Culture Code: All You Need to Know About Chopsticks

There’s a popular joke going around on the internet that says “Whatever you do, there’s always going to be an Asian who does it better”, same goes for eating food, how do they eat food with chopsticks, things which I can’t even hold! We’re all embarrassed of using them initially, the food slips out in between, or worse, you never get the food in the first place and end up piercing your chopsticks through the meat; all this while it takes your Asian counterpart just 2 minutes to finish a bowl of rice (yes, rice) with chopsticks! 
Here’s an article on them, on what they are, how to use them, what the differences are among different types of chopsticks and how they vary across Asian cultures.

 

PS: The author of this post is pretty skilled at eating with chopsticks, rice included. =P

Featured Image by Rafa Lorenzo.

 

Chopsticks have been around for four-to-five thousand years now, they became the way they are today after the Qing Dynasty made it’s impact in China. Chopsticks are thus, of Chinese origin. Eating with them was practiced because they were considered an extension of the fingers, that wouldn’t be affected by heat or cold. They are the utensil of choice in China, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, Thailand and parts of Nepal, though chopstick etiquette and sometimes the chopsticks themselves vary across countries. Other uses of this simple instrument are cooking and tying long hair!

Asian culture places high importance on manners and rituals, so another argument for using chopsticks is found in this Confucian thought;

“The honourable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen.  And he allows no knives on his table.”

It is worth noting that Asians don’t cut their food on the table, and use chopsticks as a dominant utensil, so the food, be it chunks of meat, or sushi or dumplings are already made in small sizes.

 

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CHOPSTICKS

Chinese Chopsticks: Or Kuaizi are relatively “unfinished”, meaning they are rough around the edges. They take a square-like shape on the edges so that they don’t roll off the table. Design wise, chopsticks here are less round and more sharp edged, rectangular.
Chopsticks in China are longer than any other type, this is because people in China eat from shared bowls and plates placed in the center of long Lazy Susan tables. Chinese chopsticks are made from bamboo, jade, ivory and other materials but universally, are roughly of the same length (10 Inches), of course the chopsticks being talked about here are the traditional ones, modern China and Chinese use a Japanese style chopstick for daily use.

They also double up as popular gifts in China because “good things come in pairs”

Image: Camille Orgel

Chinese chopsticks
Un-Tapered Chinese Chopsticks

Japanese Chopsticks: Or Hashi, are shorter in length as compared to Chinese counterparts, measuring in at 9 inches or lower. Japanese chopsticks vary for individuals, the “man of the house” has the longest pair, and the woman uses a shorter one, while the child uses the shortest chopsticks. This is also because unlike the Chinese, Japanese meals are served in individual bowls so chopsticks are used according to the size and stature of the person.

Japanese chopsticks are narrow, tapered unlike the Chinese kind, this is because sharper chopsticks help take out the bones from fish, which is an essential part of Japanese cooking. Thinner chopsticks can reach smaller pieces of bone easily, with a better grip. The material from which they are made varies from the significance of the event, ranging from wood to bone, among others.

Image: Charles Low

Japanese chopsticks
Tapered Japanese Chopsticks

Korean Chopsticks: Or Jeotgarak, are roughly the same length as Japanese chopsticks, what makes them unique is the fact that they are made of metal. Ignoring the fact that metallic chopsticks are heavier, in Korea they are made of this material because in the olden days, the Kings would eat with silver chopsticks, which would change color if the food was poisoned.

Korean eating etiquette is very different from the two mentioned above, they use spoons and scissors too, spoons are used to eat rice and soup, and those who use chopsticks to do the same are considered to be of a “lesser class”, the justification for using scissors probably lies in the Confucian thought of no knives on the table, so anything that does need to be cut will be cut using scissors.

Image: Abhijit Jadhav

korean chopsticks
Metallic Korean Chopsticks

 

Chopsticks
Top: Japanese Chopsticks, Center: Korean Chopsticks, Bottom: Chinese Chopsticks

Roughly judging, Chinese chopsticks can reach food that’s far away while the Japanese ones are best suited to eating smaller food, and the Korean ones are the most hygienic given that they are made of metal. Chopsticks in other regions like Thailand, Laos and Vietnam imitate the original Chinese design and aren’t very different.
Image: worldofchinese.com

 

CHOPSTICKS AND DINING ETIQUETTE

Before we tell you what should not be done in certain cultures, we will tell you how to use chopsticks!

The author of this post believes that there is no “correct way” to hold chopsticks because different people have different hands and as long as one can comfortably eat with chopsticks without making a mess, they’re doing it right. Either way, there is a widely used method of using chopsticks.

  • Place your first chopstick in the between your index finger and thumb, this should rest there and will always remain stationary. Lock it, by pushing it with your third finger so that it doesn’t move.
  • Take your second chopstick, align it with the tip of the first stationary chopstick, and hold it like pen using the fingertips of your thumb and index finger.
  • Practice the motion of your second chopstick (the one that moves), make sure your “up-down” action with the chopstick always lands on the stationary one.

These are three simple steps to use chopsticks, if they don’t work out you can always find a way to make something else work for you! Eating with chopsticks requires practice and strong fingers because we rely on their strength to pick up food with them.

Now that you know how to use chopsticks, here’s what you should NOT do with them in some parts of the world;

Chinese Culture

  • You should not pierce your food with chopsticks,
  • You should not play with your food by digging for specific things in the bowl (this is considered unholy),
  • You should not tap the edge of your bowl with them (beggars do this),
  • You should not point your chopsticks at anyone,
  • You should not let your palm face the ceiling while using them,
  • You should not use chopsticks for rice if it is served on a plate and not in a bowl, this stems from Chinese pragmatism.

Japanese Culture

  • You should not transfer food from one person’s chopsticks to another,
  • You should not stick them vertically in a rice bowl (this is a funeral ritual),
  • You should not use your own set of chopsticks while moving food from a communal plate into yours, ask for a new set to do so,
  • You should not rub broken chopsticks together,
  • You should not cross your chopsticks,
  • You should not place the chopsticks anywhere else other than the rest that is provided for them.

Korean Culture

  • You should not eat before the eldest member has begun eating,
  • Unlike Chinese and Japanese culture, you should not bring your bowl close to your mouth while eating,
  • You should not place your chopsticks to the left of your spoon, the spoon should be on the left,
  • You should not use chopsticks to eat rice, it is considered lowly,

Vietnamese Culture

  • Unlike Chinese culture, you may use them to eat rice from a plate,
  • Unlike Korean culture, you may raise your bowl to eat,
  • You should use both chopsticks at all times, even if it is just to stir something,
  • You should not directly consume from the communal plate, always transfer food into your own bowl first.
  • You should not make a “v” with your chopsticks.

Taiwanese Culture

  • You should not bite on your chopsticks or let them linger in your mouth for too long,
  • You should not use them with a soup bowl,
  • You should not place your chopsticks on the table, place them across the top of your bowl,
  • You should not transfer food from one set of chopsticks to another (like in Japanese culture)

Hong Kong/ Cantonese Culture

  • You should not commence till the eldest member has begun eating,
  • You should not put your chopsticks on the table once done eating, rest them on the bowl you ate from,
  • You should ask for a set of new of sticks while transferring food from a communal plate on to yours.

Lastly, it holds true universally that you should not use them to gather attention by making gestures, using them as drumsticks and so on and so forth, you should not hover them either, and lastly, you should not use chopsticks to transfer other utensils.


Who knew there was so much to know about chopsticks! It works great as a conversation starter too, next time you’re at an Asian restaurant, you’ll be glad you read this article.

 

 

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