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Chopsticks: Proper Usage, Etiquette and Fun Facts

Chopsticks – how can two small pieces of wood transport you to a gustatory wonderland?

Chopsticks are the utensils of choice in East and Southeast Asian cuisines, including Japanese cuisine. But have you ever wondered how the use of these sticks came about and became an integral component of the culture and food heritage of several countries?

The history of chopsticks

The Chinese are credited for inventing chopsticks as early as 1200 BC. Historians estimate that around the year 500 AD, the use of these utensils spread to nearby countries, including Japan.

Initially, chopsticks were invented primarily for cooking. Around the year 400 AD, fueled by a population boom in China as well as the need to conserve resources, Chinese cooks needed to find a way to cut corners and make efficient use of what little available resources they had at hand. Their answer: Develop new cooking methods for bite-sized meals.

The invention of these bite-sized meals rendered knives obsolete, and these were immediately replaced by chopsticks.

In Japan, chopsticks are used to consume just about any food. In countries that use chopsticks, the utensils may be fashioned out of a variety of materials, including bamboo, which is sometimes treated with lacquer or resin.

The proper way to use chopsticks

Contrary to what some people may believe, there is a specific way to use chopsticks. (Well, at least for the Japanese.)

Start by grasping one of the chopsticks at about a third of the way using your index finger and your thumb. Your ring or middle finger should act as support.

Then, once you have the first stick firmly in the ideal position, you should place its pair between your index finger and thumb. The base of your thumb and your ring finger should act as a support.

In moving the sticks, make sure that the back ends do not come together.

If you are inexperienced in using chopsticks, you can start practicing by picking up small food items.

Chopsticks etiquette

Although the Japanese use spoons, forks, and knives at home and restaurants, chopsticks remain their primary choice of utensils for eating meals.

In Japanese culture, chopsticks are not merely tools to pick up food items. For them, there are a few rules that must be observed. Knowledge of these rules can be particularly valuable if you are keen on visiting the country or if you simply want to practice proper etiquette the next time you visit a Japanese restaurant.

  • Do not stick chopsticks into your food
    This is especially true for rice bowls. Rice bowls with chopsticks stuck into these are typically offered to dead ancestors or to someone who is in their deathbed.
  • Avoid crossing the chopsticks
    Although it is nearly impossible to avoid crossing your chopsticks when eating, as much as possible, do not lay down your chopsticks crossed together on your plate or bowl.
  • Do not use chopsticks are skewers
    Chopsticks are meant to be used in pairs. It is a big no-no to use these as skewers. Also, avoid mixing and matching chopsticks. Doing so mimics a Japanese funeral ritual.
  • Do not pick or pass food from one pair of chopsticks to another
    The Japanese have a funeral rite wherein the bones from the cremains (cremated remains) are passed from one pair of chopsticks to another. Moving food from one pair of chopsticks to another is seen as poor form and can invite bad luck.
  • Do not let the chopsticks linger on your mouth
    Do not leave chopsticks hanging on your mouth when you are using your hands to do something. The Japanese also consider it impolite to suck or nibble on chopsticks.
  • Do not use chopsticks for purposes other than eating and cooking
    Using these utensils for play or as a hair accessory should be avoided. Do not use the sticks to play drums.Contrary to what some people may believe, chopsticks are not cool hair accessories. The Japanese use a hair ornament called kanzashi which look like chopsticks to the untrained eye.
  • Do not rub chopsticks together
    Rubbing wooden chopsticks together is only acceptable if these are fashioned out of cheap material that splinter. Rubbing chopsticks together is often viewed as an insulting act.
  • Pick up food slowly from your bowl
    The Japanese see it as poor form to shovel food from the rice or soup bowl directly to your mouth. Instead of doing this, bring up the bowl and then use your chopsticks to pick up the food.

When picking up food from a plate, leave the plate on the table and pick up the food to your mouth or transfer it directly to your rice bowl or another dish.

The Japanese also consider it rude to let your hand and chopsticks hover over plates and bowls. Choose which food item you want to get and then pick it up from the plate.

It is considered bad manners to use the chopsticks you use to eat to pick up food from a communal plate. Use the supplied utensils and put food on your bowl or plate. If there are no utensils provided, you can use the other end of your chopsticks.

Learning to use chopsticks properly is a great way to immerse yourself in the delectable world of Japanese cuisine. Want to hone your skills further? Schedule a visit to our restaurant today.