The Art of Slurping Noodles
Answering the burning question of why people in Japan do this, how to slurp a bowl of noodle soup without ruining your shirts, and the role of chopsticks.
It is awe-inspiring seeing my husband effortlessly inhale each bite of noodles as if they were naturally connected to him by a thread of fate, breathing it in like a traditional life force, slurping — a cultural phenomenon.
“You need to suck harder.”
“I can’t — the noodles are too big!”
It’s not as easy as drinking through a straw. Some noodles are thick and dense; with a mouthful, you do have to exert force and suck harder to achieve that swift slurping motion.
In the past, I’d carefully lift noodles into my mouth as I took a breath and splatter oily stains onto my shirt from the soupy whiplash, like an artist flicking a wet paintbrush onto a canvas — I sucked at it.
What was I doing wrong? I neglected my friends: the mighty chopsticks. There is a delicate orchestration for the noodles to make the trip from bowl to mouth, complete with the broth coating without wasting a drop of its essence.
I’d always resort to my default way of eating a bowl of noodles of any country’s origin: lower noodles into a ceramic spoon into the perfect spiral, dunk it in the soup and eat the whole party in my mouth.
But why do people slurp noodles in Japan in the first place?
From a Historical Standpoint
Noodles are said to have originated in China and brought to Japan. As for the slurping, that appears to have started with soba, a type of buckwheat noodle which dates back to the 16–17th centuries of the Edo period; in modern times, what is now known as Tokyo.
The popularity of soba noodles began with the rise of food stalls popping up along station platforms, called tachigui, where one stands while dining.
It was an affordable and nutritious meal meant to be eaten as a quick bite or to be on-the-go, often before boarding the train.
Of all noodle types, soba has a brittle texture due to the lack of gluten in buckwheat and therefore does not have the elasticity of dough made from wheat flour. As soba noodles are more fragile, it is more important to eat them promptly after it is served without sitting in the broth for too long.
Slurping was one way of eating noodles as quickly as possible, and this practice was picked up through social osmosis and spread to other noodle dishes such as ramen and udon.
The Food Science Perspective
The aroma of soba is subtle and cannot be perceived through sniffing, but the smell and its associated taste can be better savored by breathing it in through the mouth, which is the main purpose for slurping soba noodles; “to feel the retronasal smell, or more commonly known as mouth smell — the ability to perceive flavor dimensions of foods.”
Two terms to describe these functions are orthonasal olfaction and retronasal olfaction.
Retronasal olfaction is the perception of odors emanating from the oral cavity during eating and drinking, as opposed to orthonasal olfaction, which occurs during sniffing. The retronasal olfactory pathway, which contributes to the flavor of foods or drinks, is commonly associated with the sense of taste.
How do you smell with your mouth?
Inside the mouth, the throat is connected to the nasal cavity at the top, to the oral cavity in the center, and then at the bottom it is connected to the larynx, which makes its way down to the trachea and lungs, and then the esophagus.
From the oral cavity, odor molecules travel backwards, until they reach the throat … and can easily travel from the mouth to the nose via this connection in the throat. So, they can reach the olfactory receptors, and they can evoke a smell perception.
The air drawn in through the noodles as you inhale also works to cool them down, so no waiting is required and you can dig right in and enjoy the bowl of noodle soup while it is hot.
To summarize, slurp your noodles in order to:
- Finish your meal in a hurry
- Enhance flavor through “mouth smelling”
- Lower the temperature of the noodles
How to Stay Mess-free
First, grip a modest amount of noodles, gauge the length so you don’t choke, and pop them in your mouth.
Then, draw the noodles in through a big breath with your lungs.
Two ways chopsticks coordination is important:
- Movement — Chopsticks reduce your sucking effort and work in tandem with the slurp.
- Positioning— They keep the noodles in place to minimize mess.
As you slurp the noodles, simultaneously glide your chopsticks down to the tail ends and loosely barricade them in place so they don’t fling left and right, splattering precious broth onto your clothes and face, or even worse, your dining neighbor.
Bring noodles to your mouth, swiftly move chopsticks down. Repeat until the strands disappear in your mouth.
If you can, avoid biting off the noodles midway as that is considered poor table manners. People like my husband will give you the side-eye in disgust.
Keep your stomach satisfied, and your shirts clean.
Master this technique to blend in with everyone else and eat noodles like a pro in Japan.
All over the world you will find unique noodle variations and every country has their own ways of eating them properly, but it is only in Japan where one learns how to master the art of slurping them. While eating noisily is considered rude, this is the only exception.
The authentic way of eating a local dish is often best to immerse yourself in the experience, enjoy the taste, and take part in the culture. You will learn something new in the process — like how it isn’t as easy as it looks.