With coronavirus making travel a tricky and even potentially dangerous prospect this year, we’re embracing the summer staycation. All week (and all summer) long, we’ll bring you transportive flavors and travel-inspired ideas from around the world, so you can take your tastebuds on a trip and give your mind a mini vacation while you’re still at home. Here, we dip into some Japanese noodle dishes besides the beloved ramen.
The ramen craze of the last few years has certainly accomplished a lot. Not only has it shown America that ramen is way more than just some brittle stuff with a spice packet in a Styrofoam cup (or plastic-wrapped blocks of noodles that resemble Justin Timberlake’s ’90s hair), it has also opened up a corner of Japanese gastronomy that was barely known on these shores before.
And for every regrettable gimmick that has come out of the ramen wave (ramen burgers, ramnuts), there have been dozens of talented chefs who pushed the notion of the perfect bowl just a little bit further.
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That being said, we’ve definitely hit peak ramen. It’s impossible to throw a stone in any moderately hip neighborhood in any moderately hip city and not have it land in a puddle of tonkotsu broth. The Chowhound community has even gone so far as to ask if the craze has all been one big hype.
But just because the ramen juggernaut has run its course doesn’t mean that there isn’t still territory to plow. Japan is home to a surplus of great noodle dishes that aren’t ramen. Between soba, udon, somen, and shirataki (the four other major Japanese noodles), there are plenty of iconic, traditional recipes as well as more obscure regional specialties for any noodle completist to plow through.
A Japanese noodle revolution doesn’t have to stop at the island nation’s shores, either. Noodles basically are just starch, after all; they can take easily to a whole array of flavors. To lead the charge, here are nine Japanese noodle recipes that are in a league beyond ramen, from the super traditional to the border-smashing.
Soba, which is made from nutrient-rich buckwheat, first caught on in the U.S. as a healthy option for macrobiotic diets. To a certain extent, it still hasn’t shed that health-conscious reputation. Not that that’s a bad thing: this miso-spiked take with a full helping of vegetables makes clean eating look good. Get our Soba Noodles with Swiss Chard–Miso Pesto recipe.
Tonkotsu ramen gets by on its flashy excesses, with a rich fatty broth and lots of pork. Traditional soba, on the other hand, is a matter of mystery and restraint. Typically served with tsuyu, a soy sauce-based broth, and just a handful of simple toppings, it can feel stoic at first. But it rewards with lots of earthy, deep flavors that come through in waves. As it’s served cold, it’s a perfect summer option. Get the Zaru Soba recipe.
Udon are thick, bouncy, and chewy, noodles made from wheat. They’re perhaps the most fun of all to slurp. Just plop them in some hot soup, like this one with white miso, add a few veggies to top, and get ready for some slithery action. Get our Miso Soup with Napa Cabbage and Udon recipe.
4. Tanuki Udon
Another refreshing cold dish, tanuki udon comes topped with puffy tempura crumbs. That’s right, they’re noodles topped with crunchy, crispy fried stuff. Now just imagine how awesome it would be if all of the world’s deep fried leftovers got repurposed as noodle toppings. Pretty genius, eh? Get the Tanuki Udon recipe.
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5. Kitsune Udon
Kitsune udon is topped by squares of fried tofu, which have a spongey texture that might be offputting to some. But they also have a salty-sweetness to them that can get quite addictive. The dish’s name literally translates to “fox udon”—legend has is that the tofu pieces are the animal’s favorite food. Get the Kitsune Udon recipe.
Somen are thin and wispy wheat noodles, practically shrinking violets next to udon’s big and bouncy heft. Because they’re so delicate, they take especially well to light and summery dishes, like this radish and pea cold noodle dish with a thin broth. Get the Sōmen Noodle with Snap Peas and Radish recipe.
Somen are also great to add to soups because they don’t try to steal the spotlight the way heftier noodles might. Here, they are a supporting player to seared tofu, a lime-spiked broth, and broccoli. Get the Somen Noodle Tofu Soup recipe. (Or try this Somen Noodles and Haddock in Lemongrass-Carrot Broth recipe.)
Shirataki are long noodles made from low-carb, gluten-free yam starch. In Japan, they’re usually served simply with a light broth or as part of a hot pot. But they are also a great stand in for other noodles when you want that slithery texture without all the heaviness. Here, they star in a paleo-friendly noodle bowl with summer veggies and a peanut sauce stand-in made from almond butter. Get the Shirataki Noodles with Paleo Peanut Sauce recipe. (Try this fiery Sichuan Shirataki Sesame Noodle Salad with Cucumber, Sichuan Peppercorn, Chili Oil, and Peanuts too.)
OK, so technically yakisoba is made from ramen noodles. But it’s staunchly a not-ramen ramen dish, with dry, pan-fried noodles that suck in the flavors of their salty-sweet seasoning. If you’re looking for the heady core of Japanese comfort food, this is where you start. Get the Yakisoba recipe.
Header image by Chowhound.