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All About Chinese Chopsticks

As anyone who has been to a Chinese restaurant knows, chopsticks are the traditional implements for eating Chinese dishes. But far from being difficult and inefficient, they’re actually very versatile. They require a moderate amount of technique and practice, but in short order anyone can learn to use them well.

Chopsticks have been in use for over 3,000 years. They receive a mention in The Book of Rites dating from the Shang Dynasty that ruled China from 1600BC – 1100BC. In that time they’ve been made of ivory, bronze, bamboo and many other materials. Decorative designs may employ gold, silver, ceramic enamel or lacquer and other compounds. The Kuaizi Museum in Shanghai has collected over 1,000 pair, many of them centuries old.

Chinese chopsticks are usually about 8-10 inches long and often thickened or blunt at the ends. Both sticks are the same. Japanese chopsticks, by contrast, have narrowed ends, more pointed than their Chinese cousins.

To use Chinese chopsticks, place them both into one hand. Clamp them between the index finger and thumb, then move one to between the index and middle finger. The ends should be at the same point and both should lie in the same plane. In using Japanese chopsticks one stick protrudes slightly out from the other and they may be slightly twisted.

The trick is to have both a firm grip on each while being able to swivel one into the other in a pincer-like movement. That motion is performed by moving the index finger and thumb just slightly, opening and closing the pincer. You should be able to tap one end into the other and make an audible sound without losing grip on either.

Chinese dishes are prepared with all this in mind. Instead of large slabs of beef or whole legs or breast of chicken, meat is made bite-sized. Dumplings (Jiao Zi) are made so that they can easily be grasped between the chopsticks. The weight and size make it simple to hold them without opening the pincer too wide or falling out too easily. Rice can be scooped into the mouth by bringing the bowl up to the lips. Slurping soup is not considered rude in Chinese dining.

Despite the name, no stabbing or chopping is required or expected. In fact, in Chinese dining etiquette, such things would be considered impolite. There are several other traditional customs in the proper use of chopsticks, as well.

Sticking chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice is considered poor taste. They resemble the incense sticks that are placed in rememberance of the dead. Unlike some Western circumstances, the Chinese don’t generally mix meals with mourning. In Chinese culture, eating even an ordinary meal is a celebration. Instead, rest them on the side of the bowl or plate.

Waiving chopsticks in front of the face or at other diners is equally bad manners. Neither should one suck on the tips or lick the length of the chopstick. Nor are they used to pull a food dish toward one. Chopsticks may be provided in or with a central dish to scoop food onto one’s plate. Use them instead.