NHK WORLD > JAPANESE FOOD > Special Features > The ABCs of Japanese Cooking #7 Chopsticks Part 2

The ABCs of Japanese Cooking
#7 Chopsticks Part 2

July 20, 2017

Hi, everyone! Welcome back!

Today I'd like to deftly place a few more chopstick insights on your plate. This time, let's focus on chopstick etiquette. If you know the basic rules, you'll definitely feel more at home dining in a Japanese restaurant, and you're bound to impress fellow diners when visiting Japan!

Proper handling

Just as there are proper ways to hold and handle cutlery, there are proper ways to handle chopsticks. Last time, we learned how to hold them, but now let's take things to the next level and learn how to pick them up and put them down with style and grace!

Picking up

1. With your right hand, grasp the chopsticks at a point slightly to the right of center.

2. Rest the area slightly to the right of the tip on your left hand.

3. Slide your right hand around the end of the chopsticks, and hold them in the standard way.

Putting down

1. Align the chopsticks, with your left hand providing support from below.

2. With your right hand, grasp the chopsticks from above, slightly to the right of center.

3. Put the chopsticks down.

Learn how to do this smoothly and you'll be considered a true master. Make sure to put them down quietly, too.

Let's go bowling

Japan is the only country in the world where people hold a bowl in one hand and chopsticks in the other while eating. Later, I'll explain why this style of eating came into being. But first, here's how to do it:

1. Pick up the bowl or vessel with your right hand and then pass it to your left.

2. With your right hand, grasp the chopsticks slightly to the right of center.

3. Trap the chopsticks between the index finger and middle finger of the left hand.

4. Slide your right hand under the chopsticks to hold them in the standard way.

You may find it tricky at first, but practice makes perfect!

A unique style, born from history

Chances are you're not used to holding a plate or bowl while eating (unless you're standing up, perhaps). But in Japan, it's customary to pick up the bowl or vessel in one hand and bring it close to your mouth while holding the chopsticks in the other. If it's a soup, you can bring the bowl right up to your mouth and sip from it.

Okay—but why? Well, have you ever watched a Japanese film or TV show set in the old samurai days? If so, think back to the dining scenes. Back in those days, diners would sit formally on the tatami floor, tucking their legs under their thighs. The server would then bring each person a low, four-legged tray loaded with food.

Imagine what would happen if you were to try eating with chopsticks without picking up the dishes. If you tried to maintain a good posture, you'd probably drop some of the food while bringing it up to your mouth. The other alternative would be to stoop down—definitely not a look fit for a samurai!

The solution: holding an individual bowl in one hand and chopsticks in the other. Nowadays, even though the use of those four-legged trays tends to be limited to traditional restaurants or festive dining in tatami rooms, the custom of holding bowls is still maintained, even when sitting down at a regular ol' table.

From Madam Akiko's Book of Trivia
It may be customary in Japanese cuisine to pick up and hold bowls or vessels while eating, but this doesn't mean we pick up everything. As a rule of thumb, you can leave dishes larger than your palm on the table—except, that is, for large bowls or lacquered boxes filled with rice and a topping. This is said to derive from the custom of offering rice to the gods. So, if you spot a rice-based dish, get lifting!

Taboos

Every food culture has a dining etiquette that needs to be observed if you don't want to be labeled as having bad table manners. Here's a list of chopstick no-nos:

  • Do not spear food, even with both chopsticks.
  • Do not pass food directly from your chopsticks to someone else's chopsticks.
  • Do not tap your chopsticks together as if they were drumsticks.
  • Do not use your chopsticks to pull dishes towards you.
  • Do not stick your chopsticks upright in your rice. This one is an absolute no-no, because it's the way a bowl of rice is offered to the spirit of a person who has just died.

From Madam Akiko's Book of Trivia

Chopsticks go hand in hand with chopstick rests: hashioki in Japanese. These cute little objects are used to keep the ends of your chopsticks off the table when you put them down. They come in all sorts of shapes and colors, so you can mix and match according to the season!

Mini Quiz

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

Quiz

When picking up chopsticks, you should first grasp the center.
True or false?

The answer is: False!
When grasping the chopsticks, you should aim for a point slightly to the right of center. If you grasp the center, it’ll get in the way of your left hand and look rather awkward.

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

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