Growing up, I had a neurotic aversion to people making noises when they ate. I think it came from the sound my father used to make when eating bananas. It was a moist, squishy sound, and it drove me crazy. Throughout much of my life, it was like I had wolf ears. Eating around people, I was assaulted with a wicked symphony of chewing, smacking, squishing, slurping, chomping, and sucking. Try as I might to ignore it all, something in my brain heard these sounds and triggered feelings of despair and anger. My friend, who also has such a reaction to smacking sounds, phrased it this way: “If I lived in the Old West, I think I would have shot someone by now.”
So imagine my chagrin when I moved to mainland China, a country where loud eating noises are the norm. Eating in China — especially dining out — is a rather bizarre experience for the Westerner. I plan to eventually write a blog article about all of the etiquette at a formal Chinese dinner. But in this short post, I want to focus mainly on the slurping of noodles. Dining in China is a much louder experience than dining in the West, and that includes voices, eating noises, kitchen noises, and the volume of the overall environment.
Noodles are extremely popular all over China, but especially here in Yunnan, which is in the south. In Kunming, noodles usually come with some sort of meat or tofu, onions, and garlic, and are served in some sort of vinegary, spicy broth. The proper way to eat noodles is with chopsticks. It may seem counter-productive to eat a soup with two sticks, but in China, the broth and other ingredients are more of a flavoring for the noodles, which are the main feature. Many people (including me) like to drink the broth after finishing the noodles, but it is secondary to the noodles themselves.
So, how does one eat noodles in China, and look like a pro? Well, the first thing is the mixing. When your noodles arrive, whether in a broth or dry like lu mian, all of the other ingredients will probably be piled on top of the noodles. Thus, you should mix the noodles and the ingredients around until they are evenly distributed. Then, use the chopsticks to grab some noodles, and pull them up out of the bowl. Put them in your mouth, so that noodles are hanging from your mouth into the bowl. Last step: slurp! Yes, the proper way is to slurp them up noisily into your mouth. If a really long strand or two remain, bite them off and let them fall back into the bowl.
As you can imagine then, lunch at a noodle house is a very noisy affair! Imagine dozens of people, all simultaneously slurping noodles furiously, as if their very lives depended on it. This would have driven the pre-China me crazy. But, we humans tend to adapt to our environments. After the constant, traumatic, exposure therapy I faced day and night, I guess my brain finally relented. Slurping no longer bothers me. In fact, I rather enjoy it, because it is something that you could never get away with in a Western restaurant.
So what sort of moral or philosophical lesson can I draw from noodle-slurping? Well, I think that all of the noise, especially the slurping, in a Chinese noodle house, represents the view of the Chinese culture that food is something to be enjoyed by all of the senses. Food, therefore, is an inherently sensual thing. Eating in a noodle house, or in another sort of Chinese restaurant, is a full-sensory experience. The colors, the smells, the taste, the feel, the noises — they create an environment that elevates food from mere nutrition, to something that permeates your entire body. And I really agree with that. Food is so much more than protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Rather, it is an important part of life that is to be enjoyed with the entire body.