7 Mistakes You Might Be Making When Using Chopsticks
For what really amounts to nothing more than a pair of small sticks, chopsticks can cause no end of anxiety in diners unfamiliar with them. It's not just a matter of using them when you've grown up using a fork and knife to eat, but there are also seemingly endless cultural taboos and Byzantine dining faux pas that can seem to pile up like grains of rice in an ochawan.
But don't worry! Though there's definitely an etiquette to chopstick use, both across the Asian countries that use them and sometimes specific to an individual culture, it's actually not as daunting a world as it might seem at first. In fact, once you understand why some things are encouraged and others are frowned upon, you may swiftly find yourself obeying the rules at an Asian or other chopstick-using dinner table without even thinking about them.
Here's all you really need to know about using chopsticks if you aren't familiar with them—or only know the rules of your culture.
Don't rub your chopsticks together to get rid of the splinters.
This is arguably the only cardinal sin of chopstick use no matter where you are. And, yes, it's true even if you're dealing with those cheap, one-use wooden chopsticks that come in a paper sleeve.
You may hear various variations of why this is frowned upon along the lines of "you're rubbing away your good luck," but the real reason is that it's deeply insulting to your host, implying that they could only supply you with subpar eating utensils. Think about how embarrassed you'd be if you invited guests over for dinner at your home, only to see them start wiping the water spots off your forks and spoons.
"It's ineffective and insulting to the people hosting you," says Elizabeth Andoh, head of A Taste of Culture, a Japanese culinary arts program in Tokyo. "It's probably the single most distressing thing people can do, and is what might cause people to remark in a negative way."
Do hold your chopsticks higher up.
Irene Yoo, chef and host of YouTube's Yooeating, has noticed that people new to chopsticks tend to hold them far too close to the tapered points than they should for the most efficient and effortless eating.
"You have less movement area, so it makes things harder to pick up," she says. "Further up, you have more range of motion to pick things up. The tips of your fingers should be right at the middle, and the crook of your index finger and thumb should be right near the end."
Don't stick your chopsticks in the rice so they're standing up.
This isn't just a generally uncouth way to set them aside (would you leave your fork standing up impaled in the middle of your steak while you take a drink?), it's also ghoulishly unsettling in some cultures, including Korean and Japanese. In the latter case, special chopsticks are used to pick a deceased person's bones from the ashes during the cremation ceremony. Those chopsticks are initially presented to the family stuck downwards in an urn—i.e., exactly like chopsticks in a rice bowl.
Don't put your chopsticks in the way of other people's chopsticks.
This is especially important when you're eating family style, where it could result in dropped food, general untidiness or light stab wounds.
"You don't cross swords with someone else's chopsticks," Yoo says. "With Korean food, there's so much sharing that you have to do the dance when someone's going for something you want: You wait a beat or go to the other banchan instead until it's your turn. It's understood. You don't want to be clashing chopsticks."
Do ask for help—or a fork—if you need it.
Lifelong chopstick users are well aware that they have an advantage over those who only just started using them, and only the most ungracious host would embarrass a guest about it. If you need a fork and knife to eat, don't be afraid to ask—politely, of course; someone will surely find you what you need just as politely.
If you don't want to switch cutlery, but are still having trouble with a particular dish, it's OK to mention this (again, politely and not in an entitled way) to your host or restaurant staff. Even regular chopstick users sometimes fumble with foods that are especially slippery or heavy.
Do realize that chopstick etiquette may be more relaxed among younger people.
You may notice that older generations will be more observant of dining etiquette, while younger ones are more likely to either not pay much attention to them or not be aware of them at all. This is particularly true in East Asian countries, like Japan, Korea and China, that have seen mind-bogglingly rapid economic and societal changes in the last few decades. In any case, however, it's always a good idea to err on side of being more polite and observant than not, at least until you get to know your companions better.
Don't pass food to someone else from chopsticks to chopsticks.
There are cultural reasons, of course—Japanese funerary practices dictate that the deceased's loved ones pass their bones from chopsticks to chopsticks—but there's a practical one, as well: If you're new to chopsticks, then one of you is almost definitely going to drop whatever food you're passing and make a mess on the tabletop or stain the tablecloth. When you want to pass food, put it on that person's plate or bowl.
Do use chopsticks for cooking as well as eating.
Nimbler than a spoon, more delicate than tongs and able to avoid the piercing of a fork, chopsticks, in the hands of an expert, are capable of any task you'd need over a stove except for scooping liquids. And they're unparalleled for picking up a piece of food you've dropped.
"Chopsticks are probably the most useful instrument ever invented by people," Andoh says.
A couple caveats, though: Yoo avoids cooking with metal chopsticks because they both scratch cookware and conduct heat to fingers. And plastic chopsticks can sometimes melt when you're working with hot foods.
"I have a longer pair of wooden chopsticks I keep near the stove which are fun to use," Yoo says. "And I'm happy to cook something with them and bring them right to the table with me to eat with." (Chopsticks are great for removing tempura and fritters from hot oil, for example.)
Don't rest your chopsticks on the bowl pointing at other diners.
If you haven't been provided a chopstick rest, it's OK to place your chopsticks together on the rim of the bowl when you're not using them. But you should make sure the tips aren't pointed at someone else at the table because it's vaguely like aiming arrows or swords at that person.
To some Westerners, that might seem like Eastern feng shui mysticism, but it's something they already practice at home without even thinking about it—knives' cutting edges are pointed inward in a proper Western table setting, after all. (You are pointing your knives' edges inward toward the plate, right?)
Do buy chopsticks that work for you.
Chopsticks can vary a lot both from set to set and culture to culture (from Koreans' slim metal ones to the Vietnamese preference for long, lacquered bamboo), but if you're buying your own set, don't worry about any of that and instead focus on what works for you. For example, if you have mobility issues or arthritis in your hand, you'll want chunkier, more easily grasped chopsticks and not the ultra-narrow ones favored by Koreans. You might also want different sets of chopsticks for different uses.
"Whatever feels comfortable and you like the look of is what you should choose," Andoh says.
Don't assume that all Asian cultures use chopsticks.
Not all Asian cultures use chopsticks, and to assume that all 48 countries on the world's biggest continent eat the same way is a sure way to come across as offensive and racist. If you're not sure whether you're going to be using chopsticks at a meal or not, a quick Google search ahead of time can do wonders for your personal diplomacy, or you can simply quietly ask a knowledgable person you trust ahead of time.
If you're a host, definitely do not provide someone of Asian appearance chopsticks while giving everyone else a fork and knife. This is blatantly racist.
And before you bring up the fact that your favorite Thai restaurant automatically puts down chopsticks as part of its table settings, keep in mind that that's really more about Thai restaurateurs long ago getting tired of benighted non-Thai customers demanding chopsticks because they felt it made the meal more "authentic." Thai people traditionally eat with a fork and spoon and reserve chopsticks for what they consider "Chinese"-style noodles.
Don't put chopsticks in the dishwasher.
They're going to get all jammed up in places you never thought possible. Hand-washing chopsticks will save you a lot of time and agita.
Do relax and enjoy yourself.
You're not dining out or at someone's house to fret about the chopsticks, you're there to enjoy a meal and good company. So don't let your anxiety about a new utensil ruin your evening. You'll likely find that your hosts are a lot more forgiving of your newbie chopstick skills than you are of of yourself, so don't be too hard on yourself.
"Americans are obsessed with making a challenge that doesn't have to be,' Andoh says. "It puzzles me sometimes why people are so upset because they want to look like they know how do to something. So what if you ask for a fork? If you're going to feel uncomfortable and foolish asking for one, then don't ask for one, but that's your sense of feeling foolish, and that has nothing to do with what the restaurant or the people you're with really think of you."