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Jun 8, 2011 12:12 AM

Why the Japanese slurp their noodles

Recently on a variety TV program here in Japan, there was a segment on eating habits of Japanese viewed from a foreigner's perspective. On a "gaijin" panel (with representatives from all the major continents), they all rallied on the question, why do Japanese make so much noise when eating noodles? The Japanese host asked them, "how do you eat Japanese noodles?" In a video demonstration, they were all presented with a bowl of ramen and they all ate it quietly, biting mouthfuls of noodles instead of slurping. This video was presented to random Japanese and "gaijin" on the streets of Tokyo, and of course, the responses were vastly different. The main Japanese comment was, "they don't eat it deliciously" or "it doesn't look delicious the way they eat it." So, maybe it's an emotional connection, was the first conclusion. Sound must convey deliciousness to the Japanese.

One "gaijin" responder mentioned, if someone would just tell me why I should slurp my noodles, I would do it. So back to the panel of gaijin, as they were asked to slurp their noodles, and interestingly, many of them were physically unable to, some coughing as they sucked some soup down their sinuses, or having a clump of noodles stuck in mid-slurp. So, maybe gaijin just aren't very practiced at slurping as it takes a certain skill.

Then the scientific expert was brought in to explain some things. First, "deliciousness" is conveyed by the sound of slurping, and further, slurping does in fact make the noodle taste better. In a graphic, the expert showed how wine connoisseurs gurgle wine, sucking air through their mouths to force air into the nasal passage, allowing the flavors to spread. The concept is the same with slurping noodles. The flavors of the noodles and soup are multiplied when slurping. The gaijin panel as well as the Japanese host and observers had their "aha" moment and the gaijins decided they would practice slurping.

So, the lesson is slurp away. Especially if you want to maximize the deliciousness.

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  1. I asked several Japanese friends this question 25 years ago or so (after seeing Tampopo)...they thought it had something to do with residual cultural memory of hunger in the aftermath of WW II.
    Not sure they would say that today but...

    4 Replies
    1. re: penthouse pup

      I love your answer- i really despise mouth noises while eating, and have been dreading that aspect of dining in Japan (not that I have a trip planned yet). This is the only thing i"ve ever read that validates it. But it needs to stop *laughs to self*

      1. re: EWSflash

        it's like farting. you do it where it is polite. Or you avoid cultural exchange because you can't stand to bend a little.

        1. re: EWSflash

          if you do go to japan, please order your noodles to go? eat in your hotel room, where you won't be insulting/dishonoring the chef, and you can enjoy your food in peace.

        1. re: thew

          lol..what about when eating cold noodle..does slurping warms the cold noodle?

          1. re: Monica

            Same principles apply for cold noodles, like soba or somen. Perhaps even more, since cold noodles don't have the help of steam to work its way into the olfactory receptors. Give slurping a chance if you care about flavor.

          2. re: thew

            I've heard or read the same. Which makes sense, because noodles in hot broth get soggy quickly, so waiting for them to cool is not the best option.

            I'm not a slurper though.Having lived in the US since I was 5, it is etched into my psyche that making noise while eating is rude and detracts from others' enjoyment of the meal (as a result, I tend to agree). I usually blow on the noodles to cool them.

            But I can see how slurping just sounds delicious. (Unlike chewing food with your mouth open. :|)

          3. Haha. I would love to see that show. Myself, I was told by Japanese friends from the very beginning when I went to Japan that it makes them taste better.

            1. The only reason why i wouldn't slurp is because slurping makes noodle and the sauce splash more to my clothes.

              7 Replies
              1. re: Monica

                That just means you need to practice your slurping skills. Or use a bib.

                1. re: E Eto

                  I am all about bibs. I wish they were more fashionable (other than at the crawfish joint).

                  When I worked in an office, on the days we'd go to eat pho, I used to bib myself with a napkin if I was wearing white. Sriracha stains are such a PITA...

                  1. re: inaplasticcup

                    +1- it makes it a real challenge if you're a busty female.

                    1. re: inaplasticcup

                      One of my must-visit places on Tokyo trips is Konaya, for awesome curry udon. They have nice, large paper bibs at every place setting. which really are necessary. Slurp or don't, long thick strands of udon coated with curry sauce will leave their mark.

                    2. re: E Eto

                      haha, I do not wish to practice slurping. I can live without it.

                    3. re: Monica

                      I don't slurp. I always make mess when eating soup noodles or even soba with dipping sauce. Will I make less of a mess if I learn to slurp?

                      BTW, always thought that they slurping had to do with the noodles being too hot (it was postulated to me as a cause for high incidence of esophageal cancer in Japan). No evidence given. And, also had to do with not wanting to cut/bite/break the noodles, which seems to be a fairly universal taboo (in Italy too).

                    4. I'm curious if they slurp their noodles when eating say stir fried noodles along the lines of yakisoba or fresh pasta dishes at an Italian restaurant (or wafu pasta place).

                      In Hong Kong there is a street food the locals call ju cheung fun, which is essentially a thinner tubular version of dim sum cheung fun, but has no meat or condiments inside the steamed rice crepe rollades. The freshly made ones are slippery smooth in texture once mixed with sauces, and while it is considered rude and to be of low class, it is actually best enjoyed if you slurp it (although with all those sauces mixed in it will get messy), as you actually get the mouth feel experience on the way in.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: K K

                        I think the common rule is, when you can slurp, you should slurp, except when common courtesy or local custom suggest otherwise. Since someone brought up the movie Tampopo, there was a great scene with an etiquette instructor teaching a group of young women how to eat pasta at an Italian restaurant. "Eat it quietly... quietly as possible" was her rule. Except there was a "gaijin" at the other end of the restaurant making all kinds of slurping noise, enjoying his pasta. After a brief moment of cognitive dissonance, the young women eschewed the instructor's rule and attacked their noodles with abandon, slurping and enjoying their pasta. I admit, I slurp my pasta with chopsticks when I eat at home. Forks just aren't made for slurping.

                        1. re: E Eto

                          the joke in that scene was the foreigner trying to "fit in" in japan by slurping (as he thought polite in the country he was in). it was a multi-layered joke, actually teasing people who tried too hard to observe "local" customs and as a result did inappropriate things. in any western food restaurant in japan, slurping would be rude.