Explore Japan from inside a bowl with these Japanese soups.
Steam rises in delicate curls from the smooth lacquer bowl in my hands, the broth made milky white by deposits of fat and collagen — I lean forward, closing my eyes, the intensely savory aroma a promise of what’s to come — and slurp.
What? It’s only polite. I’m seated at a booth inside my favorite ramen restaurant brainstorming ideas for this column and coming up woefully short.
I love ramen.
You love ramen.
But it’s hardly the only Japanese soup out there; and in fact, it was 19th century Chinese tradesmen that brought it to Japan in the first place, which makes it an import.
I twiddle my chopsticks.
The restaurant’s owner wanders over.
She’s remarkably sprightly for 50, with not a wrinkle in sight — “It’s the collagen,” she tells me, “where there’s ramen, there aren’t wrinkles.” of I tell her of my predicament and she laughs, shrugging her shoulders and disappearing into the kitchen only to emerge minutes later with a weighty hardback held reverently to her chest.
“Japanese soups,” she tells me, nodding sagely.
My savior — and yours.
From ramen to udon and potage, too (#3, it’s you we’re dreaming of) there’s not a bowl on this list you can afford to miss.
It’s said this soup was dreamt up by the monks at the first Japanese Zen Buddhist temple, Kenchō-ji (建長寺, and it shows.
Everything about this nourishing, savory stew is pared-back and elegant; from the suspicion of salt to the merest whisper of sake — it’s culinary asceticism.
The Nikujaga demands you abandon any preconceived notions of “proper” cooking — your eyes, nose and mouth dictate how much of everything you’re putting in, tasting and correcting course as you go.
A splash of sake imparts delicate bitterness, a pinch of salt evens everything else out; it sure makes a welcome change from having to follow a recipe.
And when you’re done here, you’ll need to figure out the appetizers, too.
3. Corn Potage
Having usurped oatmeal to become our new favorite breakfast, this velvety, comforting soup is what entices us out of bed in the morning — the last portion, gloriously mushy from having spent the day in the fridge is enjoyed alongside the remainder of the cold sausage as lunch.
Dashi, meaning simply “stock”, is the artfully composed foundation of those clear broths and glorious consommés for which Japanese cuisine is famous.
There are as many sorts of Dashi as there are soups — but this one — clear, light konbu, or seaweed, of and musky, sharp katsuobushi, or bonito is the blueprint.
You can use it to accent just about anything; its meaty, umami flavor is an excellent magnifier.
It teases out the essence of all else.
A lovely, clear broth that gets better with time.
Pop it on the hob a day ahead and let it simmer until it sings.
From the outside, this ramen might seem intimidating — but don’t let the process put you off — getting there’s the best part (forgive our reliance on clichés, but this one’s true).
This is a weekend cook through and through: mustering up a bowl is no more than a matter of stirring your broth every so often.
And affecting a purposeful stride at your fishmonger’s.
Find a Japanese Dessert to accompany this treasure.
Nanami togarashi (Japanese hot peppers) provide a fiery contrast to the mellow, nutty flavor of the tempeh in this champion of Japanese noodle soups.
Toasted sesame oil brings with it an undercurrent of smoke-y spice, but it’s understated — noticeable only to the most discerning of palates.
Slop in the noodles and finish with a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkling of flaky salt.
This is the time-poor cook’s quick-fix — it’s instant gratification in a bowl — perfect for late nights and brisk mornings.
Cooking Chew Tip: If you’re into experimenting, try making your own miso! You can buy koji online, and other beans and grains used if you’ve got no soya beans on hand.
A sumptuous, fragrant soup as beautifully evocative as the gorgeous pot it’s been served in.
It’s a dastardly easy job; the light, delicate flavors fuse to become a delicious, hearty stew that’ll nourish you from the inside out.
A great alternative to ordering in a greasy pizza on the weekend — making your own equally as greasy ramen at home.
The best part of which is tailoring it to your own tastes, of course; we love the addition of a little daikon radish, peeled and sliced into matchsticks.
Noodles in soup: the perfect lunch wherever you are on the planet.
This dish is all about the preparation — so if the unrefined sesame oil seems like unnecessary expense, just remember the bigger picture.
Kitsune (meaning “fox) udon owes its name to the seasoned fried tofu that it sports atop its crown of noodles — tofu is said to be a fox’s favorite food.
This is the cutest of the Japanese broths by far.
These slippery yuzu-coated noodles are better cold than hot and flavored with fiery shichimi togarashi – Japanese “seven flavor chili pepper” with woody, sweet notes.
Short of sushi soup, which regrettably hasn’t been invented yet, this is definitely the most fun you can have inside a bowl.
The bottom line
At first glance, Japanese stews may seem innocent — clear broth, thick noodles — but peer beneath the surface and they come alive with a burst of umami-richness and spice.
You can add all a manner of ingredients to these soups; we’ll even pop a little Korean Gochujang in there if we’re after a little Asian fusion.
How do you take yours?
Expand your horizons: We have an even longer list of Asian Soup recipes here.
- Kenchinjiru: Japanese Vegan Soup
- Nikujaga: Beef And Potatoes In Broth
- Corn Potage
- Dashi, The Easiest Japanese Stock
- Ramen Udon Broth
- Ramen With A Taste Of The Ocean
- Japanese Broth With Soba Noodles And Tempeh
- Ginger Miso Soup
- Japanese Donabe Clay Pot Soup
- Tonkatsu Ramen At Home
- Japanese Tomato Noodle Soups
- Kitsune Udon Soup
- Refreshing Cold Noodle Soup
- Choose one or more options from our list of Japanese soups here!
- Create your new favorite dish.
- Pat yourself on the back for making food at home for you to enjoy!
- Share and comment! Did you make any tweaks, so it’s all your own?