Chopsticks – what is it?
Eating implement for most Asians, a test of skill and dexterity for others. Who would have known that two pieces of wooden or metal sticks could have so much ado about them?
A pair of small even-length tapered sticks, chopsticks are the traditional eating utensils of East Asia. Used mostly in the countries of China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, chopsticks are commonly made of wood, bamboo, metal, bone, ivory, and in modern times, plastic as well.
It is believed that silver chopsticks were also used in Chinese royal palaces to detect poison in the royalty’s meals.
Chopsticks are traditionally held in the right hand only, even by the left-handed. (In Muslim nations, the left hand is used in the toilet, the right hand used for eating.) In modern times, biases against left-handed eating are becoming less severe, and so chopsticks might be held with either hand.
There are several types of chopsticks:
- Chinese – use long wooden sticks that taper to a rounded end; can sometimes be made out of plastic.
- Japanese – short wooden sticks that taper to a pointed end
- Korean – of medium length, are usually made up of stainless metal that taper to a blunt end. Wooden versions are also used.
- Vietnamese – long sticks that are tapered to a blunt end. Once traditionally made of wood, plastic versions are now used as well.
In practice, their use is an acquired skill that can take some mastery.
How to use Chopstick
- Put one chopstick between the palm and the base of the thumb, using the ring finger (the fourth finger) to support the lower part of the stick. With the thumb, squeeze the stick down while the ring finger pushes it up. The stick should be stationary and very stable.
- Use the tips of the thumb, index and middle fingers to hold the other stick like an ink pen. Make sure the tips of the two sticks line up.
- Pivot the upper stick up and down towards the stationary lower stick. With this motion one can pick up food of surprising size.
- With enough practice, the two sticks function like a pair of pincers.
Tip: For easier handling in the beginning, hold the sticks at the midpoint as a child would do. With proficiency, hold the sticks at the upper ends for a farther reach and a more mature and experienced look.
Held between the thumb and fingers of the right hand, they are used as tongs to take up portions of the food. Each morsel is then brought to the table cut up into small and convenient pieces, or as means for sweeping the rice and small particles of food into the mouth from the bowl. Many rules of etiquette govern the proper conduct of the chopsticks.
- Never wave your chopsticks around as if it was an extension of your hand gestures at the table. Do not use your chopsticks to attract attention, point to someone, or as “drum sticks” on the table.
- While using chopsticks to pick up food, the back of your hand should face the ceiling at all times. Twisting your chopsticks-holding wrist in such a way so that everyone can see your palm is considered “unrefined” in Chinese culture. Do not spear food with your chopstick.
- The chopsticks should have minimal contact with the mouth. It is poor table manners to suck on the tip of the chopsticks.
- If there are serving spoons or communal chopsticks with the serving dish, use those to get the food to your own plate/bowl before using your own set. In China, however, it is not unusual to use one’s own chopsticks to obtain food from the serving plates. This can often be alarming to those not familiar with the custom.
- Never use your chopsticks to pick up a piece of food directly from someone else’s chopsticks. Wait for the person to place the food into your bowl or on your plate before picking it up with your chopsticks.
- After you have picked up an item, it is yours. You should not put it back in the dish. (So set your aim before raising your chopsticks.)
- When picking up a piece of food, never use the tips of your chopsticks to poke through the food as if you were using a fork.
- It may be a polite gesture to serve the best piece of food and send it to your guests’ bowl. (Use caution in this practice; many people observe some kind of special diet and picking food for your guests may not be appropriate to each person’s tastes.) Furthermore, it is usually preferred, due to hygienic concern, to use the serving utensil instead of your own chopsticks to do this.
- Never rest chopsticks by sticking them point-first into a bowl of rice. This is reminiscent of ancestral offerings and funeral rites and can be seen as disrespectful.
- Chopsticks should not be rested on the table when not being used. They can be rested on one’s plate or bowl to keep them off the table entirely. A chopstick stand can also be used to keep the points off the table. A stand may be provided. Otherwise, one can be made by folding the wrapper that comes with the chopsticks.
- It is considered impolite to use chopsticks to push or pull bowls or plates around on the table.
- In Korea, each person’s chopsticks are used only for picking up food from the communal plates into each person’s bowl and rice is always eaten with metal spoons.
- In Chinese culture, it is not considered impolite to have your lips touching the edge of the rice bowl and using chopsticks to push rice directly into the mouth. In Japanese culture, however, the diner’s lips should never touch the edge of the rice bowl and chopsticks should be used to pick up the rice before putting it into the mouth.
- Chinese traditionally eat rice from a bowl. The rice bowl is raised to the mouth and the rice is shoveled into the mouth using the chopsticks. (Note that this Chinese etiquette is the exact opposite from the Japanese custom.) If Chinese rice is served on a plate, as is more common in the West, it is acceptable and more practical to eat it with a fork or spoon. It is quite tedious to try to pick up the rice, grain by grain, but some people will attempt to do this if they do not know that they are not expected to utilize the chopsticks in this manner.
- Do not lick or suck the ends of the chopsticks.
- Never use chopsticks to transfer something to someone else’s chopsticks, plates, or bowl.