Time to practise food etiquette
The 1985 Japanese comedy Tampopo is billed as a “ramen Western” — like the spaghetti Westerns that Italian film directors made about the early American West but with Japanese noodles and food culture at its heart.
In a wonderfully roundabout way, with the twists and turns of multiple sub-plots, it tells the story of two Japanese milk truck drivers who guide the widow of a noodle shop owner in her quest for the perfect recipe, and help her turn her struggling establishment into the best ramen noodle house in Japan.
In one scene, a young student learns the right way to eat noodles from an elderly gentleman who has been studying noodles for 40 years. The old man says: “First observe the whole bowl ... Appreciate its gestalt. Savour the aromas. Jewels of fat glittering on the surface. Shinachiku roots shining. Seaweed slowly sinking. Spring onions floating. Concentrate on the three pork slices. They play the key role, but stay modestly hidden. First caress the surface with the chopstick tips.”
“What for?” asks the student.
The old gentleman replies: “To express affection.”
“I see,” says the student.
“Then poke the pork,” says the old man.
“Eat the pork first?” asks the student.
“No. Just touch it. Caress it with the chopstick tips. Gently pick it up and dip it into the soup on the right of the bowl. What’s important here is to apologise to the pork by saying, ‘See you soon.’ Finally, start eating — the noodles first. Oh, at this time, while slurping the noodles, look at the pork.”
Tampopo was one of the first movies to bring to our attention to the cultural bias involved in the manners and protocol of eating. Universal to the tables of China and Japan, chopsticks are all about showing polite restraint. Unlike knives and forks, which can easily show menace (remember that harrowing fork-stabbing scene in the movie The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover?), chopsticks are delicate implements that allow you to easily select, unravel, shift or prod.
As might be expected, there are rules about what you can and can’t do with a chopstick. In Japan, bad table manners include neburi-bashi (licking chopsticks with the tongue), komi-bashi (forcing several things into your mouth at the same time using chopsticks), saguri-bashi (searching with chopsticks for any special tidbits in the bowl) and sora-bashi (putting food back from your own bowl into the central dish).
Rattling your chopsticks against the bowl, says an old Chinese proverb, means you and your descendants will always be poor.
In both China and Japan, however, it is very good manners, in fact imperative as a sign of good taste and appreciation, to slurp loudly as you eat your noodles. Give it a go this weekend.
You can toss cooked chicken, Chinese barbecue pork, duck or prawns through this salad in place or the salmon used here, or leave the protein out for a simple side dish. The Vietnamese dressing is useful to make in bulk and store in the fridge — it goes well with pretty much everything.
You can use any kind of noodles for this tasty noodle bowl, but rice noodles make it super easy as you need only to cover them in boiling water and leave them to soak. If using other types of noodles, cook according to packet instructions, then drain into a sieve. This recipe also works well with pork or beef mince.