The Right Way to Eat Noodles

From the comments on “Leftovers: The Career Killer:

I think Helena should start focusing on real “table manners” issues instead of fringe nonsense and manners only affordable to the well-off, as is the case here. As it stands, I currently continue to read this article for its entertainment value rather than for any useful information. I can think of some topics that it would be great to see covered: for example … [a] comparative cross-cultural study of the proper way to enjoy noodles. —vorpal

Dear vorpal,

You asked, so I’ll answer. I investigated noodle etiquette in five great noodle cuisines: Italian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, and Japanese. Here’s what I found out.

Italy
Italians twirl long pastas like spaghetti and linguine, making a “small nest” with their fork, says Enrico Bazzoni, a native Italian and a chef with the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners, a nonprofit institution that promotes Italian culinary traditions. Viana La Place, author of My Italian Garden: More than 125 Seasonal Recipes from a Garden Inspired by Italy and other books on Italian cooking, explains that twirling helps “capture the little pieces in the sauce” like capers and pine nuts. Unlike some Americans, Italians nowadays typically don’t place the tines of the fork against the bowl of a spoon as they coil up their pasta, Bazzoni says. “Traditionally people did use a spoon and fork, but in the last five or ten years, most people have stopped using the spoon. They realized it wasn’t necessary, or it just fell out of fashion.”

China
The Chinese pick up noodles with their chopsticks, but they don’t bother twirling, says Corinne Trang, author of Essentials of Asian Cuisine: Fundamentals and Favorite Recipes. When eating noodle soups, you hold your chopsticks in one hand and your soup spoon in the other, Trang says. Take a spoonful of broth and pick up some noodles with your chopsticks. Deposit the noodles in your spoon with the broth, and then eat the contents of the spoon, using your chopsticks to help the noodles into your mouth. That way you can enjoy the broth and noodles simultaneously. (If you wish, you can also deliver the noodles straight to your mouth with your chopsticks, alternating mouthfuls of noodle with slurps of broth.) Slurping is de rigueur among the Chinese, for practical reasons. “It’s a way of introducing cool air into your mouth to cool off the noodles and the broth if it’s a noodle soup. … Chinese food is generally served hot, often served piping hot.” Noodle dishes vary by region, but, Trang says, “as far as eating them goes, it’s all the same.”

Vietnam
The Vietnamese eat noodles with chopsticks. When the noodles are in soup, they are eaten with the two-handed approach described above. Andrea Nguyen, author of Into the Vietnamese Kitchen: Treasured Foodways, Modern Flavors, adds that with Vietnamese noodle soups like pho (noodles in beef broth), the one faux pas is to “squirt in gobs of hoisin or sriracha” (hot chile sauce) before tasting the soup. “A well-crafted soup broth has simmered for hours or even overnight. If you add the other stuff as if it were ketchup, the soup becomes too sweet and too salty. It loses the delicate qualities of pho.

Thailand
Noodles are traditionally “street food, fast food,” says David Thompson, author of Thai Food, and are not consumed with “any sense of needing to be elegant or impress your neighbor.” Use the two-handed approach with noodle soups and slurp if you need to, but don’t make too much noise. According to Thompson, vigorous slurping is not the norm in Thailand. “Thais have an intrinsic elegance that prevents them from slurping too loud.” Thais use a spoon and fork for noodle dishes other than soups.

Japan
Use the two-handed approach, and slurp with gusto. However, you won’t insult the restaurant if you don’t slurp, says Kumao Arai, manager of Ramen Halu, a renowned noodle joint in San Jose, California. Some of his non-Japanese customers are shy about slurping, but when he explains its cooling effect, “they start practicing.” And if you can, drain the last drops from the bowl. “We like to see customers pick up the bowl,” says Arai, “because that’s when they’re drinking all of the soup.”

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.