Samui Wining & Dining
Chopstick Challenge

Chopsticks embrace culture, cuisine and etiquette.

Chopsticks embrace culture, cuisine and etiquette.“This is my favourite thing in the whole world,” announced a child at the table, pointing to a paper wrapper. It didn’t look much. We were in a Japanese restaurant in Bangkok, surrounded by imported decor from the home country: all sorts of things to look at from Hokusai prints, to carp flags and sake labels. The tiny paper seemed, in comparison, unremarkable. It was the type used to sheathe the disposable chopsticks used in the restaurant. It was printed with a delicate pink design of sakura, cherry blossoms. Simple, but beautiful. Yet so disarmingly ordinary – the world population of chopstick wrappers must be in the millions – that you’d be forgiven for overlooking it. Such wrappers are part of a general chopstick culture that embraces China, Japan and Korea, and which dates back many years.

It’s not known which tribe first got into the habit of using chopsticks, but the practice of using ‘zhu’ as they were originally known, goes back over 4,000 years. Chopsticks back then were first used to stir soups and catch individual pieces in the broth. Later people started to eat with them. Their appearance in Chinese history is definitely one of the signs of civilization; before chopsticks were invented, people used to eat with their hands, making meals an extremely messy procedure.

Nobody questions the existence of chopsticks. Just from their form you can tell that they've always been the simplest and most effective of tools when it comes to seizing morsels of food. But simple as they may be, chopsticks are quite hard to use correctly, and it takes time to become agile with them. And then there’s the etiquette that goes with them.

If you're in Thailand then you're lucky as it’s not so complicated here. You can use chopsticks for Thai noodle dishes, such as pad Thai, or Chinese dishes, but otherwise the fork and spoon are used. There are still a few rules to remember.

Don’t leave them stuck vertically into bowls. Don't use chopsticks to eat rice. And very notably, don’t point at people with chopsticks, as pointing is considered very rude. Don’t therefore even let your chopsticks rest on the table if they're pointing towards someone. That’s about it. When you've finished your dish, simply place the chopsticks on the bottom of the bowl.

In Japan it’s a lot more complex. More so as there are some funerary procedures that involve chopsticks, and these should never be used when eating food. For example, at a funeral, bones will be passed using chopsticks before being placed in an urn. Under no circumstances should you pass food to another person using your chopsticks and expect him or her to take it with their own chopsticks. Similarly don’t plant your chopsticks in your bowl of rice – this will also remind Japanese diners of funerals, as will crossed chopsticks on the table. Use the chopstick rests or that paper wrapper to rest them on.

In China, some of the rules are similar. Again there’s a funerary tradition involving chopsticks, so don’t stick them vertically into any bowl and then abandon them – they’ll look like incense sticks at a funeral. But there are other usages too that are frowned on, such as using the sticks to tap the bowl you're eating from – it’s a sign that you're a beggar and in need of food. Don’t point with the chopsticks or pick through communal food with them, in search of the best bits. Obviously that’ll be seen as selfish behaviour. Should you suck the ends of the chopsticks, people will think you're uneducated.

No matter what country you are in, chopsticks are simply too amazing to be contained by the bounds of mere etiquette. They go way beyond and, in the right hands, or should we say fingers, can be formidable fighting tools. Yes, it’s entirely possible to win fights with chopsticks (though you may lose if faced by someone wielding a paper-and-bamboo fan, another unexpectedly lethal weapon). Any seriously good practitioner of martial arts who has included chopstick training can terminate any meal within seconds, leaving his or her dining companions dead at the table.

But back to more peaceable uses of chopsticks. They make a great gift. You are unlikely to buy a knife and fork for someone as a present, but in China it’s quite acceptable to buy chopsticks for friends or family. Many chopsticks are collectibles and this comes as no surprise when you look at the beautiful painted scenes on them – they look like artworks.

Chopsticks require practice, but if you can learn how to use them, you'll feel all the more confident. As a visitor to South-East Asia, even if you never use them here in Thailand, there are plenty of other places where your training will put you in good stead. You’ll no longer feel edgy when eating in a Chinese, Japanese or Korean restaurant once you're adept with using two sticks to eat with. Put in the effort and in no time you'll be adroitly enjoying many a meal just the way the millions of people do – chopsticks in hands.

          

Dimitri Waring



 


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