When you order tsukemen (つけ麺), two bowls will show up in front of you: noodles and toppings in a large bowl, and rich hot soup in a smaller bowl. First time eaters might be confused, and I have heard stories of customers pouring the entire bowl of soup onto the noodles, but the two bowls are meant to be separated, and their powers combine when you pick up some noodles, dip them into the soup and slurp them up. This is Tsukemen, the dipping noodles.
Tsukemen has been around for about 60 years, with it originating from Tokyo. This style of ramen was invented and commercialized by the famous ramen master, Yamagishi Kazuo. This name and face often appear on many ramen shops opened by shop owners who studied under him, as well as outsourced products of cup noodles and noodle snacks using recipes from his shop, Taishouken, which now has many branches throughout Tokyo.
The origin of Tsukemen came when Yamagishi was still an apprentice in a ramen shop. They had staff meals included, which was left-over ramen soaked in a small soup bowl of ramen soup mixed with soy sauce. He was inspired when a customer saw it and mentioned “I’d like to try that next time”, so he experimented and improved the recipe until it was ready to be introduced as a product on the menu in 1955. He then opened his own shop 6 years later and since then had hundreds of students. Yamagishi passed away in April 2015.
Now that the history lesson is out of the way, let’s get back to the noodles. A boom for Tsukemen happened in late 1970s, but its form remains generally the same. Tsukemen uses medium-thick noodles for firmness. The rich soup is made from a combination of dried fish and pork, and tastes slightly sour and spicy. Toppings often include seaweed, soft-boiled egg and chashu. The chashu is fatty pork cut into blocks or slices. You eat the noodles by dipping and coating the noodles with the thick soup then slurping them from the soup bowl. The strong flavour from the soup spreads in your mouth as you chew up the firm noodles. Many people consider this as the Taishouken-style (大勝軒系) Tsukemen.
Another popular style of Tsukemen started in Saitama around the 2000s. It uses extremely thick noodles (極太麺) that take about 8 minutes to cook through. A huge amount of fish power goes into the soup, making it much denser in both flavour and texture. This is the Rich Seafood Pork-bone style (濃厚魚介豚骨系). The extreme thickness of the noodles makes the noodles even more chewy and firm, and since it has less surface area, it pairs well with the strong flavoured soup. Although there are other creative kinds out there, such as curry soup, tomato soup and spicy soup, the tsukemen market is dominated by the two kinds described above.
There are a few other interesting differences with tsukemen. Instead of the typical 100-170 grams of noodles, you get double the volume with 200-300 grams. This is to make up for the lack of soup and fill your stomach. During the meal, if the bowl of soup has turned cold and it is too thick to dip, the staffs can take your bowl of soup to reheat it up before you continue. After you are done with the noodles, at most shops you can ask for Soup-wari (スープ割り) which is a light chicken, pork or fish broth that dilutes the soup for drinking. Some shop also offers a tiny portion of rice if you’d prefer to finish the soup up that way.
These dipping noodles originated in Tokyo but have since travelled and rooted themselves all over Japan. The flavour is quite different from the typical ramen soup types, and the dipping is half of the fun. If you are in the mood of eating ramen with richer flavour and more chewiness, tsukemen is certainly an excellent option. Give it a try if you see one!