I love chopsticks. I’ve used chopsticks my entire life—I don’t remember ever learning, just doing, so when confronted with the daily use of chopsticks while living in China it was very easy to dive right in. One way to connect with a foreign country’s culture is to adapt their dining habits. Using chopsticks is fundamental to eating in China and connects the diner not only to the present meal but also to thousands of years of past eating in China.
It’s easy for some Westerners to make fun of chopsticks, but perhaps this is simply because they can’t master their use themselves. For example, Bill Bryson stated “I find chopsticks frankly distressing. Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back 3,000 years haven't yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food?” And even the loveable Muppet Miss Piggy insulted chopsticks, noting that “You do not sew with a fork, and I see no reason why you should eat with knitting needles.”
But chopsticks are a very interesting way to relate with food. Rather than piercing and slicing, you gently pick up the food. It’s a much less violent way to approach a meal. Chopsticks also demand a certain degree of mindfulness when eating. It’s difficult to shovel huge amounts of food in your mouth when eating with chopsticks, so the smaller bites might as well be embraced. Note the flavor and texture of each mouthful before going in for the next bite. Enjoy the satisfaction you get from masterfully plucking an item from the dish and popping it in your mouth.
In her Chinese food memoir Fuschia Dunlop explains how the preparation of Chinese food and the use of chopsticks go hand in hand: “Chopsticks, used in China for two, maybe even three thousand years, make their own demands. Knives are almost never seen on the Chinese dinner table, so food must be tender enough to be torn gently apart with chopsticks, or otherwise cut into bite-sized pieces. At grand feasts, you may find whole ducks, chickens or pork knuckles, braised so lovingly that they melt away at the touch of a chopstick, but for everyday meals, almost everything is finely sliced or slivered.”
During one meal in China, a fellow student asked Wentao, our Chinese mom, if he was good at using chopsticks. Obviously expecting a different answer, he looked a little crushed when Wentao replied, “Hmm, not really. Your form is not very good.” Then she proceeded to analyze everyone’s use of chopsticks around the table, offering brutally honest criticism. But when she got to me she said, “Now Maya, you have good form.” Sweet. It was definitely a proud moment for me.
So what constitutes good form with chopsticks? Well, one aspect is the location on the chopsticks where you place your hands. Wentao informed us that only children and foreigners hold their chopsticks close to the pointy end of the chopsticks where you pick up food. As one gets older and more experienced, his or her hands naturally move up the chopsticks, further away from where you grab food.
There are also some basic rules to using chopsticks. For one thing, don’t impale your food with the pointy end of the utensil. Food in China is prepared so that you shouldn’t have to pierce your food, but rather pluck it lovingly from the dish. Sometimes a slippery dumpling can make this difficult, but try to avoid stabbing your food. Another taboo is sticking your chopsticks into a bowl of rice so that they stand straight up in the air. And when you are not using the chopsticks either lay them on the accompanying chopstick stand or on the edge of your plate.
With practice even rice, which many find difficult to eat with chopsticks, becomes easy to eat. Next time you sit down to a Chinese meal, abandon the fork and try out some chopsticks. And if you need pointers, check out these videos on how to properly hold and move chopsticks.