It’s always amazing to us how closely linked food and culture are. The saying, “You are what you eat,” might be true enough in the nutritional sense (i.e. a healthy person eats foods that promote health), but it doesn’t quite go deep enough when we look at food from a cultural standpoint. We might not think about our daily eating habits, but everything we eat is a reflection of culture in one way or another. In many ways, our identities are tied directly to our diet.
That said, we live in a multicultural society, where foods cross borders and cultures every day. When we eat foods from cultures outside our own, our understanding and appreciation for that culture deepens. For this reason, we believe it’s important to understand where our food comes from.
Our instant soups, of course, have both traditional and modern ingredients, making them a perfect example of contemporary cuisine that simultaneously respects and reinterprets tradition.
Chief among those ingredients is the kanten new’dle. We recently discussed the health benefits of the kanten new’dle, and we thought it’d be fun to explore its history to give a little more context around this healthy and delicious element.
Agar, the chief ingredient in kanten new’dles, was discovered by accident more than 350 years ago when Mino Tarozaemon, an innkeeper in Kyoto, threw out some extra seaweed soup into a cold winter night. The next day he noticed that the soup had frozen, but then defrosted and transformed into a gel, which could then be boiled and used to make a variety of foods, including “jelly noodles.”
However, jelly noodles themselves are considered much older. Believed to have originated in China and introduced to Japan between 700 and 800 AD, jelly noodles were previously made from a different type of seaweed and were seen as delicacy reserved for aristocracy.
Over the centuries, kanten and agar take a variety of forms and have become a key ingredient in vegetarian and vegan dishes. A sea-vegetable made from 100 percent soluble fiber, kanten is an excellent gelatin replacement in a wide variety of recipes and exported to countries around the world.
The Birth of the Modern Kanten New’dle
According to the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research, there are two regions in Japan responsible for producing kanten: Ina-shi in Nagano Prefecture and Yamaoka-cho in Gifu Prefecture. Nagano is considered the center of the kanten industry since the 1800s. Many of today’s kanten producers started out as small family farms, and grew to large-scale operations over the past 80 years or so. There’s even a museum and garden in Nagano devoted to kanten!
Despite the size, most kanten is produced using a traditional methodology, where tengusa seaweed is harvested and left to dry for about 10 days. It is then soaked in fresh water to rehydrate and desalinate it. This process also removes the seaweed’s pigmentation. Next, it is boiled and filtered, and left to coagulate in a cool temperature. Finally, the kanten undergoes a cycle of freezing, defrosting, and draining, after which it is ready for use.
A Bite of Food History
At OhSo Tasty, we proudly use kanten new’dles made in Nagano using this same traditional method. When you eat OhSo Tasty instant soups, you’re eating a piece of food history with a modern twist, carrying on a traditional that’s lasted for centuries and is sure to be around for centuries more!