If you are going to eat Asian food that requires the use of chopsticks, it is a good idea to spend some time practicing and preparing when you are at home. This way, by the time you are ready to use them in public you will feel confident about your abilities. Before you start it’s a good idea to first discover the origins of this handy and sometimes trying ethnic tableware.
Chopsticks are equal length sticks that are used to pick food off the plate or bowl, and place it on your plate or in your mouth. They are traditionally used in China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. It is believed that they were first used in China and then their use became popular in other parts of the South East Asia. The Chinese consider the fork and knife to symbolize violence, and instead prefer to use chopsticks which reflect benevolence and gentleness.
The Chinese word for chopsticks is kuaizi, which is a semantic phonetic word and has two parts that mean, ‘quick’ and ‘bamboo’. The bamboo sticks or kuaizi were designed to assist people when they were eating. And the aim was to offer a quicker and better way of eating the meal. Chopsticks are known by different names in different countries. In Japan they are called hashi, and in Korea they are referred to as jeotgarak. Even though the nomenclature differs, the chopsticks remain the same, as does the basic manner of handling them. Traditionally it is believed that the food that is served tastes better when you use chopsticks and not western tableware.
Types of Chopsticks
Chopsticks are traditionally made of bamboo. However, you may also find those made with ivory, silver and other metals. It’s a good idea to begin with a pair of bamboo chopsticks. Metal chopsticks are heavy and are difficult to get a good grip on. Those made of ivory are easier to grip, but are heavy too. Bamboo or wooden chopsticks are a good choice. They would need to be cleaned and dried properly after use. You could also try the disposable bamboo chopsticks that many restaurants offer nowadays. Do avoid selecting chopsticks that have a lot of painting on them or are colored, as it may taint your food.
Picking up Chopsticks
When you pick up your chopstick the broader end will rest in the connecting area that lies between your thumb and your index finger. Shape your hand as if you’re preparing to hold an egg. The middle part of the chopstick will rest on the top of your little finger. With the connecting area of the thumb and index finger, the top knuckle of the thumb and the little finger you will create a sort of lever for the chopstick. This is the chopstick that stays in place. Grip it firmly but not too tight or hard.
The base or broader end of the second chopstick is placed in the connecting area between the thumb and the index finger, and lies against the latter. The top part of the middle finger, the lower portion of the index finger and the top of the thumb are used to hold the chopstick in place.
When you are comfortable holding the chopsticks, it’s time to try moving them. Keep the first chopstick in place and use the second chopstick, the one that uses the top part of the middle finger to push it close to the first chopstick. The first chopstick is meant to stay in the same position and acts like an anchor of sorts, the second one moves close to and away from the first, depending on whether you are grasping or releasing the food. An easy way to accomplish this delicate movement is by gently loosening or tightening the grip of the middle finger.
Once you have practiced these moves a few times you may try to pick up small pieces of food from the plate and place it in your mouth. Do take care to keep an even grip or the food may slip away from the chopsticks. Also don’t allow the broader ends of the chopsticks to cross each other as you won’t be able to close the narrow ends, and pick or hold food. As in most things in life, using chopsticks is also a matter of practice.
A Useful Trick to Help You
If you are finding it difficult to get a grasp of the chopsticks or use them properly, there is a simple trick to making the learning process easier. You will need a pair of disposable chopsticks that come in their own paper packaging, and a rubber band. Remove the chopsticks carefully from the wrapper, taking care to only tear one end from where you take out the chopsticks. If the chopsticks are attached, separate them and get rid of any splinters by rubbing them against each other. Do remember not to do this in public, as it conveys that the chopsticks are cheap.
Now roll the wrapper until you have a small paper roll, the thickness of a pencil. Place the paper at the broader end of the chopsticks. If you’d like, you can use a small piece of tape to keep the roll from opening up. Use the rubber band to hold the broader ends of the chopsticks together with the paper roll placed in the middle. The rolled up wrapper acts as a fulcrum and facilitates smooth and easy movement. This trick will help you understand how the thumb and the connecting area, with the index finger play a key role in holding the chopsticks steady. Now use the chopsticks as you would as per the initial instructions. Once you get used to the movement, you can avoid the wrapper and rubber band trick. This trick is also great for kids who are learning to use the chopsticks.
A Few Don’ts to Bear in Mind
- Many patrons try to smoothen out disposable chopsticks by rubbing them against each other, a motion which is kind of like sharpening knives. This is considered impolite. If you have to smoothen out the chopsticks, do it discreetly.
- Don’t use chopsticks that are not of the same pair, or are of different lengths. The Chinese believe that this brings bad luck.
- Don’t use two pair of chopsticks at the same time.
- Don’t play with the chopsticks, or point it at someone, even if you are gesturing at your dinner date. Do not treat your chopsticks as drumsticks and tap them on the table.
- Don’t hit the bowl or plate with your chopsticks. Beggars did this in ancient China to get people’s attention.
- Don’t stick the chopsticks in a bowl of rice. This is considered as impolite to the host and other guests seated on the table. A Chinese funeral ritual requires two incense sticks to be placed in a bowl of rice or sand. If you place chopsticks in the rice it is reminiscent of this ritual and looks like a shrine.
- Don’t cross your chopsticks on the plate. This is a signal to the server and lets them know that you are done and they may clear away your plate.
- Don’t stick the chopstick in food and impale it. This tableware is not to be used as a fork.
- If you are passing food to your dinner date, or a guest on the table, place the food on their plate, and allow them to pick it with their own chopsticks.
Table Manners for Chopsticks
Chopsticks are conventional tableware in several countries including China, Japan, Vietnam and Korea. There are several cultural differences amongst these nations when it comes to food etiquette. It may be difficult for you to keep a track of them, so you can just stick to a basic etiquette guide that will ensure that you enjoy your meal, and don’t offend anyone while you do so.
- The chopsticks are usually kept on the right side of the plate. When you are not using the chopsticks, place them on the chopstick holder. If you are using the disposable kind, then use the paper wrapper to fashion a holder for yourself.
- Don’t use your chopsticks to serve food from a common plate. Serving chopsticks are to be used for this purpose. Usually restaurants offer serving chopsticks which may have a band of color on the broad end to differentiate them from personal chopsticks.
- When you are eating rice, it is acceptable to pick the bowl off the table and place it closer to your face. And then use the chopsticks to place the rice in your mouth. This will also avoid dropping rice grains.
- Don’t hold the spoon and the chopsticks together, nor should you try to use them in unison.
- When you use chopsticks, bear in mind that you shouldn’t drop them on the ground. The Chinese believe that their ancestors live underground, and dropping the chopsticks on the ground disturbs them.