At first glance, tsukemen looks like deconstructed ramen. The noodles are served separately from the broth. You simply dip the noodles into the broth - "tsukemen" literally means "dipping noodles".
While not as well known outside of Japan, tsukemen is a massively popular offshoot of ramen. Tsukemen boasts legions of die-hard Japanese fans.
But how did this unique dish come about? What's the story behind tsukemen?
The Birth of Tsukemen
It all started in the 1950s. Ramen pioneer Kazuo Yamagishi wanted to create a hybrid food that used ramen noodles but separated the noodles from the broth, like in soba. He also wanted to create a broth that tasted both sweet and sour, similar to hiyashi chuka (cold ramen served in the summer).
After much experimentation in the kitchen, in 1955 Yamagishi-san first served tsukemen to customers at a earlier outpost of Taishoken. In short, the customers loved it. Many appreciated the greater portion of noodles (vs ramen) and the somewhat familiar (hiyashi chuka) yet also meatier (ramen) taste.
We have Yamagishi-san to thank for this remarkable dish (rest in peace, Yamagishi-san). You can visit Higashi-Ikebukuro Taishoken in the Ikebukuro neighborhood of Tokyo. While it's not the original 1950s location, you'll still feel like you're stepping back in time.
The First Tsukemen Boom
It actually wasn't until the 1970s that this dish was referred to as "tsukemen". This coincided with the first tsukemen boom.
During the boom, more and more Japanese started to enjoy this wildly different type of ramen. Food manufacturer House Foods also started to sell tsukemen in stores and this helped it reach households across the country.
The Second Tsukemen Boom
The second tsukemen boom began in the early 2000s. The number of restaurants serving tsukemen exploded across the Kanto region (around Tokyo).
But in the 2000s, tsukemen started to change. Restaurants like "Fuunji" and "Rokurinsha" invented a stronger tasting fish and chicken or pork broth. This broth was thicker and much more potent what the broth at Taishoken.
Thicker and flatter noodles also gained popularity. This "second boom" style of tsukemen is most common today - rich broth and thicker, flat noodles.
Beyond the tsukemen booms of the 1970s and 2000s, shops these days are open to trying new things. This is everything from chicken halal tsukemen to Italian tsukemen. Just like with ramen, tsukemen will continue to evolve.
If you're a big fan of chewy noodles, tsukemen is an excellent choice, since the noodles are usually served cold ("hiyamori"). This and the fact that noodles are not sitting in hot broth makes them extra chewy.
While ramen may be king of Japan's noodle world, tsukemen is likely the prince.