Behind the Soundbite: Slurping at Sun-Wah

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Soup at Sun Wah Photo: David Hammond

You might recognize this Grub Street guest editor from our work as the host/producer of the Chicago Public Radio series Soundbites, which examines how Chicago chefs use sound, everyday, on the job — the electronic blips of their equipment, the chatter of their staff, the sound of food cooking, and, of course, the kind of music played in the restaurant. Here's a peek behind-the-scenes at some of the experiences we had during season one that didn’t really translate to radio. Today, we're with Kelly Cheng of Sun Wah BBQ — anyone who has eaten at a Chinese noodle bar knows that slurping is part of the deal, and yet…it’s sometimes hard for uptight jamokes to get into. We wanted to know more about this custom and, honestly, we felt a little awkward even asking.

Slurping up your noodles is a topic that Cheng really wanted to tell us more about — something we appreciated, being fairly ignorant about the ways of the Asian groaning board.

Soundbites: I notice that soup seems to be slurped regularly in Asian restaurants, but is it true that other food items should be eaten with some enthusiastic noise as well.

Cheng: …that will depend on what you’re eating. If you’re eating something as difficult as snails, or clams, slurping is absolutely allowed.

“Actually, I like hearing the customers slurp because that means they’re enjoying the food and the atmosphere,” Cheng continued. “I think it adds to the ambiance of our place, and so it’s fun to hear people slurp … When we serve [noodles], obviously the dish has no sound, but it’s more when the customer is eating it, that’s where the sound actually comes in. If you’re having won-ton noodles, there should be a slurping sound.”

The cultural divide can mean this is a tough requirement to pull off outside of a Chinese restaurant. “A lot of people think that Chinese people are rude because we have slurping sounds,“ she points out. “But slurping, for us means that we’re enjoying our food. It’s kind of like the basic can’t wait to get to it, it tastes so good, it smells so good, it looks so good, so when we’re putting it in our mouth, we can’t help but hurry it.” And it's not just slurping that adds to the sound of the meal: Cheng explained that there's the crunch of the meat, a “slow, sucking sound“ that comes with some bites — they're all “sounds that we want to hear. It means that our customer is enjoying it ... It’s excitement; it’s enthusiasm to enjoy your food.”

If you’d like to hear the rest of the conversation we had with Kelly Cheng, which originally aired in September of 2009, you can hear the original Soundbite: Sun-Wah online.