Why noodles matter

One important factor is missing from the analyses of the economic efficiency of different nations and cultures but today da-boss will fill this glaring gap.

Since every activity generating economic product takes time it is vital to look at how people spend the 24 hours a day allocated to them. We have to sleep for 7-8 hours, spend 1-2 hours getting to and from work and another 1-2 hours on mundane chores like shopping, cleaning, washing, ironing etc. Most people also tend to spend another 1-2 hours a day on recreational activities, entertainment and rest. This leaves about 12 hours every day on the balance of what needs to be done – most notably food preparation and paid work. In other words, the less time a society collectively spends on food preparation the more time will be left for wealth generation. This post will analyse how the cooking habits of Asians put them in a farourable position to win the economic race with the West.

When a subject of Asian cuisine comes up two food items spring to mind – rice and noodles. Both are packed with energy and easy to turn into nutritious meals by adding some vegies, eggs and meat. The stir-fry I make at home takes about 20 minutes to prepare and feeds 3-4 persons for two days. It has all the protein, carbs and vitamins one would need and can be flavoured with a range of condiments like sesame oil, fish oil or curry type sauces. When ordered from a Chinese food stall it can be prepared from pre-processed ingredients on large woks over gas stoves in 2-3 minutes. Yes, we are talking about a nutritious meal for a family ordered, made and served inside 10 minutes!

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To compare let us have a look at the preparation time for some of the West’s traditional dishes. Lasagna (which I also make quite regularly) involves simmering the meat for 40 minutes and layering it with lasagna sheets in a baking dish which then goes to the oven for another 50 minutes – a total of 2 hours. Another crowd favourite, pizza, takes a similar time to make – dough preparation, arranging the toppings and 20 minutes in the oven on high heat. A traditional roast and three veg meal is even more time consuming with up to 4 hours in the oven, depending on the meat cuts used. The staple of the Western diet, bread, also takes many hours to make – which is why bakers start work at 4am!

What is a time-consuming chore for one person, multiplied by a number of households in the country becomes a major economic inefficiency. It even has a military dimension, as evidenced by the logistics of the Vietnam War. The US were at one stage trying to cut off the food supplies trucked to the Vietcong forces operating in the South. Their efforts appeared ineffective and finally someone sat down to assess the actual volumetric food requirements of the infiltrators. The result was a shock – the entire Vietcong army could survive on six trucks of rice a day, sourcing all other meal ingredients locally. This stunned the US military planners used to sending hundreds of tonnes of supplies to their units. The US Marines expected their breakfast packs, canned lunches, snacks and Coke while a Vietcong fighter only needed two cups of rice a day which he could turn into a meal by adding some locally acquired ingredients.

What used to be a factor in military logistics now confers a huge economic advantage on the Asians. You may not realise that many households in Singapore do not even have proper kitchens – their residents simply eat out in the food courts which dot the city. The time they do not have to spend slaving over the stove can be used to stay longer at work, generating income for themselves and wealth for the country. So, sooner or later, the West may end up economically defeated by the humble noodles!

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