With such a diverse range of regional Asian cuisines represented in Australia, it can be tricky to know how to navigate every bowl of noodles we come across. Will dousing these noodles in chilli sauce earn respect or cause offence? Can I lift this bowl to my mouth? Should I be slurping to show I’m enjoying myself?
The good news is that it doesn’t really matter as much as you might think.
“Noodles are generally fast food, and the epitome of that is ramen, it’s the most casual,” says Taro Akimoto, owner of Taro’s Ramen in Brisbane. He says etiquette and formalities tend to be more relaxed when eating noodles, with greater focus on enjoyment and personal preference.
Still, within each culture there are some tips that will make you look like you know what you’re doing.
Navigating the condiments
Michael Le, founder of Sydney Vietnamese restaurants Great Aunty Three, offers one key piece of advice when you’re eating pho: taste the broth first before you do anything else.
“There’s a lot of people out there who put the hoisin and chilli in their bowl, but I put the hoisin and chilli into a sauce dish, half and half, and I dip my meat into that,” he says. It’s common practice in Vietnam, and that’s what those little saucers on your table are intended for.
Add fresh chilli and chilli sauce to taste to customise this vegetarian pho with mushrooms.
“I like to enjoy the natural flavour of the pho, I want to taste the 12 hours of cooking – by putting sauce in you hide it all, but each to their own,” says Michael, adding it ultimately just comes down to what you like.
In Thailand, it’s expected that each person will modify their noodles with condiments, so that no two bowls will end up the same. The condiment caddy found on every table is so ubiquitous it has a name – khreuang puang. The four key flavour pillars of Thai cuisine are represented here for you to modify your soup base to suit your personal preference, with Thais particularly keen on the sugar jar.
The art of slurping
Slurping is not impolite in much of Asia, but the practice reaches its peak in Japan.
The internet may tell you it’s even considered rude not to slurp in Japan, but Taro Akimoto says it actually depends on where you are, and what you’re eating – take your cues from your host or those around you.
“Ramen is a guilty pleasure, people focus on enjoying it and making lots of noise and slurping enhances the enjoyment,” says Taro. “It’s not the prettiest thing but it’s definitely accepted.”
If you’re in a ramen shop, you should be slurping. Besides enjoyment, there are two good reasons you might want to adopt the habit. “It enables you to eat food at a higher temperature, and it also gets the soup in your mouth at the same time as your noodles,” says Taro. Men, especially older men, are keen slurpers, while younger women in Japan might instead spoon noodles into their spoon, lower this into the broth, and slurp a little more daintily.
Slurping noodles is often acceptable, but simply less common in other Asian cultures. That’s the case in Malaysia says Jackie Macedo, who has been serving up authentic Malaysian food to Sydneysiders for more than two decades, currently at her Jackie M food stall at Concord Hospital Market. “We tend to transfer it into a soup spoon, and then eat from there,” she says.
Scoop up this braised beef noodle soup.
Chopsticks aren’t always traditional
At her former restaurant in Concord, Jackie noticed that Western customers were often offended if they weren’t offered chopsticks with the popular noodle dish mee goreng.
“Each of the different cultures in Malaysia [Malay, Chinese and Indian] bring their own interpretation into the cuisine, and also in how it’s served as well,” says Jackie.
“If you go to a Malay-run stall, they won’t use chopsticks. The Malays eat a lot of meals by hand,” she says – even the versions of laksa made in Johor and Terengganu.
Jackie explains that mee goreng is not traditionally eaten with chopsticks because the dish originated in Mamak stalls, run by Malaysia’s Indian Muslim community. “These noodles are eaten with a fork and spoon, you’d never get them served to you with chopsticks,” she says.
While it’s taboo to cut noodles in Chinese culture, the rules can also become a little more blurred in multicultural Malaysia. “Chopping up your noodles is like chopping up your life,” explains Jackie, “but in Malaysia we’re such a hodgepodge of cultures that a bit of that gets lost on us.”
“I remember chopping up mee goreng in my restaurant and my Chinese kitchen staff were horrified.”
Jackie says Malaysians are fairly relaxed about food etiquette in general. “We’re pretty tolerant of so many cultures, so it’s not a big deal.”
Pick up your bowl
Lifting your bowl to your mouth is impolite in Korea, but it mostly comes down to personal preference in the rest of Asia.
Jackie says “slurping, even burping is not taboo” in Malaysia, but you’d more likely use your spoon to finish your broth.
In Japan, it’s quite common to lift a soup bowl to your mouth. “It’s personal preference, I don’t use the spoon too much,” says Taro.
Michael also lifts the bowl to finish his pho. “I pick up the bowl – I want every single last bit of the soup,” he says, but qualifies that not everyone would. “Pho is hearty soul food, so everyone is going to have their own preference.”
A bowl of noodles is a highly personal thing, and it seems everyone else is too focused on theirs to notice what you’re doing with yours.
Typical of Northern Thai cuisine where the flavours are uncompromisingly hot and sour, versions of this dish also appear in northeast Burma and in Yunnan province in China. In Thailand, it’s made using khanom jeen noodles, a type of fresh, fermented rice noodle - for ease, this version uses thin dried rice stick noodles. Cubes of congealed pork blood and the dried flower of the red cotton tree, said to add a sour dimension, are also used in Thailand.
Much of Vietnamese cooking has a distinctly Chinese influence, which you can see in this classic recipe featuring soy sauce, egg noodles and BBQ duck, that’s straight off the streets of Saigon.
A comfort food dish from Malaysia (it’s popular in Indonesia and Singapore too), mee rebus literally means “boiled noodles.” Like many great Asian dishes, versions abound - some are made using potatoes, some contain beef, some feature lime leaves and lime juice. Some have a thick gravy and others, a thinner one. While not hard to make, there are a number of ingredients involved so it’s worth making mee rebus for a crowd. The beauty of this dish are the myriad accompaniments - you can just plonk them all in the middle of the table and let everyone help themselves.