Learning to eat with chopsticks is inevitable if you’re planning to travel to Japan, North, or Southeast Asia. You don’t even need to look that far. With the trendy sushi restaurants all over Europe and America, you’ve probably seen people comfortably eating with the sticks, at least to the level of food landing in their mouth, not on the table.
If, for some reason, the sushi trend passed you by and eating with chopsticks fill you with fear – don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.
Be prepared that your first few attempts will be awkward and likely result in you using chopsticks rather to spear your food — pretty much like a fork. Don’t worry, chopsticks are a skill acquired with practice. Soon enough you’ll be selecting and grabbing a grain of rice like Jackie Chan flies, but until then, here’s a bit of advice to get you by.
Contrary to its name, it’s bad manners to chop or stick food with your chopsticks. So if that’s the only way you’ll manage to eat, keep it low profile.
Whenever possible, make a side approach. This gives you the best chance to maintain that grip you thought you had on your food. Keep in mind that eating from a bowl makes this more difficult. Rule of thumb for those who want to look like they know what they’re doing? Just make sure the bottom chopstick doesn’t move. Let the top one do the work.
The physics work simple: the higher to the wide end you hold, the more pro you get, but also the more crucial control you give up. The lower you slide, the greater likelihood you have of nabbing those nibbles, but also of getting some sauce on your hand, that you don’t notice until you accidentally wipe it on your face. The best compromise is to grip two-thirds up the barrel.
The most common chopsticks are made of bamboo (disposable ones, usually seen in the chain restaurants), lacquered high-quality wood (premium), or metal. They vary in length, and they’re circular or have flat surfaces. The ones for women tend to be a bit shorter than those for men. Your perfect chopstick would be wooden, short, and flat surfaces. Thus, combining the best benefits of friction, control, and maximum surface-area contact. Unfortunately, you’ll rarely have a choice.
If you want to practice at the comfort of your home, get yourself the version for beginners – the free disposable wooden ones you get with takeout or at convenience shops. They’re short, flat-surfaced, and the un-lacquered wood combined with the rough splintery edges you get from pulling them apart, provide face-saving friction to help get that food from your plate to your mouth without dropping any of that delicious food.
1. The Gaijin (The Foreigner).
Once you’re a pro, you will wonder why the heck would anyone put something in between the sticks, other than food. This feels more like a burden than help, but some people say it’s the training wheels for the beginners.
There are funnily shaped wedges which you can mount in between the sticks. Simply take a napkin, paper packaging of your disposable wooden sticks, and fold it into a small rectangle with some width. Place the wedge somewhere around the middle of your sticks. Then take a rubber band. Wrap it around until the wedge is tightly secured in place. We used the lid from the soya sauce bottle thrown into sushi packs. Now all you have to do is squeeze the sticks together to pick up your food; no complicated finger manoeuvring required.
Disclaimer: This method will make you look like an amateur gaijin (a foreigner).
2. The Pro
Weighing in as the most widely accepted chopstick technique, The Pro relies on the top stick being held like a pencil; resting between your middle and pointer finger and extending up over your lowest pointer knuckle. The bottom stick runs along the webbing between your thumb, and pointer and lies comfortably on the upper broad side of your ring finger.
3. The Calliper
This is the rough, un-honed apprentice called The Calliper. The basic hand positioning is the same as in Pro technique, though rather than resting. Both sticks ends should have contact with your fingertips. The top one with your middle finger, and the bottom with your ring finger, leaving your pointer finger free to direct the force. This technique offers powerful control options but the risks are higher.
Finally, each country you visit will have some unwritten etiquette rules involving the sticks. One common tenet is to not leave your chopsticks standing upright in your bowl as this is often how food or burning incense sticks are offered to ancestors.
Another faux paux is sticking chopsticks in your food.
Do a quick Wikipedia search, consult a guidebook, or better yet, ask someone local, before you go offending not only the living locals but also their deceased.
When in doubt, ask for a fork or eat with your hands (actually many Japanese eat sushi and many other dishes with hands!)