The art of slurping


ACCORDING to cricket historians, Australian left arm spinner of the 1930s, Bert Ironmonger, missed out on tours of England because he made noises while drinking soup. Well, that was an odd reason for dropping a good player but then in the stiff upper-lipped English society, any such noise would not have been welcome. I once came across a definition of ``Manners'' as the ``Noise which one does not make while drinking soup''. Poor Ironmonger!

I thought of soup and slurping noises associated with it some days ago when two of our friends gifted us with tea cups, saucers and mugs. We really did not need the extra crockery but then how can one refuse a gift? It was while putting the crockery on the kitchen shelf, that I recollected how at one stage of my life, I had no need for it.

Today, I start the day with two mugs of hot tea followed by smaller cups of tea or coffee at regular intervals. It was not like this during our childhood. Cups and saucers were not used at home. My earliest recollection was drinking milk from a silver glass, which we called ``tumbler''. The silver glasses disappeared after some time and we switched over to stainless steel. Unable to forget the ``silver'', we call these ``ever silver''.

The art of drinking beverages was also different. In orthodox Brahmin homes, the tumbler was not supposed to touch the lips. There had to be some distance between the cup, oops sorry, tumbler, and the lip and elders frowned if they detected any direct contact. The glass had to be washed immediately because it had become impure. It was difficult to drink hot coffee, tea or milk, keeping the tumbler away from the lips, some would blow into the glasses.

The coffee could not be relished but then what else could be done? When guests arrived, coffee was served in a tumbler along with a small vessel called davarah. I don't know anything about the origin of the word, is it from Tamil? Tumbler and davarah went together like cup and saucer or idli and sambar. If the coffee or tea served in the tumbler along with the davarah was piping hot, you could pour the beverage into the davarah, allow it to cool and then drink it. But no sipping please!

The "Brahmin" hotels served tea or coffee in the same manner. The waiters performed a mini-circus act by whooshing down the coffee from the tumbler into the davarah and then from the davarah into the tumbler. I watched in fascination. Those days, one of my ambitions was to become a ``server'' (waiter) so that I could eat as many sweets as I wanted to. Since I was naturally clumsy, I worried if I would ever master the ``whoosh, whoosh'' skill! The "non-Brahmin" or ``military'' eateries served tea in glasses, but then I never visited these.

The same technique was followed while drinking water — no contact between the tumbler and the lip. You kept the tumbler high up, poured the water down the throat which resulted in sounds like ``glug, glug glug''. This was an accepted practice and no one frowned at it. Tamil Nadu being hot, one was always thirsty and quite often downed two or three tumblers of water at a time with the ``glug, glug'', sound. If any Tamil Nadu cricketer had made these sounds, he would not have been dropped from the team, like poor Ironmonger.

There is just one instance when contact with the mouth is permitted. This is when you eat from a stainless steel plate and have to finish the remnants of rasam or moru (buttermilk). Since it is not possible to use your hand and tackle these liquid items, we were allowed to lift the plate and sip the liquid from it. This is called thooki kudiyal, roughly translated as ``lift and drink''. I think this is permitted because the used plate, unlike the water tumbler, went straight to the sink to be washed.

Thooki kudiyal is not practised when you eat from the traditional banana leaf. Here one used one's hand as effectively as possible to collect the watery items like rasam, moru and payasam. The more you enjoy the food, the more slurping noises you made. I still remember my grandfather's technique while finishing the pal payasam. The right hand collected as much of the stuff as possible, and he almost leapfrogged from his seat (like Hanuman's initial effort while jumping over the ocean to reach Lanka) as the payasam reached its destination accompanied by loud slurps. If the sweet was particularly delicious he exclaimed, ``Beshu, beshu'' (Excellent, excellent).

Looking at me he yelled, ``Tholupuda, tholupuda'' urging me to eat in the same manner! Tholuparathu, like thooki kudiyal, was a typical Brahmin Tamil expression.

I don't remember when we switched to cups and saucers. But I remember that the coffee served in tumblers was more filling. Even today, many South Indian homes and restaurants have not switched to cups and saucers. But there is a difference, contact between lip and tumbler is permitted though in more traditional homes, water is drunk from the tumblers in the old style.

South Indian Brahmin culture being unique, I don't think it will have encouraged the Japanese tea drinking ceremony, where people sip very slowly, endless cups of tea from very small cups. I always wonder how the Japanese find time to invent so many electronic items when half their lifetime is spent in tea drinking ceremonies. Or have they gone out of fashion? Similarly, the average Tamil Brahmin will not be happy in sipping wine ever so slowly. On the few occasions when I was offered wine at parties, I found sipping it slowly rather irritating. I would rather have taken big gulps and finished with it, without of course making the ``glug, glug'' sounds. As for the Japanese tea drinking ceremony, just forget it.