Instant Noodles in Japan - All of the Most Popular Brands You Should Know
A staple of college dorm rooms and convenience store shelves around the world, instant noodles are a near-universally recognized sight. Though often seen as little more than a cheap and simple meal in the western world, instant noodles are serious business in Japan, often encompassing entire aisles in supermarkets. If you're ready to up your instant noodle game from late-night snack to proper culinary experience, read on to learn about the most popular noodle brands, plus 6 cup noodle versions of famous (and Michelin-starred) ramen shop ramen!
Jun 10 2020 (Sep 09 2020)
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A Brief History of Instant Noodles
For many of us, instant noodles are something that have seemingly always existed. As far back as I can remember, there were always a few packs of Maruchan chicken-flavored ramen tucked away in my family's pantry. In reality, however, instant noodles were first created as recently as 1958 by inventor and founder of the Nissin food company, Momofuku Ando.
As is the case with many great inventions, instant noodles were born out of a necessity of the time. Japan, still suffering from food shortages following World War II, relied heavily on bread made from American-supplied wheat flour. Though noodles were far more popular with the general populace of Japan, there were no companies large enough or with adequate infrastructure at the time to meet the demand. Recognizing a growing need in the market, Momofuku Ando spent months perfecting a flash-frying cooking method that allowed noodles to be stored longer and prepared at a later time. In doing so, Japan was introduced to instant noodles for the first time under the name Chikin Ramen.
As Nissin grew and the price of instant noodles became more and more affordable, it quickly gained a reputation as a staple item in Japanese households. In time, it began spreading to other parts of the world as well, now selling nearly 100 billion servings globally each year. It has become so popular in fact, that Japan has not one, but two cup noodle museums where visitors can learn about its history and design their own custom instant noodles to take home.
Japan's Most Popular Instant Noodles
By now, all of this talk of noodles has probably left you feeling hungry. If you're ready to dive into some of Japan's finest instant noodle offerings but are overwhelmed by the sheer variety of choices, don't worry, we've got you covered. Here are some of Japan's most popular instant noodles. Most of these can be purchased at a typical Japanese grocery store, although a few may be trickier to get in certain regions.
As the company that started it all, Nissin is the undisputed king of instant noodles. While their Cup Noodle brand is the most recognizable, it’s far from all they have to offer. Let’s take a closer look at some of their most beloved products.
The white styrofoam packaging of Cup Noodle has become an unmistakable icon of grocery store shelves. After more than 50 years in the business, countless flavors have been added to its impressive line-up. Standing above the rest however, Cup Noodle Classic, Seafood, and Curry are generally considered to be the big three, and a great starting point for anyone new to the world of instant noodles.
Mentioned above as the original instant noodles, Chikin Ramen (nowadays spelled "Chicken Ramen" in English) remains popular to this day. The noodles have a simple and satisfying flavor that is comforting to many Japanese people. If you've never tried Chicken Ramen before, definitely add it to your list of must-eat instant noodles.
A slightly heartier offering from Nissin, the Donbei line has several different varieties, the most popular being their kitsune udon and tempura soba. The kitsune variety contains chewy udon noodles and a fluffy piece of fried tofu skin known as aburaage. The tempura soba version features firm buckwheat noodles for a richer taste, and crispy fried tempura for a bit of crunch.
While it can be prepared with just boiling water like other instant noodle brands, rumor has it that Donbei noodles are even better when microwaved, as the noodles gain an extra chewiness that is almost like eating freshly-made noodles. Also, depending on where you are in Japan, you'll find that the broth varies in strength and flavor based on regional preferences. If you're traveling throughout the country, why not take the opportunity to taste-test the different varieties for yourself?
The name "Raoh" is short for "Ramen Oh," which means "Ramen King" in Japanese. As the name suggests, Nissin's Raoh line is a "fancier" instant ramen that comes in many different flavors such as the tasty Tonkotsu Soy Sauce flavor shown in the photo. Unlike standard instant noodles, which are deep-fried, Raoh features non-fried noodles that incorporate whole wheat for an excellent texture that comes closer to fresh ramen noodles. The Raoh line is slightly more expensive than other Nissin noodle products but is well worth the try.
If you're not in the mood for soup but still want that instant gratification, Nissin has you covered. Their U.F.O. brand features the classic Japanese festival treat, yakisoba. The name was supposedly devised by Nissin founder Momofuku Ando, and is actually an acronym which stands for "Umai" (delicious) sauce, "Futoi" (fat) noodles, and "Okii" (big) cabbage. That's exactly what you'll find inside this round UFO-shaped bowl; chewy noodles and cabbage stir-fried in a sweet and salty sauce that makes for the perfect quick and easy meal. The U.F.O yakisoba noodles, in particular, stand out for their wonderfully chewy texture that rivals fresh noodles.
While not quite as large as Nissin, Maruchan is another brand that has become a household name throughout the world. Started in 1953, they began selling their instant ramen products in 1977 and now sell over 3.6 billion packages of instant noodles each year.
Coming in a much larger bowl than the familiar Cup Noodle styrofoam cups, Maruchan Seimen soups are able to pack in an abundance of toppings such as veggies, shrimp, or thick pork slices. These instant noodles are renowned for their texture as well and are said to be pretty close to fresh noodles. Those searching for a higher-quality instant ramen experience can't go wrong with Seimen.
・Mukashinagara no Chuka Soba
The name "Mukashinagara no Chuka Soba" means, essentially, "old-fashioned ramen" which is exactly what this popular instant noodle product tries to recreate. The flavorful chicken and soy sauce broth faithfully reproduces the classic ramen flavor that older generations grew up eating, and the non-fried noodles use 100% Hokkaido wheat. This instant ramen is a great choice for anyone feeling a bit nostalgic and craving a taste of the past.
・Red Kitsune Udon and Green Tanuki Ten-Soba
Maruchan's instant soba and instant udon are quite similar to Nissin's above-mentioned Donbei series and are a direct competitor. Just like some people prefer Coke to Pepsi and vice-versa, the same can be said of various brands of instant noodles. If you're curious, why not try out both brands and see which you prefer?
Arriving on the scene in 1966, Sapporo Ichiban could be considered a "late-comer" in comparison with Nissin and Maruchan, but their instant noodle line has grown to be on near-equal footing with these noodle giants. Their products have become so well known in the western world that they also have a manufacturing plant in California for servicing the North American market.
To create Sapporo Ichiban's miso flavor, the company's founder traveled to where it first began; Ramen Alley in Sapporo, Hokkaido. After falling in love with the local flavor, he spent three years perfecting the recipe by blending seven different types of miso together to perfectly recreate the taste. It has been said that miso ramen's popularity throughout Japan is due largely to Sapporo Ichiban's instant noodle version.
Sapporo Ichiban's Shoyu Flavor features a soy sauce and chicken broth soup flavored with mixed vegetables, ginger, and garlic. The noodles themselves are also kneaded with soy sauce during production for an even more savory experience.
"Shio" means "salt" in Japanese, and is a fairly popular ramen flavor which typically complements a lighter, clear broth. Sapporo's Shio Ramen rivals the miso flavor in popularity and some people even use it to make other dishes such as carbonara.
Peyoung is well known throughout Japan for instant yakisoba. In addition to the classic sweet and salty style shown below, they also offer various unique flavors such as curry, cilantro, and pork fat yakisoba.
Perhaps more so than their taste, Peyoung yakisoba is most notable for their novelty yakisoba items such as their line of super spicy yakisoba which contain warnings on the label urging children and those without spice tolerance to stay away, or their "Super Super Super Big GIGAMAX" yakisoba, which contains an almost unfathomable 2142 calories and 120 grams of fat. If you're considering training to become a sumo wrestler, keep this one on your list.
Myojo is another major player in the instant noodle game, having a 70-year history since the company started as a manufacturer of dried noodles after the war. The company now has a wide range of instant noodle products under several different brand names ranging from standard instant ramen, to yakisoba, to low-carb instant noodles.
Charumera is Myojo's classic and oldest line of ramen products, going back to 1966. The recipe, which has hardly changed since its inception, features a broth made from scallops and a "secret spice" that gives it a signature flavor. The brand now has many different flavors including classic soy sauce, rich tonkotsu (pork bone), and even "Chanpon," a local specialty from Nagasaki).
In addition to its ramen brands, Myojo has one of the more popular instant yakisoba brands with its Ippeichan line. The brand is particularly known for its packets of mustard-infused mayo that come inside the box of instant noodles and add a delicious layer of richness. The brand's noodles are called "Yomise no Yakisoba" (night stall yakisoba) and re-create the flavors of real fresh yakisoba made at a summertime festival. All three of the flavors—standard, salt, and mentaiko (spicy cod roe)—are definitely worth trying and are a favorite of many.
A bit different than the other entries on this list, Sugakiya instant noodles are based on a ramen shop chain of the same name from the city of Nagoya. Although not as easy to find outside of the Nagoya area, Sugakiya's instant noodles are quite famous. Nagoya is known for its richly-flavored local cuisine, and Sugakiya is no different. In addition to their original variety, they also feature iconic regional flavors such as Toyama Black Ramen with a black peppery soy sauce-based soup, or Odawara-kei Tantanmen which uses a sweet and salty garlic broth. For a taste of Nagoya, give these instant noodles a try!
Acecook is an Osaka-based company that is steadily expanding to other parts of the world. Though not as well known in the west as Nissin or Maruchan, they have become a huge hit in Vietnam, where they currently account for 50% of the entire instant noodle market. Osaka isn't known as a ramen hub, but this exciting instant noodle brand is definitely worth a try.
In Japan, Acecook is known for its various collaboration items such as Hello Kitty ramen or Coco Ichibanya Curry noodles, as well as its slightly whacky ramen products such as its noodle-less ramen that instead is filled with wakame seaweed. The company always seems to be coming up with something new and fun, so it is definitely worth seeking out if you're in the Kansai region.
Another popular Acecook product is its Mochichi line. When it comes to Japanese cuisine, the texture is just as important as the taste. This is especially true for noodles. True ramen aficionados obsess over the thickness and chewiness of each bite. Acecook's Mochichi line, which features both ramen and yakisoba, claims to have perfected the process for creating the perfectly chewy instant noodle. Give it a try for yourself and see if you agree.
Instant Noodles From Famous Ramen Noodle Shops
There are countless ramen shops across Japan, but a select few stand out among the rest. While visiting each one of these shops would be an excellent idea for a food pilgrimage, it's certainly not a feasible option for everyone. Thankfully, each of the famous ramen restaurants listed below features an instant noodle version of their most popular dishes that you can enjoy from anywhere.
Ippudo got its start in Fukuoka in 1985 and quickly achieved notoriety for its tonkotsu ramen, which is made with a pork bone broth. As far as ramen restaurant chains go, Ippudo is still considered to be the standard for tonkotsu ramen to this day. After spreading throughout Japan, they opened their first overseas restaurant in New York City in 2008. Today, they have locations in 15 countries around the world. After partnering with Nissin, their famous tonkotsu ramen can be found in instant form in 7-11 stores throughout Japan. At around 350 yen per bowl, it's a tasty, inexpensive souvenir for friends back home as well!
Another tonkotsu ramen shop hailing from Fukuoka, Ichiran opened their first location in 1960. For the next 30 years, this would remain Ichiran's only location before the shop finally decided to expand throughout the country. What sets Ichiran apart from other tonkotsu chains is the dollop of their signature spicy red sauce that is dotted in the center of the bowl to add a complex kick to the tonkotsu's familiar flavor.
At 2,000 yen for a five pack, their instant noodle offering is understandably a premium experience, but well worth it for the creamy pork broth and signature spicy sauce. While not available at most convenience stores, these instant noodle kits can be found at any Ichiran restaurant, or at the very popular discount store, Don Quijote.
While the aforementioned ramen chains are known for their heavy, rich flavors, AFURI approaches ramen from the other end of the spectrum. Using only fresh, natural ingredients, AFURI focuses on a lighter, more refreshing taste. In particular, several of their broths can be ordered with the addition of yuzu; a bright, zesty citrus fruit that is native to Japan. The chain takes its name from Mount Afuri in Kanagawa. According to AFURI's website, all of their broths are made from water sourced at the base of this mountain.
With only 15 locations throughout Japan, they're not as easy to come by as some of the other chains on this list. Thankfully, the instant version of their signature Yuzu Shio Ramen can be found at many 7-11 locations.
Mouko Tanmen Nakamoto
Spicy food fanatics need look no further than Mouko Tanmen Nakamoto. This Chinese-style ramen chain has built a reputation on serving up some of the spiciest ramen in Tokyo. If, like me, you'd prefer to sweat and cry over this painfully delicious meal in private, you can pick up their extra spicy miso ramen at 7-Eleven stores throughout Japan. It's packed with extra thick noodles, vegetables, tofu, and of course, plenty of spice.
While ramen typically has a reputation for being a cheap and simple meal, that's not always the case. Tsuta in Tokyo is proof that when ramen is the canvas, the right artist can turn it into a masterpiece. At this Michelin star-rated Tokyo restaurant, visitors can enjoy handmade soba noodles flavored with carefully sourced Mongolian salts and garnished with black truffle and red wine sauce.
Given its world-renowned quality and limited seating, getting in is easier said than done. Thankfully, you can skip the lines and head to your nearest 7-Eleven for a Michelin star meal you can enjoy in your underwear. While it's hard to match the experience of eating in the actual restaurant, the Tsuta instant noodle version does an excellent job of capturing their signature, world-famous flavors.
If one Michelin star ranked instant ramen isn't enough for you, don't worry, there is another. At Nakiryu, tantanmen; the Japanese variation of dandan noodles, takes center stage. Their complex broth is seasoned with chili oils and Szechuan peppers for an unforgettable bite. If a trip to their Tokyo restaurant isn't possible, head to 7-Eleven to pick up an instant version that is still quite impressive.
Before coming to Japan, I had no idea how vast and varied the world of instant noodles could be. With so many flavors to choose from, you will seemingly never run out of options. Using this guide as a starting point, you will be well on your way to discovering your new instant noodle favorites during your next trip to Japan.
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.