The Non-Chopsticks User’s Guide to Eating with Chopsticks By MELISSA SALVA
Of course you know how to eat with chopsticks. Just use them like giant tweezers and that’s all there is to it. If you think wielding them takes up effort that you feel is better utilized by actual eating, you are right. Why suffer? Whether you are dining in China, Korea, Japan, or Vietnam where meals are always served with chopsticks, here’s how you can show your host or the restaurant that you’d rather eat with a spear.
Stick chopsticks into your bowl of rice. The meal started ten minutes ago, but you were only able to get the first morsel of food in your mouth after you dropped it thrice. Before then, the round carrot slice had been sliding around in the oyster sauce, escaping your chopsticks’ grasp. What better way to rest your chopsticks than upright in your bowl of rice? It’s easier to resume your grip and, if you’re lucky, a small clump of rice may be stuck at the end, ready to put in your mouth. Your hosts may stare momentarily, wince, or try not to make eye contact with you for a while. That’s only because the first thing they learn about chopsticks as children is to never, ever do this—in Chinese and Japanese rituals, this is how they feed the dead, while in Vietnamese rituals, it looks like how joss sticks are placed when praying to dead ancestors. Avoid eating with the elderly. They won’t appreciate the visual.
Use a chopstick to spear a piece of food. Using chopsticks the proper way, like tongs, you are reduced to a diet of steamed Japonica and noodles. Really, there are so many things you can eat with ease if you stabbed them with your chopstick. The fat cube of fried tofu. Tempura dipped in the sauce. The quail egg in birthday noodles! While you’re at it, improve your grasp by holding the chopstick in your fist instead of with just your fingers. But if you’re trying to maintain the appearance of good breeding or would like to uphold the reputation of your parents, it’s best not to do this during dates and engagement dinners, where your parents will be unfairly judged based on the silly criterion of how you handle chopsticks.
Show your knowledge of other uses for chopsticks. Use them as drumsticks to provide entertainment at the table while waiting for the food to arrive. Mimic a walrus. Pretend you’re a vampire with extra-long teeth. Poke your little brother. You’ve seen this before—stick one up your nose and, depending on who you’re with, hear genuine or nervous laughter.
Tapping bowls with chopsticks is associated with how beggars attract attention, but once you start rapping like Snoop Dogg, people at the table will be begging you for more, right?
Use them when gesticulating—it really does help get your point across. Since they are an extension of your hand, you can move bowls and other things around the table and point at objects (and people, too!) with them.
You can even use them as fashion accessories. Anyway, it’s only in Japan where they really notice the difference between chopsticks and the kanzashi that geisha wear in their hair. Everywhere else, a stick is a stick—like, who knows the difference between a turtle and a tortoise? Chopsticks are useful for many things, and as far as you’re concerned, the last thing they’re useful for is eating.
Take up your chopsticks to signal the start of the meal. You’re pretty good at picking up social cues. For instance, at a company dinner, you immediately noticed that everyone started eating when chopsticks were taken up by the Senior Director. At a family meal, elders may shuffle to their seats at a glacial pace or chat everybody up before anyone can begin eating. You thought you just heard your seatmate’s stomach growl. Meanwhile, the roasted duck is getting cold. Do everyone a favor. But unless you’re the oldest or most senior person in the room, be alert when taking up chopsticks especially in Hong Kong and Japan. The elders might stab you with theirs.
Use your own chopsticks to serve yourself and others. Meals served family-style usually have serving chopsticks or spoons for every dish that is meant for sharing. If they don’t, use your own. You’ve eaten with them, but it’s not like you’ve bitten them, gnawed on the tips, sucked sticky food and sauces from them, licked or washed them clean in your bowl of soup. Yet.
If you don’t like a piece of food, put it back where you got it. You couldn’t tell beef spare ribs from pork, which you’re avoiding, but it was a good thing your host told you—you were just about to take a bite. Put that pork spare rib in XO sauce back in the serving dish for someone who wants it. Someone calling dibs on it before you could put it back? Pass it straight to his chopsticks. The Japanese shudder at this practice because this is how they transfer the remains of the deceased during funeral rites. But you’re in a Chinese restaurant, and it’s pretty obvious that what you got there is a spare rib, not a rib.
Got a huge helping of catfish that tastes weird to you? Dump it in a used rice bowl. The Koreans are fussy about this sort of thing, but if you’re not going to eat it, might as well put it somewhere to make space in your plate. It’s not like you’re secretly tossing it to the potted plant nearby or feeding it to the family pet under the table. Now that would be rude.
By doing any of these things, actually by doing even just the first one, you will confirm that a) you’re an uneducated foreigner who is best regarded with equal parts amusement and pity, b) you’re not really focused on the sensibilities of your host (“Sitting down for meals means eating, not socializing!”), or c) hunger really does make one uncivilized. Not very good impressions with which to leave your hosts, but hey, at least you are sure to have a spoon and fork in your place setting next time. If there’s a next time.
Written by Melissa Salva