It is well known around the office that I don’t care for ramen. Sometimes I get asked how I can claim to love Japanese food when I am not a fan of what is arguably one of Japan’s most well known and loved noodle dishes. So I jumped at this chance to explain my position and perhaps convert others to my way of thinking.
I enjoy the subtle flavours of Japanese dishes. Ramen, however, regardless of which soup base or variety you consume, has, in my opinion, an overly strong salty taste. From the miso variety popular in the northern city of Sapporo to the tonkotsu variety of Fukuoka in the south, all of them have a less than subtle taste. Instead, I crave the chewy delicious soba noodles found across Japan. These noodles are made primarily from buckwheat and can be eaten in a soup broth or dipped into a light sauce. The flavour is delicious and you have more control of how strong that flavour is. A place that is well known for these noodles is the Nagano region of Japan. You can try them while on a ski holiday at one of the famous ski fields or participate in a cooking class to make your own from scratch.
For those who like ramen, I think that the appeal is mostly the noodles and the soup. Sometimes a particular ramen dish might be known for the toppings such as pork, black fungus or egg, however, there is just not enough! You might already be aware that the ramen you eat in Japan originates from China. There is another noodle dish found in the southern city of Nagasaki that is also of Chinese origin and in my opinion far superior. It is called Champon and is a soup noodle dish with a variety of colourful ingredients on top including vegetables, seafood and pork. When in Nagasaki also try the castella (sponge cake introduced by the Portuguese) and kakuni (sliced soft stewed pork served in a bun)! I could spend the whole day eating in this port city.
For those who have visited Japan in the summer months, you will know it can be quite hot and humid. While it can still be a good time to visit if you are interested in summer festivals and fireworks, the last thing you feel like doing is digging into a steaming hot bowl of ramen. Luckily Japan has the answer to your noodle cravings, nagashi somen. This fun slightly tricky to eat dish is a summertime Japan speciality. The noodles flow through running water, diners catch the noodles and dip into sauce to eat. There are many places you can try this in Japan. I would recommend the lesser-known spot of Takachiho in Kyushu. You can visit the spiritual heart of the Shinto religion, view the spectacular Takachiho gorge and sample delicious noodles.
But what about the instant varieties I hear you say. Yes, they are convenient and when you purchase a pack at one of the ubiquitous Konbini (convenience stores) found across Japan they even have hot water so you can cook them on the spot. However, where to sit, where to put your rubbish? Have you tried walking in a crowded place while eating instant ramen? While at one of the many Japanese festivals (you should definitely visit at least once if you get the chance) the noodle dish I recommend is yakisoba. This stir-fried savoury noodle dish is cooked in huge batches and often comes with an egg and seaweed flakes. With no hot soup base to spill in a crowd, this is very much the friendlier portable noodle dish.
I know there are many people out there willing to line up for extended periods of time in order to get a seat at the most popular ramen places, I am just not one of them. I am always way too hungry to wait in line for more than a few minutes and certainly wouldn’t wait for ramen. Once again, I have an alternative to suggest. Udon noodles are delicious and there are lots of chains throughout Japan offering a self-serve style where you choose your noodles then pick from a variety of toppings and side dishes. You can decide whether your noodles are in soup, without soup or even in curry at some places. These restaurants offer quick service, the food is very tasty and there is rarely a huge wait to get fed.
Have I convinced you that ramen is not as fantastic as everyone says? If not, I still wish you the best in your gastronomic travels in Japan. Please enjoy your ramen adventures, maybe even join a ramen cooking class so you can recreate the dish at home. I won’t be seeing you there of course, but if you still have room for more food I would highly recommend sampling some of the other delicious and varied noodle dishes of Japan.
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