NHK WORLD > JAPANESE FOOD > Special Features > The ABCs of Japanese Cooking #6 Chopsticks Part 1

The ABCs of Japanese Cooking
#6 Chopsticks Part 1

May 29, 2017

Hi, everyone! Welcome back!

If you like eating Japanese food as much as you enjoy cooking it, you definitely need to know how to use chopsticks. Of course, there's nothing wrong with forks, knives and spoons—but for me, when it comes to Japanese cuisine, cutlery just doesn't cut it. With the increasing popularity of Japanese food and the growing number of Japanese restaurants popping up all over the world, you've probably had a chance to use chopsticks and may already be quite a pro. But if not, this is your chance to master using these simple eating utensils, which are truly part and parcel of Japan's food culture!

Nothing but chopsticks

The eating styles of various countries can be divided broadly into three categories: eating with chopsticks, cutlery or hands. Chopsticks are used throughout East Asia, but Japan is the only country that traditionally relied solely on chopsticks! In other parts of East Asia, chopsticks are used alongside spoons such as the Chinese soup or duck spoon. Holding a rice bowl in one hand and chopsticks in the other is a style of eating unique to Japan.

Types of chopsticks

There are various types of chopsticks for different purposes. But today, we're going to focus on two broad categories: the chopsticks used for eating and those used for serving food.

Serving chopsticks: relatively long, used to transfer food served from a communal plate onto personal plates.

Eating chopsticks: used for—you guessed it—eating.

Chopsticks are made out of different materials. The majority are made of wood or bamboo and are at times lacquered. Plastic chopsticks have also become quite popular these days.

From Madam Akiko's Book of Trivia
Serving chopsticks are used in Japan because it's perceived as somewhat unclean to take food from a communal plate with your own chopsticks (unless you're sharing with family or close friends).

Different styles

“Chopsticks have styles?” you ask? You bet they do! If you take a close look you’ll see that the overall outline or shape, especially with regards to the tip, can be quite different. Just don’t look too close or you’ll end up feeling dizzy!

【Shape】

In the old days, most chopsticks had either rounded or squared sides. But now there are ones with three, four, five, six, seven or eight sides. Some are even oval shaped. If you want a pair of chopsticks that are easy to handle, you need to consider which shape works for you.

【Tip】

Most chopsticks have a tapered design with a rounded tip. But recently we’ve seen the introduction of square tips, twisted tips and tips with grooves. The choice of tip depends on what sort of food the chopsticks will primarily be used for. When eating rice, fish and small, delicate foods, a rounded tip works best. For noodles and other slippery foods, it helps to have a tip with grooves. Groovy!

Choosing wisely

Using chopsticks that are just right for you will add to the pleasure of eating Japanese cuisine. Here are some of the things you should consider:

1. Length
Get a ruler ready and make a 90-degree angle with the thumb and index finger of your dominant hand. The ideal length for you is 1.5 times the distance between the tip of your thumb and index finger.

2. Thickness
People with thick palms and fingers will probably find it easier to use thick chopsticks, whereas thin chopsticks are more suitable for people with thin palms and fingers (makes sense, right?). If the chopsticks are too narrow for you, it’ll be difficult to hold them with a firm grip, which is no fun at all.

3. Feeling
Hold the chopsticks and see how it feels when you pretend to pick up a piece of food. Make sure the chopsticks don’t slip or wiggle in your hand. They need to feel just right.

Proper holding technique

Here's a little secret: not all Japanese are good at using chopsticks. In fact, it's said a large proportion of adults continue to use them incorrectly. When held correctly, it's easy to pick up even the tiniest pieces of food without much effort. It's also a pleasure to watch people with good chopstick technique. The movement has such a nice flow to it.

The top and bottom chopsticks are held differently. So let's practice one at a time!

1. Holding the top chopstick
Hold one chopstick with your thumb, index finger and middle finger like you would a pencil.
(Let’s practice! Move the tip up and down as if you were writing the number one.)

2. Holding the bottom chopstick
And now for the bottom chopstick. Press it against the tip of your ring finger, allowing it to rest in the valley at the base of your thumb. This chopstick serves as an anchor and should generally remain fixed.

3. Holding both chopsticks
Now try holding both chopsticks. If you start with the bottom chopstick, you’ll find it easier to hold them properly. Without moving the bottom chopstick, hold the top chopstick with your thumb, index and middle finger and use your thumb as a fulcrum as you move it up and down.

You might find it difficult at first, but it won’t be long before you get the hang of it. Try practicing by picking up small objects.

From Madam Akiko's Book of Trivia
How about turning chopstick practice into a game? You’ll need two small dishes, some soybeans and, of course, a pair of chopsticks. Put all the soybeans in one dish. Move the soybeans one at a time into the other dish. When this becomes easy, try placing the dishes farther away from each other to make it more difficult. Are we having fun yet?

That’s it for today, but I promise to follow up with more useful information on chopsticks. In the meantime, find yourself a good pair and keep on practicing!

Mini Quiz

After a good meal, there's nothing like a good nap. But not until you answer my quiz!

Quiz

When using chopsticks to pick up food, move only the bottom chopstick, keeping the top chopstick fixed.
True or false?

The answer is: False!
It’s the bottom chopstick that needs to remain fixed!

See also
#1 Soy sauce
#2 Mirin, sake, and miso
#3 Knives and cutting boards
#4 Basic cutting techniques
#5 Otoshibuta drop lid
#7 Chopsticks Part 2
#8 Dashi
#9 How to cook rice without a rice cooker
#10 Dried foods
#11 How to make miso from scratch

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