Voted as the best Japanese invention of the 20th century in a Japan-wide poll, there’s no doubting the impact that instant noodles continues to have on the world today since its invention in 1958. Much like actual ramen, instant ramen noodles in Japan come in a countless variety of styles, and here are my top 12.
First, I’ve handpicked three premium instant ramen selections from each of the “Big 4” ramen styles:
Then, I've selected those only available in Japan - so be sure to go ramen hunting on next visit! From Kyoto pork back fat soy sauce ramen to Sapporo miso ramen with butter, these instant ramen are the cream of the crop.
Shoyu ramen was technically the first ever ramen, served at Tokyo ramen shop Rairaiken in 1910. Being soy-sauce based, it generally carries a tangy flavor. But from classic to modern, there are endless varieties of shoyu ramen across the country.
Hachioji is a city way out in Western Tokyo (over 40 km from the city center). Their shoyu ramen prominently features two things - a good amount of lard, and diced raw onions.
This instant ramen does the Hachioji style justice. Two sheets of seaweed, two sheets of paper thin pork chashu, and menma bamboo shoots are among the toppings. But what stands out most are the crunchy onions you’ll find floating in the broth. A lardy but also sweetly delicious instant ramen!
Brand: New Touch
Pork back fat (“seabura” in Japanese) is the star of the show in this shoyu ramen from Kyoto.
While the actual ramen in Kyoto is much fattier, this instant ramen makes sure there’s a proper helping of seabura.
This seabura sweetens the broth and creates a slightly gloopy consistency. Another big highlight of this ramen is the generous amount of Kyoto kujo negi (spring onions). Kujo negi is among the best negi in the country!
This Wakayama shoyu ramen is the heaviest of the three. This broth in this style is known for its longer cook time (boiling pork bones, or tonkotsu). This results in a richer, porky broth.
It’s thicker and certainly stronger in flavor. But the heaviness is totally worth it. Just like in Wakayama’s actual ramen, a decorative naruto (fish cake) adorns the top of this instant ramen. Lastly, the medium-thick noodles have a wonderful bite to them.
Shio means salt and if we go back to the roots of ramen, shio ramen leans closer to the Chinese noodle soups that first arrived to Japanese shores. Flavor-wise, a shio seasoning is light and bright. This allows all the ingredients in any shio ramen broth to really shine.
Brand: New Touch
The city most famous for its shio ramen is Hakodate, Hokkaido. Being next to the ocean, Hakodate locals love their seafood. With this instant ramen, they made sure to incorporate a fish flavor, alongside a pork back fat richness (less than in the Kyoto one).
All in all, it’s a refreshingly tasty ramen with a certain depth. The topping that stands out most is the “fu” - or wheat gluten. It’s fantastic that they included this - you often see this as a topping in Hakodate!
This instant ramen goes in the opposite direction. The shio seasoning instead holds up a rich tonkotsu / pork bone broth. Furthermore, this instant ramen is a product of uber famous Hokkaido ramen chain Santouka.
While it's definitely a richer broth, there’s a gentleness to it as well. The narutomaki fish cake is a nice touch but the topping that’s most intriguing is the purple ume plum. This is just like how the ramen looks at Santouka.
Rounding off our shio ramen list is one from well-regarded ramen restaurant Sugimoto. Sugimoto has won multiple awards for their chicken and seafood based shoyu and shio ramen. The shio broth here has a golden flavor and while salty, isn’t overpoweringly so. The only drawback with this one are the flash-fried noodles. They aren’t bad but the noodles aren’t as high-quality as the other entries on this list (this is the trend with the instant ramen shaped like cups).
Tonkotsu ramen got its start in the late 1930s in Kyushu. Perhaps the most popular style outside of Japan, it’s famed for its milky and murky pork bone broth. The pork bones are boiled on high heat for long periods of time - sometimes even 72 hours!
With ramen outposts from London to Singapore, Ippudo has arguably become the most well-known ramen brand in the world. As you’d expect from such a brand, their instant ramen is top-notch.
Similar to Santouka’s ramen (minus the shio seasoning), their pork bone ramen is a milder tonkotsu. But it’s still bursting at the seams with flavor. In addition, it comes with spicy miso paste and burnt garlic oil (maayu). These two special condiments only add to the wonderful broth!
In 1974, a ramen shop called Yoshimuraya created “Ie-kei”, or house style ramen. It has nothing to do with a house or something you’d make at home. It’s a tonkotsu ramen blended with shoyu (soy sauce). This is a supremely heavy ramen style, with mountains of pork bones creating richness and harmonizing with a saltiness from shoyu.
This instant ramen from Nissin is actually an official collab with Yoshimuraya. Just like at their ramen shop, the dense broth is no joke. The three sheets of seaweed and spinach are nice touches and are in sync with this style of ramen.
To change things up, this one is a pork bone ramen...but without using pork bones! Instead, the broth consists of chicken and beef bones. While not specifically marketed as halal instant ramen, this is as close to it as you’ll likely get to it. It remarkably does have a rich pork bone-like flavor. In addition, the minced meat toppings are made from soybeans. It’s very interesting that they went in this direction - it’s like a hybrid halal / vegan ramen without fully committing! Lastly, bear in mind that this isn’t a premium ramen - this means that noodles that are just ok. But the soup is great!
Miso (fermented soybeans) ramen got its start in the 1950s and the most famous variation is from Sapporo, Hokkaido. Normally featuring a layer of pork lard and sometimes even corn and butter toppings, this ramen was the perfect soul food to combat harsher Sapporo winters.
Brand: New Touch
This Sapporo city branded instant miso ramen has a nostalgic flavor. It tastes like something you’d find at a miso ramen shop that hasn’t changed their recipe in years. This is a good thing. Salty and savory, it ticks all the boxes.
The most impressive ingredient is the fresher moyashi (bean sprouts) that come with it - these aren’t your typical dried type vegetable. They come in a separate packet and provide a welcome freshness and crunch to the bowl. Thick noodles help you mop up the thick broth.
Brand: New Touch
Butter and corn are the centerpieces in this instant miso ramen, also brought to you by New Touch. While corn was in the previous ramen, butter was not! Butter, like lard, helps preserve the temperature of the broth below. Another reason that butter is popular in Sapporo is that the area is known for dairy production.
The butter in this instant ramen adds an extra milkiness to the overall taste. It also has pieces of potato floating about. The only minus point is that the noodles aren’t as nice (flash-fried).
Dramatically closing out the list (as instant ramen no. 12) is Sumire. Sumire might just be the most famous Sapporo miso ramen restaurant. Just like at their actual restaurant, their miso ramen is perfectly pork lardy and includes excellently seasoned minced pork. This makes for a meaty, hearty broth!
However, there’s still a delicate nature to their miso ramen. This is also apparent in this instant version. Medium-thick, curly noodles pull in the beautiful broth like a miso magnet. Like other Nissin ramen on this list, it’s only available at 7-Eleven, as part of their premium lineup!
Frank is a Filipino American born in Tokyo and raised on ramen. He appropriately consumes over 300 bowls of ramen a year, and runs ramen tours which you can see at his blog, 5 Am Ramen. When he's not eating Asian food, he enjoys reading, exercising, and travel. He also is a huge Lord of the Rings fan. Connect with him online @5amramen