your tsukemen is served, you should first taste the noodles as they are, as this is the focus of the dish. Sometimes leek, menma (seasoned bamboo shoots) or chashu (Japanese braised pork) are served on the side and you can eat them as is or place them into the bowl of soup. You should then take bite-size amounts of noodles and place them part-way into the soup before slurping them into your mouth.
After trying the noodles, you can adjust the taste to your liking, either putting seasoning directly on the noodles or into the soup. Remember that if your soup cools down, you can ask the waiter to warm it up again for you. When you finish eating your noodles, you can usually order Soup-wari スープ割り (“Soup-wari” is when hot dashi soup is poured into your remaining broth to thin it, thereby making it easier to consume.) for free. Depending on the shop, “Soup-wari” made be served in a pot and poured into your bowl or you can return the bowl to the waiter who will fill it for you.
・Recommended Shop: Tsukemen Gonokami Seisakusho Shinjuku shop
Tsukemen Gonokami Seisakusho Shinjuku shop
To try tsukemen in Tokyo, head to Tsukemen Gonokami Seisakusho in Shinjuku, which specializes in a thick shrimp tsukemen. It’s located down a side alley but is always busy, with long queues snaking out the door. When it’s your turn to select a meal, head over to the ticket machine (which includes English names) and purchase your meal ticket. Once you have, return to your place in the queue. When a seat becomes available, you will be guided inside to one of the counter seats and your dish will be served immediately.
Large Serving: +100 yen
Both the regular-sized and small portions are the same price. When you order a small portion, choose one topping from the three types offered. The regular-sized portion is quite large, so for those who don’t eat a lot, we recommend choosing the small portion + a topping.
Shrimp Tsukemen With a Flavored Soft-Boiled Egg (Regular) 900 yen
This broth features a rich yet unique shrimp aroma. The noodles used are a thick, straight noodle that we make in-house with cabbage and a large sheet of seaweed placed on top. The broth features thick, cubed chashu, triangular cut bamboo shoots, green onions, and the picture in the menu features an ajitama (flavored soft-boiled egg marinated in soy sauce and mirin).
If you run out of broth, you can request more.
If you want “soup-wari” with this dish, a pot is provided allowing you to adjust the flavor to your taste.
Abura soba is a less well-known style of ramen, with the name translating as “oil noodles”, but it’s actually a healthy type of ramen. It features a bowl of thick noodles and toppings such as green onion, bamboo shoots, seaweed, minced garlic and chashu pork, with a thick “Tareタレ(sauce)” base instead of a broth at the bottom. The noodles, toppings and sauce are all mixed together before being eaten.
The big difference between abura soba and ramen is the absence of soup, with a thick sauce instead. Like ramen, the taste of the sauce and thickness of the noodles will vary from store to store.
While the name “oil noodles” suggests this dish might have a high-calorie content, it’s actually lower than traditional ramen because there is no soup. Some stores refer to “oil noodles” as mazesoba but this is essentially the same as abura soba.
・How to order
Like ramen, there are two ways to order abura soba - either with the clerk or using a ticket vending machine. If you want additional toppings or large serving of noodle, then you can specify this with the clerk or purchase the corresponding ticket.
・How to eat
At many stores, you can find vinegar and chili oil readily available at each table. When having abura soba, vinegar and chili oil are essential! While the noodles are delicious on their own, the vinegar and chili oil give the dish a dramatic depth. After adding your desired amount of vinegar and chili oil, mix together your toppings, Tare and warm noodles and eat while hot or add more seasonings to customize the taste to your preference.
・Recommended shop: Miharu Ebisu
For some of the best abura soba in Tokyo, be sure to visit Miharu Ebisu, which specializes in a thick fish sauce made with bonito and auxis (without using any artificial seasonings). The shop consists of an L-shaped counter where bottles of tabasco, vinegar and chili oil are positioned.
Abura Soba 830 yen
Abura Soba consists of a generous portion of ingredients and condiments, as well as a rich seafood sauce and thick noodles. This abura soba is a hit with ladies, too. It has green onions, white onions, fried onions, bamboo shoots, an ajitama, chashu, bonito flakes, and Nori (seaweed). It’s very rare to find an abura soba that has white onions, fried onions, and bonito flakes.
For those who love them, good news! The order comes with an ajitama by default!
Mix together the sauce base, noodles, and ingredients together, and before adding the vinegar and chili oil, test the flavor. It should be slightly spicy. When you add vinegar, the flavor becomes slightly smoother. Add chili oil and dig in. The flavor of the bonito flakes and fried onions are a seasoning, working in perfect harmony with the flavor of the sauce base in resulting in a highly aromatic abura soba.
The chashu, bamboo shoots, and ajitama are all properly seasoned. For those looking for a spicier taste, please try adding tabasco! Adjust the flavor to your liking, as the true charm of abura soba is enjoying the journey of finding the flavor that suits your palate the best.
There are many other stores within Tokyo that also have abura soba other than the one introduced here, so if you have never had it, please allow yourself the joy of trying abura soba.
Ramen, tsukemen and abura soba: the best guide to eating ramen noodles in Tokyo