Outside In

Published on May 2nd, 2013

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The unbearable loudness of chewing

Shweyta Mudgal hates the soundtrack that accompanies loud chewing and slurping at the table, but she’s learning to accept it.

There’s usually always one such person everyone knows. And if you’re unfortunate enough, there will be more than just one such person in your life. The kind of person that will give you an unrequired demonstration of the actual process of ingestion of food. Or as it is simply known to all of us – the act of eating.

They will do this with their mouths wide open while chewing their food, breaking it down into tiny miniscule molecules to be gulped into their oesophagus, once successfully swallowed. Often, the act is accompanied by a soundtrack to go with it. Depending on what is being eaten, the soundtrack may vary – ‘crunchy’ (cereal, cornflakes), slurpy (noodles, soup, hot drinks), gnawy (meat, thick bread or naan/ rotis), ‘smacky’ (usually while chewing gum) etc.

Irrespective of the content of the meal, almost always it will be ‘chompy’ (the prevalent, omnipresent, most certainly assured background score while eating any kind of food open-mouthed).

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t hate people. I quite like them actually. Most of my friends are people, as is my family. My problem starts when some of these people start to eat, and when I get subjected to watching a food show that I don’t really want to see. Perhaps these are the only kind of people I’d happily give a miss, considering my self-professed love for food shows otherwise. I do not particularly enjoy seeing or hearing food slosh around a gob, thanks very much! Yet try as I might, I always seem to end up in the near vicinity of some such exhibitive and noisy eaters sitting next to me.

Great mastication company has found me practically anywhere I’ve been in the world – in the offices I’ve worked at, at business meetings or social gatherings, in an airplane, in cafes, restaurants, bars, movie halls, trains, buses, just about everywhere. The annoying noisy eater is a sect, one that can be encountered anywhere on the map, wherever you go. Broadly speaking, this sect can be sub-divided into five main types of serial offenders.

1. The Slurpers. They can be found abusing liquids such as drinks, soups and other sloppy substances. They are guilty of wanting to savour the last drop of their juices, causing the much-disturbing, air-bubble-swallowing-kind of sucking sound that emerges desperately from a straw, long after the drink is devoured.

Our very own desi chai drinkers also fall under this category, as they sip relentlessly at the last drops of chai either from their cups or from the saucers they’ve been poured onto. This last drop is an opportunity not to be missed for them – a meal-time policy that probably arises from the fact that as Indians we do not believe in wasting food. Yet, when someone chooses to make this ‘no-wastage’ mantra apparent by slurping the last drop out of his tea cup or bowl of soup, he emanates a not-so-agreeable background score that sadly does not go down well in my music books. It makes me wonder if perhaps this can be done soundlessly as well – in a more publicly non-perturbing kind of way?

2. The Chompers. These people chew their food loudly, like cows or goats. At times, they can be heard from rooms away, which might be a good thing for some, as it tells you which room to avoid for a stipulated span of time in the near future.

3. The Smackers. They are most often found chewing gum with their mouth open. Every few minutes, on impromptu urges or on a more controlled rhythm you can find them blowing bubbles that go ‘smack’ in a few seconds, after which they go back to the ruminating process of chewing.

4. The Cracklers. They are usually found in movie halls where there is pin drop silence. Until of course, someone decides to shatter the silence with the loud crackling of a bag of chips or a handful of nachos, accompanied by the desperate sucking of sodas through straws (refer to no. 1 above). I wonder why there isn’t any pre-movie warning issued for that sound, as is done for the disturbance emerging from cell-phone usage and crying babies?

5. The Belchers. They feel the need to make a loud, hollow, unpleasant noise through the mouth after eating, by releasing gas from their digestive tracts, usually accompanied with a reckless odour, in an effort to let you know how much they have really enjoyed their meal. Wouldn’t a “Wow, that was a good meal” do the job just as well?

The irony here is that what is a killjoy to some, may not seem to bother others. In China for example, it is offensive to eat a meal noiselessly, since eating loudly indicates an appreciation of the food. In order to cool the soup a bit and to better diffuse the flavour in the mouth, soup is eaten by sipping from the spoon while breathing in. This method produces the slurping noise that is taboo to some.

A Korean co-worker may have seen through my futile attempts at hiding my disgust at his loud slurps and repetitive smacking, when we would go out to lunch together. He patiently explained that in Korea the norm was to eat with the mouth open. “The louder you chew, the more you compliment the chef,” he said, displaying to me his remarkable skill of simultaneously talking with his mouth wide open while busily chewing away at his kimchi.

A Japanese classmate was the most convincing when he gave me a personal demo in the art of ‘noodle slurping’ over a bowl of ramen. His reasons were two-fold; the first one being the “deliciousness” of the ramen soup – which he said is conveyed by the sound of slurping. And the second being, that slurping does in fact make the noodle taste better. When I counter-argued, he decided it was better explained to me in a language I understood best – that of wine tasting. Funnily enough, he mimicked me, taking a sip of wine, sucking air through the mouth to force air into the nasal passage, allowing the flavors to spread. It was the exact same logic with slurping noodles, he said. The flavors of the noodles and soup are multiplied when slurping. Needless to say, he did have a point.

Who knew that ten years later I’d find myself living in Asia, gradually getting more tolerant at the table with them slurpers! While the foodie in me appreciates the access to every possible kind of Asian food here, I do pay for this culinary exotica by sitting through the mandatory audio-visual presentation that goes along with it. I didn’t much notice it when I ate at the various ‘Chinatowns’ or ‘Little Tokyos’ of America. Here in Asia, this ‘slurp-phenomenon’ is an integral part of my daily life.

With a little self-conditioning (and a lot of self-motivation), I have managed to cross over to the other side at times – slurping my noodles out loud, especially when eating at local establishments where sucky, slurpy, sloppy sounds are the prevalent lunch chorus, convincing myself that my slurps add an element of authenticity to the ambience. And possibly the much-needed dampener that helps mute out the other slurpy sounds in the background, that my poor ear is still getting used to.

Because a part of me believes that one needs to be culturally tolerant with the way the world eats. And what better medium than food to assimilate oneself completely in a new terrain; to make the most of it? But it is this occassional slurping, that is the farthest I’ll go on this one, I think.

Eating with the mouth open still remains one of my top pet peeves. The solution is pretty simple. That of closing one’s mouth while eating. It not only spares those around you a view they’d rather not look at (especially while they’re eating as well), but also liberates them of the rather unappealing, cement-mixer kind of grinding soundtrack, courtesy your jaw-n-teeth productions. Perhaps I’d willingly make an exception for some cases, where the ability to eat with the mouth entirely closed is hindered due to one’s oral or dental composition, jaw structure, shape of teeth etc.

But, as for the rest of you, my dear open mouth chewers: We need to talk. Just not while you’re eating, that’s all!

*Goes back to slurping her ramen, lifts the bowl up to her mouth to drink the last drop of soup, lets out a loud happy ‘smack’ at the end and winks in appreciation at the hawker/chef in the distance* 

A Mumbaikar by birth and a New Yorker by choice, recently-turned global nomad Shweyta Mudgal is currently based out of Singapore. An airport designer by day, she moonlights as a writer. ‘Outside In’ is a weekly series of expat diaries, reflecting her perspective of life and travel, from the outside-in. She blogs at www.shweyta.blogspot.com and is soon beginning to realise that no amount of staring in disgust can make habitual, loud, open-mouthed eaters, conscious enough to stop. *Sigh*

(Pictures courtesy stevieblunder.blogspot.com, Shane Bauer, froogalism.com, mswitten.wikispaces.com)

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