It was my first time. The sounds inside the small, ancient, wooden Kyoto noodle restaurant were deafening. The weather outside was 32C with 90% humidity. Inside were tables of men dressed in uniform grey salaryman suits and ties, sticks snatching clumps of chilled Soba, dipping once quickly in tsuyu sauce before bowing their heads over bamboo plates and viciously sucking the living buckwheat out of this ultimate noodle at decibel levels rivaling Narita’s runway #16R . At first I started inhaling the noodles gently and quietly, but purposely grew louder each time the chopsticks visited my lips, focusing on the reality that my mother’s wagging “watch your manners” finger was safely 6000 miles out of reach and my hosts’ eyes were dancing three feet from the point of my nose expressing apologetic remorse over my reticence to suck down my lunch noodles as if I were inhaling a long harmonica note.
Traversing the Pacific and firmly back in western culture, a couple of wino friends, strangers, and I recently sat around a table at a three star restaurant in the midst of a tasting dinner hosted by a premier California Syrah producer. We were visually inspecting, swirling, sticking noses deeply into glassware, tilting back slightly to pour the viscous purple fluid into our mouths, squishing from cheek to cheek, chewing the wine,dripping crimson drops from corners of our mouths, until a deep inhale sucks the oxygen out of the room through spaces in our teeth, creating thundering reverberations of gurgling fluid disappearing down our throats.
Separate ends of the earth, both reflect locally accepted practice generating intrusive and uncomfortable behavior to an outsider looking in. Encounters like these can be disquieting to even the most ardent cultural explorer. I am amused that simple airplane trips can land me with other humans employing totally different social filters to bodily noise and hygiene. I secretly lust to toss ingrained social violations to the wind for no other reason than “it’s OK here”. During my early tasting years opinion leaders insisted that aerating wine, chewing it, sucking it, and gurgling it either oxygenated it or slammed the molecules around providing a fuller opening and inspection of the wine. I have since watched unknowing dinner companions wince when I sucked the wine through my teeth out of habitual reflex. But OK, I understand why I do it and buy into it. During my first visits to Japan in the early 90s, I became aware that slurping soba, ramen, and udon was the way to express your gratitude to the chef and dealing nimbly and quietly with the noodles showed disinterest in the food. This also makes sense to me and seductively draws me to compliance through its deep cultural roots.
Now, if clamoring molecules or satisfied chefs do not motivate you, there is a new imperative for swishing wine around your mouth until you are blue in the face and purple in the teeth. Eric Asimov and The Pour suggest there is lots of information supporting health benefits from moderate wine drinking, and if you don’t believe that, just drink and enjoy and stay healthy anyway. While it is old news that red wine can enhance good health if consumed in moderation (I read somwhere that following the quid pro quo of tobacoo and lung cancer, red wine and better health have the next largest amount of supportive research. Still the New York Times and a summary Dr. Vino post suggest that it is possible that healthy, exercising, non smoker people drink wine in moderation in the first place, so good health preceeds the moderate wine pattern), it is new news that letting it hang around in your mouth for extended periods increases the chances that you will live longer.
This past Friday, the Science Daily announced that a report will be released in September called Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research that offers a particular focus on red wine’s polyphenols and in particular, resveratrol. Lindsay Brown, associate professor in the School of Biomedical Sciences at The University of Queensland and corresponding author for the study says:
Red wine contains a complex mixture of bioactive compounds, including flavonols, monomeric and polymeric flavan-3-ols, highly colored anthocyanins, as well as phenolic acids and the stilbene polyphenol, resveratrol. Brown said that some of these compounds, particularly resveratrol, appear to have health benefits.
The breadth of benefits is remarkable – cancer prevention, protection of the heart and brain from damage, reducing age-related diseases such as inflammation, reversing diabetes and obesity, and many more. It has long been a question as to how such a simple compound could have these effects but now the puzzle is becoming clearer with the discovery of the pathways, especially the sirtuins, a family of enzymes that regulate the production of cellular components by the nucleus.
The kicker is that you just can’t drink it down. Sip and swallow just might not do the job. Stephen Taylor, professor of pharmacology at the University of Queensland, suggests that it not only pays to focus on resveratrol’s inherent qualities, but also on ways to maximize your body’s ability to access them:
Resveratrol is largely inactivated by the gut or liver before it reaches the blood stream, where it exerts its effects. Thus, most of the reseveratrol in imbibed red wine does not reach the circulation. Interestingly, absorption via the mucous membranes in the mouth can result in up to around 100 times the blood levels, if done slowly rather than simply gulping it down.
So take it slow, enjoy the tasting benefits of aeration, and slurp and suck your wine long and loud enough to wake the neighbors without guilt. You just might live longer.