Understanding Chopstick Use and Etiquette

Is this what you look like when eating with chopsticks?

Want to be more like this guy?

Then read on…

Firstly, if you’re not too great with chopsticks, don’t fret. According to a 2012 Mejiro University study, even the Japanese get it wrong – in fact, over 70 percent of Japanese people in their 40’s and 50’s hold chopsticks incorrectly!

Chopsticks are a mainstay of dinner tables in Japan and throughout Asia, so why are so many of us getting it wrong? According to the report, it might all start with the size of the chopsticks being used.

Size matters

When eating in a restaurant you are typically given standard sized chopsticks, which are around 23cm long. But that’s the typical size for men only, with most women better suited to chopsticks with a length of around 21cm. For kids, the size varies depending on the age range, but as a general guide, a four-year-old should look for chopsticks around 15cm long. If you are wondering what chopstick length is right for you, you can measure this by calculating the distance between your thumb and your pointer finger when stretched. Multiply that length by 1.5 and you’ll have your answer.

Now, that’s all well and good, but how often do restaurants offer you a range of chopsticks to choose from? Not very often, that’s for sure. So let’s say you’re given a set of standard 23cm chopsticks; how do you actually use them?

Step 1: The handling

Pick up the first chopstick and place it between your middle finger and the base of your thumb. This stick is your anchor and should not move.

Stiffen your hand to create a firm grip and allow the broad end of the chopstick to lay in the crook of your hand where your thumb and pointer finger connect. The narrow end of your chopstick should be between the base of your thumb and the side of your index finger.

Next, grip the second chopstick with your index finger and thumb, and adjust the grip until it feels comfortable. The narrow tips of your chopsticks should be level with one another, allowing them to “pinch” the food. To get them even you could try tapping them gently on the table.

Step 2: The maneuvering

Start by opening and closing the chopsticks to get the feel of how they move. If the broad ends overlap when opened, you’re holding it wrong, and your grip will need to be adjusted.

Move the upper chopstick using your thumb, index and middle fingers, and working at a 45 degrees angle, pinch the food between the lower and upper chopsticks.

Step 3: The eating

Once you get good at eating one type of food, move onto different sizes and textures. When really confident, try your hand at noodles!

Chopsticks were first used as an eating utensil in China, but today they are used to eat a wide variety of foods such as Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Malaysian. Each country has their own form of etiquette surrounding the use of chopsticks, and you should try and familiarise yourself with these when eating out – especially if you’re travelling abroad!

Japanese chopstick etiquette

The art of eating is taken relatively seriously in Japan. Eating with chopsticks comes with certain ground rules, and these should be followed whenever possible.

1. Don’t eat directly from common dishes

Food should not be taken directly from a communal dish, and should instead be transferred to your own bowl or plate before eating it.

2. Use your chopstick holder

Many Japanese restaurants will provide a chopstick holder, and these should be used whenever your aren’t eating. If using disposable chopsticks, you can try making a chopstick rest by folding it’s paper wrapper. Always refrain from placing your chopsticks upright in your rice, as this resembles a ceremony performed at funerals in Japan.

3. Don’t hover

If you’re not too sure which dish to take from, don’t hover your chopsticks over the top as you think about it. This is considered greedy (sashi bashi).

4. Don’t dig

There may be a juicy piece of meat in the bottom of the dish, but that doesn’t mean you can rummage to get it out. Use your chopsticks to take food only from the top, and refrain from digging for your food.

5. Don’t share via chopsticks

Never pass food from chopsticks to chopsticks, as this resembles a custom held at Japanese funerals in which cremated bones are ceremoniously transferred to the urn. This is probably the biggest taboo at the Japanese dinner table.

6. Put your chopsticks down when not eating

If you’re pausing from your food to have a chat, don’t hold your chopsticks in your hand while you do so. If you do happen to have them in your hand, be careful not to point them at people as you talk.

7. Don’t cross chopsticks

When chopsticks are being rested, make sure they are parallel to each other and not crossing. Crossed chopsticks are again a reminder of funeral ceremonies.

8. Return chopsticks after use

If you have a wrapper for your chopsticks, your chopsticks should be returned to that wrapper when finished with.

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