‘How do we eat our soup? We skim our spoon delicately across its surface, as if we were sending a ship out to sea, then bring it to our lips and silently sip.’ Marjabelle Young Stewart, Commonsense Etiquette, 1999

Pretty Soup

Not so fast Marjabelle Young Stewart! When we talk about table etiquette we are talking about rules that do not picnic blanket the entire human population. Rather, they govern a particular society or portion of a society according to the norms and conventions established therein.  So, to put it simply, while I may think it improper to slurpity slurp my soup, the Japanese man sitting next to me may feel quite the opposite. He may be wondering what about the soup was so off putting that it evoked such sipping silence, as slurping in Japan typically indicates approval and appreciation for what is being eaten.

We simply can become dizzy from all of the different table rituals of all of the world’s cultures.  But, for a moment lets look at Soup.  If we look at the contents and wide variety of soups we can surely conclude that is just about the most perfect genre of food that exists. Protein, vegetables, starch, and dairy; the possibilities are endless with soup.  Feeling sick? Have some soup.  Feeling cold? Have some soup! And there are a million other reasons to indulge in a soupe de jour!

Let’s take a quick look at the etymology (or history of) the word soup with the help of our trusty online Etymology Dictionary. Latin EtymologyWe remind ourselves that soup is, of course,  a noun, and if we harken back to our grammar school days we will instantly recall that a noun is (for the most part) a person, a place, or a thing.

The term ‘Soup’ refers to: “liquid food,” 1653, from the French word, soupe. It then stretches back to “Soup, broth,” from the Late Latin, suppa “bread soaked in broth,” and even further back, to Middle Dutch sop “sop, broth”, the Proto Germanic base *supp-, and finally the Proto-Indo-European *sub-, from the base *seue- “to take liquid”. WOW! I think it is quite safe to say that  soup, in its various forms has been around for quite some time.

So, now the question arises:  “how do we know whether we use our spoons, our fingers, or drink right from the bowl?” Unfortunately, the answer is not an easy one as we come full circle back to culture and all of its complexities. . .

Through some research I was able to find an excellent quote to highlight the intricacies of how culture and table etiquette delicately intertwine:

In Japan and Hong Kong, slurping soup is a sign of approval and appreciation of the cooking. But slurping is considered rude in Thailand. The Japanese drink soup by lifting the bowl to the mouth with both hands. But Koreans and Chinese use soup spoons. Thai, Indonesian, and Filipino peoples also use spoons…and Cambodians, Lao, and Hmong ONLY use spoons–no other utensils at all. (Norine Dresser, Multicultural Manners, 1996)

Hmmm. . .so it seems that we can’t win here, and the intricacies only grow when we look at soup etiquette in the United States:

Thick soup served in a soup dish is eaten with the soup spoon. If you want to get the last bit of it, there is no impropriety in tipping the dish away from you in order to collect it at the edge. Indeed you are paying a subtle compliment to your hostess by this demonstrating how good it is. Drink thin soups and bouillons served in cups, as you would tea or coffee; but if there are vegetables or noodles left in the bottom, eat them with the spoon, rather than struggle unattractively to make them slide from the cup into your mouth. (Book of Common Sense Etiquette, 1962)

RamenNow that our brains have been turned into mush (a variation on soup), I have come to a conclusion, and perhaps a catch-all solution for partaking in a little soupy fun.  When seated look around the table, and I guarantee, that no matter what culture, country, or home you are in, the hosts will set the standards.

And never fear, if you happen to make a mistake in cultural communication, at least you will have enjoyed the soup!  It reminds me of the time when I was living  in Japan, and I was staying with a host family in late 2004.  This particular incident had less to do with the delicious Ramen soup I was eating but more with the conversation during dinner.  My host mother’s daughter was quite a skilled gymnast and when trying to compliment her daughter on her extreme flexibility “like a rubber band [gomu], I managed to say she was “like garbage [gomi].  Needless to say, the room suddenly fell silent, and all slurping halted.  I sat there and blankly looked around the table wondering why the sound had suddenly stopped.  I retraced my words and instantly turned bright purplish-red.  At this point,  my host mother knew that I had made a little ‘boo-boo’ and laughed it off.  Needless to say, I have never been so glad to hear slurping resume during dinner!

Speaking of Ramen, another thought comes to mind.  Through my observations and personal attempts, I still am unable to discover how to successfully slurp soup noodles with the same vigor as my Japanese host sisters without risking choking and sustaining serious burns!  How exactly is this amazing feat accomplished!?!


Soup Love

Soup has bestowed upon me, some of my fondest memories.  Like the time I had been looking forward to helping my dad make Matzo Ball Soup for the very first time.  I believe I was about eight years old.  We were determined to make everything from scratch, including the broth.  It’s too bad we didn’t notice that we used jumbo eggs instead of the regular eggs the recipe called for.  That night we dined on broth and rocks or, as these types of Matzo Balls are famously called, ‘sinkers’!

In summation, it seems we have covered everything about soup from, well, soup to nuts! For more facts about soup culture visit Soupsong. I would like everyone to remember that, from the Inuit family gathered around the communal soup pot, or the little girl sick in bed, soup is not only nourishment for the stomach, it warms and feeds the soul.

{Till next time: Eat Well, Stay Safe, Be Happy!}