Monday, April 16, 2012

Kanto Noodles, Kansai Noodles

Kantō in the east and Kansai in the west are very different. Kantō has Tokyo, the capital and the largest city in the world. Kansai has Osaka, the second largest metropolis, and is the cultural birthplace of Japan. They have different dialects, different electrical systems1 and different culture. And different taste in food.

There is a north-south dividing line roughly around Nagoya, where you can supposedly see a definite shift in taste in food. Natto is popular in Kantō to the east but not so much in Kansai to the west. Eastern soy sauce is thicker and sweeter than the light, salty western one. Kansai-style okonmiyaki gives way to Kantō monja.

We've long heard that fast food and pre-made food manufacturers actually make different versions of their products for the two parts of the country. But how different are they? When Ritsuko last went to Tokyo, she bought Nissins instant Kitsune Udon and Tempura Soba in a Tokyo convenience store. We bought the same thing here in Osaka for comparison.

Soba and Udon
Nissin instant noodles. Top row is udon, bottom is soba. Tokyo style to the left, Osaka to the right. The graphic design is different, but I can't honestly say I see anything recognizably region-specific in those differences.

We've tried both the soba and the udon now, and the two versions really are quite different. The dried noodles seem to be the same in both cases. As far as we can tell, the aburaage in the Kitsune udon and the tempura pack in the Tempura soba are identical too.

But the soup base has nothing in common. The eastern soup comes in a wet soup bag for both the udon and the soba, and is thick, dark and sweet. The western soup is a dried powder and is much lighter, with a clear seafood tone from the underlying soup stock, something completely missing in the eastern Tokyo-style soup. It's no accident that it mirrors the difference in soy-sauce between Kantō and Kansai.

In the end I think I prefer the eastern style soup for soba, while the thin, light western style broth goes well with udon.

#1 Western Japan, with Osaka, has 100V and 60Hz while eastern and northern Japan, with Tokyo, has a 100V and 50Hz system. Why? Because the country allowed private companies to determine their own standards when Japan was first electrified, rather than imposing a single national standard.

Why did the two electrical companies choose different frequencies? Because they each bought power equipment from the cheapest supplier — an American company, with 50Hz equipment in one case, and a German company offering 60Hz equipment in the other.

So Japanese manufacturers and consumers have paid the extra cost of two separate electrical standards for over a century, just so two companies could save a trivial amount on their initial installations. Capitalism is no more optimally efficient than evolution2.

#2 Without getting too much into it the actors in both systems effectively use so-called "greedy" strategies, where you try to make the short-term optimal choice at every point. Depending on the problem space, this means that you are unlikely to ever come close to a global optimum. There is no guarantee that such a system is stable either; the "invisible hand" probably doesn't exist — any such complex system is inherently unstable — and a completely unfettered economic system is likely to crash and burn with alarming frequency.

Economic systems can get around this by regulation; by having a disinterested referee that adds friction to the system and sets ground rules that align short-term individual interest and the long-term societal one. Evolution — well, individuals, groups and species frequently die out because of short-term adaptations that are clearly disastrous in the long term. If life was made by a designer it would be by a designer in desperate need of a straight-jacket, heavy sedation and a monitored room in a secure facility for the very, very nervous.


  1. wow this is really interesting. I heard about a big difference between Kanto and Kansai before. I like that you tried the cup-noodles to compare both tastes^^

  2. As long as it gives me an excuse to eat instant noodles. ^_^

    Hmm, wonder if there's a regional difference in beer...

  3. It makes senes that you prefer the Eastern soba and the Western udon, as (buckwheat) soba comes from the East and goes well with the dark Kanto-style soup. While udon is from the West and matches well with the lighter Kansai-style soup. The extra seafood flavor of the Kansai broth is a result of kelp in addition to the bono flakes in both styles of soup.

  4. Addendum: Apparently Kanto broth also includes kelp but less of it. In addition, the Kansai broth uses larger portions of small dried sardines, and other dried fishes such as 'iriko'.

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  6. All soup stocks I've seen in Japan are made on konbu (kelp), dried fish or katsuobushi. The main difference probably is in the type (and amount) of soy sauce they use.

    I generally prefer the lighter soup for soba as well, though. This cup noodle was different.

  7. 50/60 Hz probably mattered little in the days of the need to just heat/light a filament. It is an interesting inconvenience which resulted in the electrical manufacturers having to cope with both geographies, which also may have had minor export advantages. At least the domestic line voltages are the same.

  8. Are you sure about the origins of the electrical systems? I'm just asking because today, the US have 60Hz and here in Germany it's 50Hz.

    Just an unimportant Detail, though.

  9. Daniel, I'm just mixing them up; I often do. You're right, the Kantō power company sourced their stuff from Germany and Kansai from the US.


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