Updated: Sep 26, 2021
How so? you might be thinking. After all, chopsticks are just something you eat with, no? Well, no, to the Japanese, chopsticks (or ohashi as they are called in Japanese) are about quite a bit more than simply eating. There is an etiquette that surrounds them and they have a spiritual importance that might surprise you. "Support for life" is a Japanese expression (seimei no tsue in Japanese) and it reflects two ceremonies in which chopsticks are central - the first traditionally happens usually before a Japanese infant reaches 120 days old. One of the infant's parents will feed the infant rice with a special pair of plain willow wood chopsticks. The ceremony is call o-hashi-zome-shiki and is meant to bring the young child a good life, free from hunger. The second ceremony occurs at the end of life when a family present a deceased relative with their last dish, a bowl of rice with the chopsticks placed upright in the bowl (which the Japanese call tate-bashi). so "life support" is no exaggeration!
Unlike a knife, fork or spoon, each member of a Japanese family will possess chopsticks for his or her exclusive use - because of how they are used, chopsticks come into frequent and intimate contact with their user - maybe this explains the spiritual element? - chopsticks are one of the most popular items bought from shinto shrines (can you imagine buying a knife and fork from a church?) Chopsticks also differ by gender, with male chopsticks being longer and of plainer design (polished or lacquered wood) while female chopsticks are shorter and usually brighter and often with decoration down the stem. A child's chopsticks will be shorter still and infants learn to use chopsticks using the sort you can see below on the right with finger inserts to help toddlers master this essential skill early on.
Chopsticks differ around Asia too. If you visit a Korean restaurant or (lucky you), the country itself, you'll probably find yourself eating with a pair of steel chopsticks (and more often than not, a spoon as well). Korean chopsticks also tend to be quite flat in profile. Chinese chopsticks, on the other hand, are usually longer and have a square profile (compared to the round profile of Japanese chopsticks) - they are also likely to be decorated with Chinese calligraphy down the stem.
Apart from being able to pick up a pair of chopsticks and eat with them, there's also a few of do's and dont's that surround them and some of these rules relate to the cultural importance that chopsticks have for the Japanese. I've listed some of the faux pas below, if you want a closer look -
- jika-bashi (direct chopsticks) - when food is presented in a communal bowl, it shouldn't be transferred to an individual plate or bowl using one's chopsticks. instead, food should be transferred using tori-bashi (serving chopsticks - normally larger and plainer than individual chopsticks)
- saguri-bashi (searching chopsticks) - to let one's chopsticks hover over food while deciding whether to take it up or not
- namida-hashi (crying chopsticks) - to pick up food and let the juice or sauce run off the chopsticks onto the table (or worse your clothes!)
- neburi-bashi (licked chopsticks) - this is self-explanatory!
- sashi-bashi (pointing chopsticks) - to use chopsticks to point or indicate something
- tate-bashi (upright chospticks) - to leave chopsticks stuck upright in food
- hashi-watashi (passing chopsticks) - to pass food between chopsticks
- yose-bashi - (pulling chopsticks) - using chopsticks to move chinaware or other objects
- watashi-bashi - (bridged chopsticks) - placing chopsticks like a bridge across a bowl or plate when a meal is finished. instead, chopsticks should be placed neatly in front of you on the table or back on a chopstice rest if provided (disposable chopsticks should be placed back in their paper wrapper)
You are more likely to avoid any mishaps if you can handle your chopsticks properly, so I''ve produced a short tutorial here, if you need a little practice. The basic rule of using chopsticks is that only the upper chopstick moves - the lower one doesn't. Remember that when you are eating rice, you can raise the bowl with your free hand and bring it closer to your mouth - you shouldn't do this with other dishes however. Eating noodles with chopsticks is easier than it looks - just remember that once you have captured some noodles in your chopsticks, you can put them into your mouth and then slurp them up - the noisier the better!
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Happy cooking! kurumi XXXX.