Sage Asian Advice on Soup Etiquette,
but a real mixed bag
(Take It or Leave It)
Norine Dresser, Multicultural Manners, 1996:
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.
Margaret Visser, The Rituals of Dinner:
A Chinese banquet often begins with fruit and ends with soup.
World Food: Hong Kong, 2001:
The Chinese observe many ancient traditions of hospitality...it's fine to slurp noodles. It's fine to spit bones or shells onto the table when eating chicken or fish or shellfish. It's also ok to pick your teeth, while covering your mouth with your hand.
Lia S. Bernardo answers your Filipino etiquette questions, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 7/14/03:
Q: Is it ethical to drink your soup from a soup bowl with handles? My friend told me that for as long as there are handles on the bowl, one can drink from it. Is this true?
A: First of all; I would like to explain the difference between ethics and etiquette. Most people use the word ethical when asking questions on etiquette and these two words mean two different things. First of all, ethics pertains to morality and values. Thus, an example would be that it is unethical to lie on your resumé. As such, it is not unethical to drink from your soup bowl; there is no more dilemma in this. It is, however, a breach of etiquette to drink from your soup bowl at a formal dinner.
Etiquette rules are guidelines for proper and accepted social behavior, this is known as social graces, and business behavior as business etiquette. They are not connected to morality and values but rather they are guidelines to create an environment that will enable those who participate to build either social or business relationships.
Etiquette is a set of norms and rules that pertain to one's conduct and behavior when in the company of others, whereas ethics deals with morality and values.
Now, in answer to your question. It is a breach of etiquette to drink from your soup bowl. However, your friend is correct. If the soup bowl has handles, you are permitted to drink as if you are drinking from a cup. Knowing this, however, I do not advise that you drink from your soup bowl whether handles are present or not. It is so much more refined to take soup with a soup spoon.
Robert Whymant's "Slurping divides Japanese eaters," The London Times, 6/7/2001:
To slurp or not to slurp? That is the question taxing Japanese society as the young cast aside traditional etiquette in favour of Western lifestyles.
Junichiro Koizumi, the Prime Minister, slurps when he eats noodles, as do most male members of his Cabinet, but noisy eaters are a dying breed in Japan, where a vogue for eating noodles silently is taking hold.
The debate, on the front pages of newspapers, highlights a split between traditionalists, who shovel down their buckwheat noodles with loud sucking noises, and modern sophisticates, who chew noiselessly. Middle-aged and older Japanese were encouraged to slurp from childhood to show their appreciation of one of the country's cheapest meals. "It was always considered polite to eat noodles and soup with noisy relish," Masami Yasuda, 49, a textile importer, said. "They also taste better when you slurp."
Younger people--especially women--turn up their noses at a habit said to date back nearly 400 years, to the first buckwheat noodle restaurants in Tokyo. Some are afraid to stain their Prada outfits or Gucci shoes; for others it is a rebellion against the uncouth habits of older men, including their fathers, objects of scorn in today's youth culture.
"Younger people are following American and European manners," Tamami Kondo, head of the Seishikai Etiquette Academy in Tokyo, said, "and when they do eat noodles, they wrap them round their chopsticks as if eating spaghetti."
Knight Ridder News Service:
Forget everything your (Western) mother taught you about soup. The Japanese way is much more fun. You're supposed to slurp to cool down the hot soup. You can pick up the bowl and drain the soup.