Chopsticks are wonderful utensils. Sure, they’re not always appropriate. It’s hard to eat a steak and potatoes with chopsticks. But for many dishes, chopsticks are easier and faster to use than a knife and fork, once you get used to them.
A note before we begin: some of the usage rules might seem unnecessarily strict. In truth, if you’re eating at home you can do what you want with your chopsticks. In the same way, despite years of my grandmother chiding me for licking my ice cream bowl, now I’m an adult and she can’t stop me. Sorry, Nana. The purpose of these rules and guidelines is simply to make things easier, avoid causing offense, and be able to eat with chopsticks without looking outright barbaric.
The right way to hold them
Some Westerners are reluctant to use chopsticks due to a perceived difficulty. This is silly. They aren’t difficult, but you do need to get used to them. While you can hold your chopsticks however you like, there is a proper way of holding them which thousands of years of use suggests is the easiest and most elegant. (You’ll want to follow along in the picture above.) You hold one chopstick in your dominant hand between your pointer, middle finger, and thumb, and when you move it up and down, your thumb should be stationary. You can practice with a single chopstick to get this right. The other chopstick goes between your thumb and your palm, rests on your ring finger, and stays still.
And that’s it! It might look difficult, but it’s just one of those things: like riding a bike, rolling your R’s, or opening a beer bottle with another beer bottle: you get better with practice. To be fair, while this is considered the proper way to hold chopsticks, a large number of people who eat with chopsticks regularly just do it however it feels right to them. According to a Meijiro University study in 2012, only 30 percent of Japanese people aged from their 40s to their 50s actually held their chopsticks in the proper way. In Singapore, it is apparently common for people to rest the ends of the chopsticks between the thumb and forefinger and manipulate the top chopstick with the middle and forefinger alone. This is considered a more awkward position, but it clearly works for them.
So if you already have a satisfactory way of using chopsticks, you can get away with it even though witnesses might occasionally shake their heads at you. But if you’re a complete chopstick novice, you’re probably better off learning the standard position. You need to know the rules before you can break them!
Usage rules of thumb
While there are differences in chopstick etiquette across cultures, there are also some common blunders. It is generally considered rude to impale food with chopsticks, though people do it sometimes. (You might as well eat with toothpicks, but whatever.) Chopsticks should not be used to move bowls and plates around either, because you have hands for a reason. One of the most important taboos is never to stick your chopsticks upright in your rice at the table. This resembles incense sticks burned to venerate deceased loved ones, and thus is seen as a harbinger of death. This taboo is common across chopstick-using cultures, as reminding people of their impending mortality at the dinner table is gauche at best wherever you are.
It should go without saying you shouldn’t play with your chopsticks. Don’t use them as drumsticks. Don’t bang on your bowl and demand immediate sustenance. Don’t gesticulate wildly with them. Don’t stick them in your mouth and pretend to be a walrus or a vampire with absurdly long fangs. None of that. Have I done all of these things? Well, yes, but you’re better than that.
In Japanese etiquette it’s considered improper to lay your chopsticks across your bowl at the end of the meal. You might be forgiven for wondering what on Earth you should do with them. Fear not! Japanese restaurants that expect you to eat this elegantly will provide a hashioki, a chopstick rest. Originally developed in the Heian period as an earthernware holder to keep chopsticks warm during state banquets, they’ve since been refined to keep chopsticks clean and show off one’s refinement to guests.
Even some disposable chopstick makers have planned for this. In 2016, Twitter user Trash Panda realized the chunk of wood at the end of some disposable chopsticks could be snapped off to serve as a makeshift hashioki, which caused a surprisingly large segment of social media to collectively exclaim, “Oh, what? Of course! I’m an idiot for not realizing.” If your disposable chopsticks don’t have the bit at the end, you can always roll up the paper sleeve the chopsticks come in to fashion a makeshift chopstick rest. According to Rocket News, this is also an opportunity to practice your origami skills, though I suspect some purists would consider this as following the letter of the etiquette rules but not the spirit.
While food in ancient China was eaten with both a spoon and chopsticks, eating culture changed in the Song dynasty to only using chopsticks for reasons which are not completely understood but possibly related to the increased consumption of clumpy rice and the increased popularity of communal eating. Today chopsticks are used to eat everything except soup (use your spoon), Peking duck (use your hands), and some desserts.
Today in China (as well as Vietnam), it is perfectly OK to pick your bowl up and shovel rice into your mouth, though this is frowned upon elsewhere. This makes sense when you consider Chinese chopsticks are round unlike their square Japanese and Korean counterparts. You pick up your bowl with your thumb on the mouth of the bowl and your fingers supporting the bottom. Not picking up your bowl and just leaning forward into it is considered rude as well as bad for digestion. It is a faux pas to allow the eating ends of your chopsticks to touch the table, and thus you should put them across your bowl or on a handy chopstick rest. Banging your bowl with the chopsticks is considered reminiscent of beggars asking for food and is best avoided.
The Japanese language has a lot of chiding words for chopstick no-nos: “namidahashi” (“tearing chopsticks”) for when they’re covered in food scraps or used to pick food up from the table, “saguribashi” (“probing chopsticks”) when using them to dig for food rather than decisively selecting a piece, “mayoibashi” (“lost chopsticks”) for indecisively pointing one’s chopsticks at different dishes, “utsuribashi” (“transporting chopsticks”) for transporting food from one pair of chopsticks to another, and “neburibashi” (“licking chopsticks”) for when someone sticks their chopsticks in their mouth for too long and makes noises. Similar expressions exist in other Asian languages, and you can tell people did these things all the time by the fact they had to invent words for them.
Japanese chopstick use differs from standard Chinese practice in some ways: while placing your chopsticks across your bowl after eating is fine in China and Taiwan, in Japan it’s a faux pas. Perhaps the etiquette point the Japanese are particular sticklers about is their disdain for “jikabashi” (“direct chopsticks”) using one’s own chopsticks to take food from the collective plates. To do so is seen as unhygienic, and uncomfortably reminiscent of the way bones are handled during funeral rites. While traditionally it was proper to use a different pair of chopsticks to move the food from communal plate to eating plate, many modern Japanese adopt a compromise of reversing the chopsticks in their hands when taking communal food instead. This isn’t really considered good manners either, but it’s better than nothing.
via: INFORMATION NIGERIA