Tsukemen (つけ麺) literally translates to dipping noodles. Since its introduction in the early 1960s, it has grown all across Japan into a nationally beloved noodle cuisine. However, those who are trying it for the very first time expecting a normal bowl of ramen might be baffled when the server brings your meal in two separate bowls: a hot broth in one, and a big serving of cold noodles in another. To enjoy tsukemen, you must pick the noodles up yourself, dip them into the soup and go in for the slurp.
So, let’s get to Know your Tsukemen.
The history of tsukemen traces back to the humble beginning of one man who eventually became a household name, Yamagishi Kazuo (山岸一雄). He was working as an apprentice in a ramen shop in Tokyo of Japan. At the shop, the covered staff meals were simply the left-over noodles. Staff would often mix in heated soy sauce and noodles into a small bowl for a quick meal before returning to work. When one customer saw the staff eating their catering one day and requested “I would like to try what you guys were eating on my next visit”, that inspired Yamagishi to experiment with possibilities.
After countless alterations, he eventually came to a version of dipping noodles that the shop agreed to sell on the menu in 1955. However, most people consider the birth of tsukemen to be in 1961, when Yamagishi opened his own ramen restaurant called Taishouken (大勝軒). His invention was introduced as “special morisoba”, right next to a more traditional ramen on the menu.
Taishouken is considered the genesis of tsukemen, and with hundreds of apprentices Yamagishi had before he passed in April 2015, many current tsukemen shop owners who are selling his style of dipping noodles nowadays actually studied under Yamagishi. It is not uncommon to find photos of Yamagishi somewhere in the shop to honour him for pioneering this noodle style. If you want a taste the original, Taishouken has several branches in Tokyo, including the original shop in Higashi-Ikebukuro as well as one in the domestic terminal of Haneda Airport for those travelling to and from Japan.
The Two Styles
Two main schools of tsukemen exist on the market, each with its own unique style so distinct that shops never offer both types.
The first style is commonly referred to as the taishouken-style (大勝軒系), appropriately named after Yamagishi’s famous shop that created the entire tsukemen boom. This style of noodles is also referred to as morisoba (もりそば), and it uses firm medium-thick noodles to match a delicious soup cooked from pork, chicken and dried fish. The flavor comes with a unique yet not-overpowering vinegar sourness that goes perfectly with chilled noodles. For toppings, sliced or cubed braised pork belly (chashu), soft-boiled egg, bamboo shoot, green onions, and seaweed are the standard.
Around the 2000s, another style of tsukemen took form in the Saitama Prefecture. This style focused on being impactful. The noodles employed were typically extremely thick (極太麺) with a boiling time that takes between 7 to 10 minutes, and the soup were denser than ever before in both flavour and texture. The consistency of the soup was made possible with a large amount of fish powder that mixes and thickens the tonkotsu pork-bone broth, and the rich-seafood-pork-bone-style (濃厚魚介豚骨系) was born. This new soup type worked extremely well with the extra thick noodles as it sticks well onto the surface of the noodles, ensuring every slurp the eater takes comes with a mouthful of intense flavours. It also opened tsukemen to more unconventional ramen inspirations such as shrimp dipping broth, chicken dipping broth, curry dipping broth, tomato dipping broth and more, all rich and dense in a way that resembles the rich-seafood-pork-bone-style over the traditional taishouken-style. The toppings remain largely the same, except the chasiu pork belly are often thicker and fattier slices.
How to Eat Tsukemen
When your order of tsukemen arrives at your table, you will be fronted by two bowls: a small bowl of rich and dense soup often topped with green onions, and a bigger bowl carrying what looks like a hill of thick and chilled noodles. Depending on the shop, the toppings might be with the noodles or already soaking in the soup. Compared to the typical 120-170 grams of noodles in standard ramen, tsukemen usually presents you with 200-300 grams of noodles, with some shops even offering 400-500 grams options at no extra cost. This supreme volume of noodles makes up for the lack of soup and ensures that eaters will walk out well-satisfied.
The proper way to enjoy this delicacy is to pick up your chopsticks, dig right into the noodles, pull up a healthy amount, dunk them into the soup, and quickly slurp them up! You can often see customers lowering their necks to bring themselves closer to the soup, but some eaters prefer to hold the bowl of hot soup in their left hand as they eat. Either way you prefer, the big bowl of noodles usually remains on the table.
It might also surprise first-timers that the tsukemen noodles are served chilled. This is to help the noodles maintain their form and to contrast with the hot soup that layers all around the noodles with each dip. However, if you would prefer the noodles hot, particularly if you are a slow eater (like me), most shops let you have that option if you ask for the noodles to be “atsumori” (あつもり) upon placing your order. Look forward to a future article explaining the practical reasons why shops offer and even hope you order atsumori.
As you finish up the final bits of the noodles, you might find yourself staring at the leftover soup that is just slightly too dense in texture and flavour to drink up, while thinking about how not to waste the deliciousness. This is when the “soup-wari” (スープ割り) comes in. Most shops offer a light and basic chicken, pork, or fish dashi broth that you can mix into your soup bowl, both diluting the soup and warming up the remaining amount to let you end your meal with a hearty and warming finish. The broth is either in thermo jugs placed on the counter or served upon request. Some shops also provide a little portion of fresh rice in the form of “oishimeshi” (追い飯), occasionally free but otherwise no more than 100 yen, so you can toss and mix it into the soup for extra satisfaction.
Tsukemen may have started as a spin-off from ramen in the early 60s, but it has since grown beyond Tokyo into a national phenomenon that has well-earned its own identity. More and more shops overseas have started to offer tsukemen as a menu option as well. In Japan, the style continues to evolve as more shop owners add their creative vision to innovate the dish, bringing you even more delicious options to dip your noodles into. If you have never tried tsukemen before, search out the nearest shop and give it a taste!
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