When it comes to Japanese cuisine, ramen is undoubtedly one of Japan’s most iconic dishes. From huge varieties of instant ramen to dedicated shops, these noodles are a classic staple. However, despite its traditional Japanese image, ramen originated in China, and is believed to have reached Japan sometime in the late 1800s.
The original dish was just a simple combination of wheat noodles with pork-flavored broth. Once this basic recipe began to spread across the country, regional ramen varieties were quick to develop according to local tastes and cooking methods.
In fact, Japan has more than 30 distinct regional ramen varieties today. Each version combines one or more of the classic soup bases—shoyu (soy sauce), shio (salt), miso (soybean paste), and tonkotsu (pork bone). Local ingredients and a particular shape and texture of noodles also help to create a unique bowl of ramen. In general, regional ramen can be divided into three broad geographic areas: the Kyushu Islands in the south, Hokkaido in the north, and the central island of Honshu.
Kyushu: the home of tonkotsu ramen
In Kyushu, the three main types of regional ramen are Hakata Ramen, Kurume Ramen, and Kagoshima Ramen. Hakata Ramen comes from the Hakata district of Fukuoka, and is a classic take on the tonkotsu ramen that can be found all around Japan. This tonkotsu soup is made by boiling pork bones at a high temperature to create a rich, milky soup that is then mixed with seafood broth.
The aromatic tonkotsu soup that results is really the main attraction here.
Hakata Ramen is typically topped with basic ingredients such as roasted garlic and pickled ginger. Because the thin noodles soften up quickly in the soup, Hakata Ramen shops have created a system called ‘kaedama’. Smaller portions of noodles are served initially, and then refills can be ordered for free throughout the meal. This ensures the texture of the noodles always remains hard and springy.
Before Hakata ramen, tonkotsu ramen was already a hit in the area around Kurume City in Kyushu. Kurume Ramen is widely regarded as the original tonkotsu ramen. It’s said to have originated when pork bones were mistakenly overcooked, dissolving the bones completely. Compared with Hakata Ramen, Kurume Ramen is much richer and heavier, with a stronger pork flavor.
Kyushu also has another, lighter regional ramen to offer: Kagoshima Ramen. Blending pork, chicken, dried fish and shiitake mushrooms, it has a clear, more mild broth. Unlike most tonkotsu soup based ramen varieties, Kagoshima Ramen is clean and light in flavor. For those offput by Kyushu’s other, more intense tonkotsu offerings, Kagoshima ramen is the way to go.
Honshu: a taste of traditional Japanese shoyu
Moving further up Japan, we come to Honshu, where various types of shoyu ramen reign supreme. One of the most famous of these regional varieties is Wakayama Ramen.
Soy sauce was created in Wakayama prefecture and remains a backbone of local industry to this day, making shoyu the obvious base for this regional recipe. This bowl of ramen uses a distinctive tonkotsu-shoyu broth and is served with thin, straight noodles and a side of hayazushi—a small sushi dish that is an integral part of the Wakayama Ramen experience.
Kitakata Ramen, on the other hand, is all about the noodles. This regional ramen is made unique by its flat, wavy noodles. Typically, Kitakata Ramen is made using a classic shoyu broth and topped with simple ingredients such as chashu pork, bamboo shoots, green onions, and fish cake, allowing the ramen noodles to take center stage.
Finally, Honshu is also the home of the famous Tokyo Ramen. With thick, wavy noodles and a shoyu soup base augmented with dashi fish stock, Tokyo Ramen is generally thought of as the quintessential version of traditional Japanese ramen. This ramen mainstay is usually paired with a classic assortment of toppings, including chashu pork, fish cake, and green onions.
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Hokkaido: A warm winter favorite with a Chinese influence
Japan’s chilly northernmost island, Hokkaido, is the birthplace of miso ramen and its popular variation, Sapporo Ramen. This ramen uses a miso soup flavored with ginger, garlic, and pork and is often paired with more unusual, especially local toppings like Hokkaido butter and sweet corn. A slice of pork belly and a mound of bean sprouts give the dish some protein and bite of freshness. As if that wasn't enough, Sapporo Ramen is topped with a layer of lard, keeping the temperature of the soup piping hot.
There’s also Hakodate Ramen, a popular shio- or salt-based ramen that closely follows its traditional Chinese roots. While salt-based ramen might sound intense, shio ramen is actually lighter in flavor and contains no more sodium than a typical shoyu. This ramen uses a combination of chicken, pork, and seafood products like kelp and bonito flakes in order to produce a light, savoury broth.
Last but not least, Asahikawa Ramen completes the trifecta of Hokkaido regional varieties with a shoyu based soup and a distinctively oily, fatty broth. As with Sapporo Ramen, Asahikawa Ramen comes topped with a thick layer of lard to keep the soup nice and hot.
Since its introduction into Japan, ramen has evolved to encompass a myriad of regional styles each with their own history, ingredients, and flavor profiles. Food is often a rich (and tasty!) avenue to discovering local culture—and nowhere is this truer than Japan, with ramen.
Which of these regional ramen varieties has you ready for your own ramen tour? Let us know in the comments!