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Adventures in chopstick etiquette


Fat Guy
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On the usually-dormant NYC.FOOD Usenet group, an amazingly high-traffic flamewar broke out recently regarding chopstick etiquette. Statements were made along the lines of "Chinese people never, ever eat rice with chopsticks" and "There are no chopsticks in Thailand."

Having never paid much attention to chopstick etiquette (though I once saw a martial arts film wherein I learned that you don't leave your chopsticks standing up in a bowl of rice), I'd be interested in receiving some education.

China? Japan? Southeast Asia? Mongolia? Toronto? What are the rules?

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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In Japanese culture, these are the things you shouldn't do with o-hashi:

SASHI. "Sashi" means "inserting". This means never stick your hashi into food, as though you were spearing food with a fork. And of course, never spear and leave them in your bowl of rice. At funeral services, a dish of rice with hashi stuck into it stands on the butsudan (altar). And never pass food from your hashi directly to someone else's; the cremated bones of the dead are passed from person to person this way, although usually with metal hashi. (Still, it's gross).

MAYOI. "Dithering". This means don't wave o-hashi around in the air, for example while trying to decide what to eat next. Also, don't point at anything or anybody with hashi.

YOSÉ means "drawing near". Never use o-hashi to pull dishes of food toward you.

And a few other points:

Always lift bowls to the level of the heart when eating rice or drinking soup.

Keep elbows in towards the body. Lift the bowl to your mouth rather than craning your head down into the bowl.

When you eat tempura, sushi, sashimi (raw fish) or other foods that you dip in a sauce, hold the dish with the dipping sauce with your free hand, though there is no requirement to lift it.

When you are eating foods from dishes that are too large to pick up (for example, the plates used for grilled fish), you would just leave the dishes on the table.

If you are eating a communal dish such as a hot pot or yakitori, transfer a portion from the communal pot to your own bowl, then lift the bowl toward you to eat from it.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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On the usually-dormant NYC.FOOD Usenet group, an amazingly high-traffic flamewar broke out recently regarding chopstick etiquette. Statements were made along the lines of "Chinese people never, ever eat rice with chopsticks" and "There are no chopsticks in Thailand."

Those statements are, of course, absurd. Chinese people typically eat rice with chopsticks; in fact, there's a particular technique for shoveling it into my mouth that I mastered (I suspect that my chopsticks manners aren't extremely high-class). Similarly, the idea that there are "no chopsticks in Thailand" clearly implies a lack of a Chinese community there. Thai-Chinese food is fantastic! The confusion that's arising on this score has to do with an experience which I and no doubt others have had in Bangkok, which is that non-Chinese Thais were eating using a spoon and fork, much like Malays do in Malay restaurants in Malaysia (many eat with their right hands at home). I do not use chopsticks in non-Chinese Thai restaurants, and recommend that other customers also not do that, so as to have a slightly improved chance of getting something vaguely approaching authentic Thai food in the U.S.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Two other points. First, it is considered rude to point to someone using your chopsticks.

As to chopsticks and Thailand, there ar emany restaurants where chopsticks are used but these are usually Chinese restaurants. Most Thais use a spoon and fork to eat their food. However we have to do a reversal here. Whereas it is common in the US to eat everything with a fork, in Thailand it is considered impolite to eat with a fork. The fork is only used to push the food onto the spoon.

As an aside, another interesting point of etiquette in Thailand is that once a dish has been placed on the table it is considered impolite to move it. Instead you reach over to the plate to serve yourself.

Roger McShane

Foodtourist.com

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Going to Thailand made me realize what fun it is to eat with a spoon.  Plates are more common than Chinese-style rice bowls in Thailand, so chopsticks don't make any sense.  But given that most dishes are in small pieces, a fork isn't any more logical than a spoon.  So you hold the spoon in your dominant hand and use the fork to push food onto it.

Also, the spoons in Thailand are enormous.

I think a lot of these flamewars erupt because people see something being done in a certain way in a certain context and jump to the conclusion that they've identified something universal.

Matthew Amster-Burton, aka "mamster"

Author, Hungry Monkey, coming in May

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I've only been in Southeast Asia, and not China or Japan, but what I've observed as a general rule is that the people there are pretty laid back about etiquette issues. They have a very extensive code of etiquette, but they're not insulted if you make mistakes. As long as you're making an honest effort, it doesn't seem that you'll trigger any resentment.

Sometimes, also, I find that the real people from a given country don't actually follow the formalized and recorded etiquette codes. Even the people I know from Japan (a country which is notorious for strictness in all things having to do with etiquette) have surprised me in this regard. For example, my favorite sushi chef in New York, who is heavily steeped in Japanese tradition, usually gives me equivocal answers to etiquette questions:

Q: "Should I eat this with chopsticks or with my hands?"

A: "You can eat with chopsticks, or with hands. Whatever you need to get in mouth."

Q: "When am I supposed to eat this ginger?"

A: "When have sushi, eat sushi. When wait for more sushi, eat ginger."

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I've only been in Southeast Asia, and not China or Japan, but what I've observed as a general rule is that the people there are pretty laid back about etiquette issues. They have a very extensive code of etiquette, but they're not insulted if you make mistakes.

Steven... you are probably right, but if they WERE offended by your behavior, are you sure that they would express the fact to you?

This is particularly true of the Japanese, I've been told.  They are not ones to show the offense visibly (although I'll admit its a HUGE generalization, and those tend to fall down when applied against individual real-life cases).

Also, a Japanese in this country--particularly one in a service-oriented field like a sushi-chef--is certainly going to be most forgiving.  It's just customer service.

The stabbing of food one is the "offense" I've heard the most about.  Then again, those laquered Japanese chopsticks are so pointy, it's almost hard to avoid stabbing.  :smile: And the Korean metal chopsticks are even worse!!!

(editing for spelking, er... spelling)

Jon Lurie, aka "jhlurie"

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Food stabbing: I had heard that this was inappropriate in Japan, but when eating with Chinese friends (based in Singapore) I was encouraged to stab large dumplings to make them easier to pick up.

I learnt to shovel rice from a bowl (held in the other hand) when I lived for several years on the edge of London's Chinatown.  Of course Chinese people do that.  What puzzles me about Chinese restaurants in New York is that they give you chopsticks, but plates, not bowls.  Useless combination.  You can usually get a bowl if you ask (and you often have to ask for chopsticks too).

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  • 9 months later...

I never saw Thai people using chopsticks. Just the spoon/fork method described above. I was told it is a major faux pas to put a fork into your mouth.

My second-to-last day in Thailand (on the end of my trip to Nepal), I managed to develop a high fever. Spent the day in bed, and did some easy sightseeing the next day. I ended up going to the Royal Lapidary, a state-sponsored gem market. Not having $1,000 to buy a pearl, I wandered around for a bite to eat. I went into a little place filled with some tough-looking Thai men. There was, of course, a karaoke machine going in the back. They found me the one English menu in the place, but I decided to order my favorites: penang beef, yam pla muk, and tod mun pla.

If you've ever seen Thai men at a restaurant, you know they drink. Each table had a little cart at the end, with a bucket of ice, a few open bottles of soda and a few open bottles of whiskey. The waitresses walked around making sure that everyone's drink was topped off.

Oh, and they eat too. The tables were filled with food -- whole steamed fish in chili sauce, three or four noodle dishes, fried fish chunks with mushrooms, plates of grilled shrimp, bowls of curry, satay, everything.

As I finished my one beer (I was still a little sick), one of the tables sent me over a whiskey and soda. Can't be rude, can I? I made the language barrier nod, bow, tip of the drink and started drinking. I felt the fever coming back, when my drink was topped off. The waitress pulled me over to the biggest table.

The obvious conversation: "I'm 6'6". Yes, two meters. Yes, it's great." "American. No, I've never met Michael Jordan. Yes, he's great. I've never met Madonna. No, she's still American." That was all we could muster.

I ate more. Everything was laced with chili, yet they managed to maintain the flavor. It was amazing. I started sweating and my nose started running. They laughed at me and clapped me on the back. More food from other tables appeared on my plate. Pieces of my tongue dropped off when I ate an innocent looking ring of squid. I think it was a chili, camoflauged.

Then they dragged me to karaoke. Me. I'd done this once before, and it didn't fit with my surly personality. But, I figured that no one I knew would see me. Neil Diamond, eat your heart out. The Thai love "Sweet Caroline." I rock.

A little later I found out that these fellows were all guards at the Royal Palace who work the early shift and come in for lunch -- an afternoon event.

I staggered out at 4 after about 2 and a half hours. Traffic was murder, and I my stomach started to churn as we sat on the highway for the King's motorcade to go by. Made it back to the hotel bathroom by "that" much.

Edited by Dstone001 (log)
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I've only been in Southeast Asia, and not China or Japan, but what I've observed as a general rule is that the people there are pretty laid back about etiquette issues. They have a very extensive code of etiquette, but they're not insulted if you make mistakes. As long as you're making an honest effort, it doesn't seem that you'll trigger any resentment.

I don't think you'd run into any resentment, just some amusement at your expense perhaps. My partner is ethnic Chinese from Singapore. He always snickers in SE Asian restaurants when someone insists on eating rice off a plate with chopsticks. What I've learned about chopstick manners is pretty simple. If it comes on a plate or banana leaf eat it with the spoon and fork method or your fingers, depending on where and how you're served. If it comes in a bowl use chopsticks and if it's a soupy noodle thing use chopsticks and an Asian spoon. Use chopsticks for dry noodle dishes whether they're on a plate or bowl. No stabbing food with the chopsticks allowed, but he encourages my mum to use her fingers when a dumpling is too slippery for her to pick up.

My colleagues from Tokyo didn't like the way I dipped my sushi in soya, they wanted me to do it fish side down, so that no grains of rice were left in the soya (bad luck, looks like tears) but they didn't care if I used my fingers or chopsticks to get it to my mouth.

regards,

trillium

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  • 7 months later...

Hi y'all. I was watching a movie yesterday about a first generation Chinese girl (Double Happiness i believe it was called?)

well in any case, it dawned on em as i was watching that everyone was using chopsticks with their right hand.

I'm left-handed and Indian, but I have been using chopsticks since i was old enough to manipulate them. Indians have strong taboos on left and right handedness, but thankfully my folks threw most of the taboos out of the window when we came to the US, and let me be just as I am with my hand preference (except for which hand i use to put food in my mouth, and to give things to others).

in any case - am i committing a complete blasphepy using chopsticks with my left-hand? I'm not very coordinated at all with my right hand, but I certainly wouldn't want to offend whilst eating out, or in the company of other people.

thanks!

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No, there are no taboos similar to eating Middle Eastern food with your left hand. Most people use chopsticks with their right hand because most people are righthanded. I'm sure in more rural areas of China they still "convert" lefthanded children, but that's probably not the case in cities. Either way, the stigma had nothing to do with eating per se.

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No, there are no taboos similar to eating Middle Eastern food with your left hand. Most people use chopsticks with their right hand because most people are righthanded. I'm sure in more rural areas of China they still "convert" lefthanded children, but that's probably not the case in  cities. Either way, the stigma had nothing to do with eating per se.

that's basically right.

you won't be committing any unknown taboo.

however, if you were a chinese kid growing up in a chinese household, a reasonably strong attempt would have been made to bang the left-handed tendencies out of you.

there's more tolerance of it now, but it is still undesirable.

Herb aka "herbacidal"

Tom is not my friend.

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yeah i know the feeling...India is the same way, with very strong taboos.

Thankfully my dad wanted ot raise us, especially me being a girl, without the baggage that cna come with culture, and he was ambidextrous, so rthere was no stigma in the house - however i did have a Hawaiian Chinese nun in the 3rd grade, who first tried to make me right-handed and then gave up on that and tried to make me hold a pen like proper right-handed person would. that didn't take either, and i still write sorta upside down.

I'm glad I haven't been commiting some unknown faux-pas, and will happily continue to use my chopsticks with my left-hand. :biggrin:

thank you!

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You will have no problem eating left handed with chopsticks in Japan either, both my (Japanese) husband and daughter do it!

There is still a lot trying to switch kids to right hands in Japan (and not just in the rural areas!), it is a lot harder for lefties to write the characters with the proper stroke order and style, but no taboos on food.

Kristin Wagner, aka "torakris"

 

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I'm glad I haven't been commiting some unknown faux-pas, and will happily continue to use my chopsticks with my left-hand.  :biggrin:

thank you!

I'm left-handed too, and the main problem I encounter is banging elbows with right-handed chopsticks-wielders. Because of that, I usually grab a corner chair where my left arm is toward the aisle.

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gary - i've never eaten in that scenario, so i'll ahve to keep that in mind if it ever comes up.

and torakris - good to know i won't have to worry abotu it in Japan either! :biggrin:

Edited by tryska (log)
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SOME MORE CHOPSTICK ETIQUETTE

1) When serving a particularly fine morsel to a neighboring diner you might want to pick it up using the OTHER end of your chopsticks.

2) When sitting at the table and dining family style if there is a communal dish in the center visually divide that dish into fractions, based on the number of people sharing it. For instance if there are 4 persons divide the plate into quarters. Then take food only from 'your' section. It's rude to select food from the far side of the dish.

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SOME MORE CHOPSTICK ETIQUETTE

2) When sitting at the table and dining family style if there is a communal dish in the center visually divide that dish into fractions, based on the number of people sharing it. For instance if there are 4 persons divide the plate into quarters.  Then take food only from 'your' section. It's rude to select food from the far side of the dish.

Kind of hard to remember which is "your" segment when the dishes are on a lazy susan, though.

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1) When serving a particularly fine morsel to a neighboring diner you might want to pick it up using the OTHER end of your chopsticks.

this is very true.

not just for particularly fine morsels, though. :biggrin:

I'm left-handed too, and the main problem I encounter is banging elbows with right-handed chopsticks-wielders. Because of that, I usually grab a corner chair where my left arm is toward the aisle.

also very true. the lefties i know make sure to get an aisle seat, or one next to the wall.

as far as picking something up from "your side" of a dish, that is something that is taught as well.

never gone so far as to divide into portions, though. just general rule of thumb, if you have to stretch or it is somewhat awkward to reach something at a dish, there's probably a rule/guideline you're not following.

either use the lazy susan, or just try for the side of the dish facing you.

Herb aka "herbacidal"

Tom is not my friend.

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just general rule of thumb, if you have to stretch or it is somewhat awkward to reach something at a dish, there's probably a rule/guideline you're not following. 

i think this is a good rule of thumb no matter what culture you are form or in. *lol*

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Don't leave your chopsticks standing vertically in your bowl of rice. That's a religious no-no.

We use spoons to divvy up and carry the portions to our plates. If we do reach out with chopsticks into a community dish, then "whatever piece we touch, we take."

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    • By liuzhou
      It sometimes seems likes every town in China has its own special take on noodles. Here in Liuzhou, Guangxi the local dish is Luosifen (螺蛳粉 luó sī fěn).
       
      It is a dish of rice noodles served in a very spicy stock made from the local river snails and pig bones which are stewed for hours with black cardamom, fennel seed, dried tangerine peel, cassia bark, cloves, pepper, bay leaf, licorice root, sand ginger, and star anise. Various pickled vegetables, dried tofu skin, fresh green vegetables, peanuts and loads of chilli are then usually added. Few restaurants ever reveal their precise recipe, so this is tentative. Luosifen is only really eaten in small restaurants and roadside stalls. I've never heard of anyone making it at home.
       
      In order to promote tourism to the city, the local government organised a food festival featuring an event named "10,000 people eat luosifen together." (In Chinese 10,000 often just means "many".)
       
      10,000 people (or a lot of people anyway) gathered at Liuzhou International Convention and Exhibition Centre for the grand Liuzhou luosifen eat-in. Well, they gathered in front of the centre – the actual centre is a bleak, unfinished, deserted shell of a building. I disguised myself as a noodle and joined them. 10,001.
       

       
      The vast majority of the 10,000 were students from the local colleges who patiently and happily lined up to be seated. Hey, mix students and free food – of course they are happy.
       

       
      Each table was equipped with a basket containing bottled water, a thermos flask of hot water, paper bowls, tissues etc. And most importantly, a bunch of Luosifen caps. These read “万人同品螺蛳粉” which means “10,000 people together enjoy luosifen”
       

       
      Yep, that is the soup pot! 15 meters in diameter and holding eleven tons of stock. Full of snails and pork bones, spices etc. Chefs delicately added ingredients to achieve the precise, subtle taste required.
       

       
      Noodles were distributed, soup added and dried ingredients incorporated then there was the sound of 10,000 people slurping.
       

      Surrounding the luosifen eating area were several stalls selling different goodies. Lamb kebabs (羊肉串) seemed most popular, but there was all sorts of food. Here are few of the delights on offer.
       

      Whole roast lamb or roast chicken
       

      Lamb Kebabs
       

      Kebab spice mix – Cumin, chilli powder, salt and MSG
       

      Kebab stall
       

      Crab
       

      Different crab
       

      Sweet sticky rice balls
       

      Things on sticks
       

      Grilled scorpions
       

      Pig bones and bits
       

      Snails
       
      And much more.
       
      To be honest, it wasn’t the best luosifen I’ve ever eaten, but it was wasn’t the worst. Especially when you consider the number they were catering for. But it was a lot of fun. Which was the point.
       
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