History of three famous kinds of noodles in Japan: Udon, Soba and Ramen

Which type of noodle would you imagine when you hear noodles in Japan? I guess many people would say it is ramen. Yes, ramen is very popular in Japan, but did you know ramen is the newest of the three in the history of Japanese noodles? Ramen would have the longest history of the three if we included the history of noodles in China, but I focus on the history in Japan only this time, and I would like to tell you a little bit of each noodle’s history today. (It would be very long article if I wrote about the histories deeply, so I write them as briefly as possible.)

Udon (thick white noodle made from wheat flour), the first noodle to be eaten all over Japan

It is said the first food made fro wheat flour came to Japan from China is he third century. Ancient people mixed flour and salt water, stretched and twisted it like a rope and then boiled or deep fried it. This is regarded as the oldest noodle in Japanese history. After about three hundred years, Japanese priests went to China for their religious practices and they brought some Chinese food culture to Japan. One of them is called undon, which is thought as the origin of udon. In the seventh century, udon became almost the same style as the one today, and it spread gradually from priests to samurai and ordinary people.

Soba (buckwheat noodle) was samurai’s favorite food

Its history starts from the third century. Soba is a plant which grows in sterile or a cold districts so ancient people grew soba for an emergency crop. However, soba was not noodles at that time, and it was common to eat soba as mashed buckwheat or buckwheat dumplings made of soba flour and hot water. In the sixteenth century, a priest from the Korean Peninsula told the priests in Todaiji temple in Japan how to use wheat flour as a bond of soba, and that advice helped Japanese priests to make soba noodles. Since soba noodles are much easier to eat than soba dumplings, soba noodles became a very popular food, especially among samurai. Today, people just call it soba, and don’t use “soba noodles” since this noodle style is more common now.

Ramen, the most popular noodles in Japan

Although people don’t know when exactly Japanese ramen’s origin was, it is said ramen’s history is shorter than udon or soba. Japan had been a closed country from 1639 to 1854, but it was not completely isolated since the Edo Shogunate (the government at that era) had trade with Netherlands and China using a port in Nagasaki located in Kyushu, southwestern region in Japan. Some people say that a Confucian scholar from China during that era taught the Japanese how to make noodles and that was the origin of ramen, but others say it was after Japan opened the country to foreign trade and diplomatic relations.

What we know is there were already some ramen restaurants in Yokohama area in the middle of Meiji era (from 1868 to 1912). The port in Yokohama was the first one opened to foreign countries except Netherlands and China after the long national isolation. (There are Chinese towns both in Nagasaki and Yokohama by the way.)

The big difference between ramen and the other two noodles is the soul’s flavor. Soy sauce, Salt, Miso, Tonkotsu (made from pork bone) are common, but in recent years, there are some ramen restaurants that serve tomato flavor soup or mushroom soup. It seems like nobody will be able to stop ramen’s evolution!


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