Learning to Slurp: Eating Noodles in China


When in Rome, slurp as the Romans do. Yes, that's me.

When in Rome, slurp as the Romans do. Yes, that’s me.

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.

It is impossible to go a day in Yunnan without eating, or at least seeing, something like this.

It is impossible to go a day in Yunnan without eating, or at least seeing, something like this.

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.

All over Asia, children grow up slurping noodles.

All over Asia, children grow up slurping noodles.

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.

Please refrain from slurping here.

Please refrain from slurping here.

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.

Chopsticks versus Fork and Knife: East versus West in a Battle Royale!


Contender number one: fork and knife.

Contender number one: Freddy the fork and Mac the knife.

As I have described in another article, Chinese and Western restaurants offer very different dining experiences. Probably the difference most recognized by Westerners is the use of chopsticks in Chinese restaurants. Heck, you can even get chopsticks in Chinese restaurants in the USA and in Europe. While people in the West mostly see chopsticks as a novelty to try out in Asian restaurants, they are standard eating utensils in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, as well as in large areas of Thailand, Laos, and other Southeast Asian countries. In fact, in most restaurants in mainland China, your chances of getting a fork and knife are almost zero. Certain very upscale restaurants, and those that cater to tourists, might keep some in case a customer requests them. But real deal Chinese restaurants offer only chopsticks. In fact, chopsticks originated in China around 2,000 BCE, replacing (get ready to relish the irony) the fork!

Contender number two: Chang the chopstick.

Contender number two: Chang and Cheng the chopsticks.

It is a clichéd joke that Westerners cannot use chopsticks, and maybe there is a ring of truth to it. One of the more annoying things that I found when I first arrived in China, was that everyone I dined with would say in an amazed tone, “Oh! You can use chopsticks!” Of course I laughed and nodded politely, all the while thinking, “They’re just two sticks. It’s not that big a deal.” But to be fair, it is an acquired skill. The picture above this paragraph demonstrates the proper way to hold chopsticks. While eating, the bottom one remains stationary, and the top one moves up and down to grasp food and transport it to the mouth. I actually hold mine incorrectly, keeping my middle finger on the bottom chopstick instead of on the top one. I suspect that this is due to my unusually gigantic hands.

Life, and using chopsticks, ain't easy with hands this large.

Life, and using chopsticks, aren’t easy with hands this large.

There is also a proper way to use a knife and fork. In Europe, people keep the fork in the left hand the entire time, lifting the food to the mouth with the left hand. That is the correct way. In the US, many people put the knife down with the right hand, switch the fork to the right hand, then carry the food to the mouth with the right hand. I suppose that this is not necessarily an issue of right and wrong, but merely a cultural difference. However, since Europe was using forks and knives thousands of years before the US was a country, I have to lean in favor of the European method.

Er, pardon me, Premier Zhou, but how do you use these things?

Er, pardon me, Premier Zhou, but how do you use these things?

So what is the origin of eating utensils to begin with? I imagine it had to do with the pain of fire. Somewhere in a cave — probably in Lascaux — some cavemen were tired of burning their hands when they reached into the fire to grab their meat. One day, Thog suggested to Og, “Me have idea. Me use stick.” And the rest was history. So what the difference mostly boils down to is preference and gastronomical culture. And each culture has secret, negative stereotypes about the other’s utensils.

Then again, something is wrong here too.

Then again, something is wrong here too.

See, Westerners tend to see chopsticks as overly difficult to use, not versatile enough, and absolutely useless when picking up large pieces of food, or slippery things. Westerns also tend to become frustrated that Chinese chefs do not debone meat, thus making it a hellish gnawing experience to try to pull meat from bones using only chopsticks. And many is the humiliated Westerner who has spent several minutes trying to puck up a slippery fish ball with chopsticks, only to have it shoot off into the host’s face. On the other hand, Chinese see something almost barbaric about a chef giving you giant chunks of meat, which you must then carve up on the table with what are essentially glorified butcher’s tools. Why not, instead, delicately pick up bite-sized pieces of food with elegant, slender, tapered chopsticks?

chopstick3

Granted, it would be a bit silly to eat these with chopsticks.

I will not go for the cop-out answer and say that it is all completely cultural. It is tempting, because I do truly believe that most differences between people are cultural. And I am a strong proponent of doing as the Romans do, when in Rome. I try to see beauty and love in all cultures, and I make an effort to understand that different does not necessarily mean bad. For example, if I am dining in Paris, I can appreciate a really delicious magret de canard, and I will savor it with a knife and fork. But if I am in Beijing, and I have the good fortune to be enjoying Beijing duck, I will use chopsticks. The two are different, but equally beautiful. But having had the opportunity to live and dine in both Eastern and Western cultures, I believe that I have made my choice, and that I actually do prefer, overall, one style of utensil to the other. So, who wins the wrestling match? Freddy the fork and Mac the Knife, or Chang and Cheng the chopsticks?

But on the other hand, carving up these delicate dumplings with a fork and knife seems like barbaric overkill.

But on the other hand, carving up these delicate dumplings with a fork and knife seems like barbaric overkill.

I prefer chopsticks. There, I said it. This conclusion is not merely the opinion of a starry-eyed Westerner who is still in the honeymoon stage of culture shock. No, this is based on a lifetime of experience and thought. Look, I love a thick, juicy, rare steak as much as anyone, and I will proudly carve it up on my plate with a knife and fork, using the  fork to lift each succulent bite to my mouth. But overall, philosophically, I prefer the idea that the chef should prepare the food into delicate, bite-sized pieces, and the diners should pick them up individually with elegant, tapered chopsticks. Something about that idea fits my view on food very well. Because, I do not see food as a necessarily evil to be wolfed down, like some sort of obstacle to what life is really about (i.e. the Protestant work ethic, which I do not agree with). Rather, I see food as divine pleasure. Anything involved in the eating process that adds that spiritual element to food, is something I support.