What Is Ramen?

A Guide to Cooking and Topping Ramen Noodle Soup


The Spruce Eats / Maxwell Cozzi

Ramen is a Japanese noodle soup dish that's widely popular in Japan and throughout the world. Though there are thousands of variations, the dish consists of a broth base, long thin noodles made from wheat, and an assortment of toppings.

Fast Facts

  • Category: Soup pasta
  • Cook Time: 2 to 4 minutes
  • Main Ingredient: Wheat flour
  • Meaning: From the Chinese word lamien, meaning "pulled noodles"
  • Variants: Fresh, instant
  • Substitutes: Somen noodles, rice noodles, vermicelli

What Is Ramen?

Ramen is believed to have originated in China, and it's unclear precisely when it was introduced to Japan. But ramen is a mainstay of Japanese cuisine, and throughout Asia. Though it's commonly associated in the U.S. with packaged, dried noodles, the way to truly understand ramen is to think of it as a soup dish that contains noodles, not merely the noodles themselves. 

There are four basic categories of ramen, and each one is distinguished by the type of broth the soup is made from. Shoyu ramen, the most common, is made from a chicken broth base flavored with soy sauce. Shio ramen features a thinner chicken broth seasoned with salt. Miso ramen is thicker and heartier, with a rich, brown broth flavored with miso, or fermented soybean paste. And tonkotsu ramen is made from simmered pork bones, resulting in a thick, creamy, fatty broth.

The next element in any ramen dish ramen are the noodles, and these can range from thin and curly to thick and straight. Thicker noodles are usually paired with heavier broth, but many ramen restaurants will offer diners their choice of noodle style to accompany their selected soup base. What all ramen noodles have in common is that they're made from wheat flour, salt, water, and an alkaline mineral known as kansui. This ingredient gives the noodles their characteristic chewiness and elasticity, as well as producing their earthy, yellow color. Ramen noodles are sometimes mistakenly thought to contain egg due to this yellow hue, but they don't.

The final element of a ramen dish is the toppings, and these vary widely, both by region and from restaurant to restaurant. Some of the most common ramen toppings include thin slices of braised or roasted pork called chashu; eggs prepared in various ways, including hard and soft boiled, poached, and even raw; along with chopped scallions, sliced bamboo, dried seaweed, steamed fish cake, canned corn, and pats of butter. The dish is traditionally eaten with chopsticks along with a Chinese-style soup spoon for the broth.

Ramen vs. Udon Noodles

Ramen noodles are similar to udon noodles, another wheat-based Japanese noodle with a chewy, springy texture. The most noticeable difference between the two is that ramen noodles are thinner, with the standard width around 1.5 millimeters, as compared with 3 to 4.5 millimeters for udon. Next, because udon noodles don't contain kansui, they're white as opposed to yellow. Also, ramen is typically served with a richer, heartier broth, whereas udon usually comes in a lighter, simpler broth based on dried kombu or bonito. Finally, while ramen noodles can be straight or curly, udon noodles are always straight.

How to Cook Ramen

There are numerous ways you can go about preparing ramen at home. You can purchase fresh ramen noodles from a Japanese or Asian grocery store, then prepare the broth yourself. You can use one of the myriad instant ramen products that are available, some of which come with their own container, so you don't even need a bowl—simply add hot water. And, for the truly ambitious, you can make your own fresh ramen noodles.

If you're cooking with fresh ramen, you'd typically simmer the noodles for 1 to 2 minutes before draining and adding them to your hot broth. To prepare instant ramen, simply follow the package instructions, though it's simple enough to cook up a quick homemade shoyu broth for your instant noodles, which is a pretty easy, but significant, upgrade from the seasoning packet. You can even make ramen vegan or vegetarian, too.


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Spicy Korean ramen

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Ramen with peanut sauce

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The most common variant of ramen, which is actually far more popular than the authentic kind, is packaged instant ramen. This product is universally beloved, from the dining room to dorm room, and though it might not exactly reproduce the experience of enjoying fresh ramen noodles in a slow-simmered bone broth, they are, in many ways, a culinary staple in their own right.

Typically, these noodles are boiled for 2 to 3 minutes, and then a seasoning packet is added to the hot water to produce the broth. But imaginative cooks have devised endless creative uses for instant ramen, from ramen stir-frys to ramen sandwiches, ramen salads, ramen waffles, ramen chile rellenos, even ramen desserts. 


Dried ramen noodles are widely available and easy to find at practically any grocery store, and at Asian markets, you'll find an overwhelming variety of them, along with various kinds of fresh ones. But if you can't find any, or you simply want to use something else, your best bet would be to try somen noodles, another thin, Japanese noodle made from wheat. Rice noodles have a different consistency altogether, but you could try those. Ordinary Italian vermicelli, or angel hair pasta, which is a bit thinner, would also be interesting choices.

Ramen Recipes

Here are a few recipes that feature ramen noodles.