Bill Bryson, author of humorous travelogues, wrote, “And I find chopsticks frankly distressing. Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back 3,000 years haven't yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food?” – an excerpt from Notes from a Small Island.
Most Westerners feel the same way as Mr Bryson about eating with chopsticks, yet for Asians, their use is second nature, and from a young age, they can master the art of using these simple, yet infuriating utensils. To them, knives at the table are taboo, and in contrast to the Western writer’s statement above, ancient Chinese philosopher, Confucius, wrote, "The honourable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives on his table." Now few will agree with his out-dated theory that men should stay away from the kitchen, and in fact, most of Samui’s top chefs are men. But many Asians do believe that knives should not be used at the table – granted, a thick fillet steak is not a regular dish on the Asian menu, and most meals are already served bite-sized. Confucius equated knives with acts of aggression, which went against his non-violent teachings, and some experts credit his influence with the widespread adoption of chopsticks throughout China.
So let’s look at the history of chopsticks. While the precise origin of chopsticks is unknown, they were definitely in use by the Shang dynasty (1766 BC - 1122 BC). Their increasing popularity since that time may actually be linked to Chinese cooking methods - before stir-frying the food is cut into tiny pieces, making them easy to manipulate with a chopstick.
For Westerners, the majority of which are fork-using eaters, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the fork has only recently become common cutlery at the dinner table. True, the Byzantines used forks in the 10th century, and Catherine de M'edici introduced this pronged utensil to the French court in the early 1500s. But in the USA, it wasn't until the eighteenth century that people felt the need for more than a knife and spoon. By contrast, chopsticks have been the utensils of choice throughout all of China since the Han dynasty (approximately 200 BC to 200 AD).
Most foodies will agree that Chinese food just tastes better when eaten with chopsticks – in much the same way that pizza or hamburgers really should be eaten with the hands. Not sure how to handle your ‘Kuai zi’? (The word "chop" is pidgin English for kuai, which means quick or speedy, as in chop chop). Here’re a few tips to get you using them like a pro:
If possible, use wood or bamboo chopsticks when you’re a novice, as plastic chopsticks are more slippery and harder to hold. Always grip the chopsticks in the middle, making sure that the ends are even and do not cross. Pick up a chopstick and hold it so that it's resting comfortably between the tip of your fourth finger (the ring finger) and the hollow gap between your thumb and index finger. Keep the fourth finger straight. This will be the bottom chopstick. Now pick up the other chopstick and place it on top, firmly between the tips of your thumb, index and middle fingers. The index and middle fingers should be curled.
When eating, always keep the bottom chopstick stationary and use the top chopstick to move and pick up food. To pick up food, straighten your index and middle fingers as much as needed to move the top chopstick outward. Grab the food, and then bring the chopsticks together by curling your index and middle fingers. The basic idea is to use the chopstick as a pivot, with the thumb being the axle. Lift the food up to your mouth, leaning over if necessary. (It’s not rude to lean over your plate as it is in the West). For food that contains bones (such as chicken), hold the food with the chopsticks and eat around the bone. Children often find it easier to hold chopsticks nearer the bottom instead of in the middle.
No matter where you happen to be enjoying Asian food in the world, knowing how to use chopsticks correctly will come in handy, and a little practice will stop you feeling like a clumsy idiot. But knowing how to use them is one thing. Being a real pro means that you also understand chopsticks etiquette and the dos and don’ts of using them.
Despite the temptation to play with them, remember that chopsticks are eating utensils, just as a knife and fork. You would never play drums on the table with two spoons (well, you shouldn’t), point at someone with a fork, or leave a knife standing up stuck into a steak, so treat your chopsticks the same.
When taking a break, place your chopsticks neatly to the right of your plate, preferably with the tips on the provided rest and without pointing them in anyone's immediate direction. Putting chopsticks on top of your bowl or plate indicates that you are finished and the staff may whisk it away before you can enjoy that bite you were saving for last!
Chopsticks may seem extremely impractical for eating certain foods. However, there are polite ways to overcome this issue. In many Asian countries a spoon will accompany dishes that are difficult to manage with only chopsticks. And lifting a bowl to face-level and pushing rice into your mouth is both acceptable and perfectly normal in all parts of Asia with the exception of Korea. Alternatively, chopsticks can be held side by side to shovel rice from your plate. While considered impolite in the West, slurping soup and noodles, even noisily, is perfectly acceptable in Asia. It’s also quite fine to drink directly from your soup bowl.
Large chunks of food can be torn or cut apart on your plate using chopsticks, but it’s bad manners to impale a big piece of food as a way to transfer it to your mouth If no serving utensils are provided at a communal meal, turn your chopsticks around to use the clean ends when transferring food from communal dishes onto your own plate.
A few more no-nos when using chopsticks include the following:
Don’t tap your chopsticks together in the air or on a bowl to make noises (yet slurping is fine?). Don’t leave them standing vertically in a bowl, and don’t use them to gesture or point at other people or dishes, in much the same way as you wouldn’t use your knife to point at somebody. Don’t hold chopsticks in a clenched fist as you would a weapon and don’t suck sauce off the end of your sticks.
Remember not to pass food to other people using your chopsticks, as doing so resembles the practice of passing cremated bones at a funeral. Rather, put the piece of food you want to share directly onto the other person’s place (with the other end).
And if you really want to be adept at chopsticks etiquette, then here are some more tips to consider:
Particularly when eating in Japan, allow elders or senior members at the table to lift their chopsticks first. Don't pick through dishes (either communal or on your own plate) for morsels of meat or vegetables that happen to be your favourite. Also, avoid crossing your chopsticks, as it symbolises death in some cultures. If disposable chopsticks were used, place them back inside of the paper wrapper at the end of your meal and leave them to the right of your plate. Koreans use spoons to eat soups and even rice. But always put your chopsticks to the right side of your spoon when resting on the table … as the reverse is done at memorial dinners for deceased loved ones, so you could easily offend without realising it.
Now while wooden chopsticks are easier to use, as they are less slippery than the plastic or metal varieties, there’s a factor to consider when using them. Demand for disposable chopsticks far surpasses the ability to make them from wood scrap or off-cut wood. This means that an estimated 20 million mature trees are logged each year just to supply China alone with billions of throwaway chopsticks. Plastic and metal chopsticks are far more sustainable – or if you want to use wood, let them be reusable ones. And that’s not even considering the vast quantity of paper or polystyrene takeaway containers that accompany these disposable chopsticks. Quite something to consider, isn’t it?