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Miso Hungry Podcast

Episode 21: 20 Easy Ways to Embarass and Insult with Chopsticks


We all know foreign countries have lots of rules that are strange to us… especially when it comes to Japan! *

But since we’re foreigners, it’s expected that we can’t possibly remember all their etiquette rules… so it’s totally fine to throw all manners to the wind! **

To help you out with that, here are:

20 easy ways to brake all the rules when it comes to chopsticks

  1. When you want to set your chopsticks down, stick them in your rice so that they stand straight up!
    (Instead, always lay the chopsticks horizontally on the edge of a dish or on the chopstick rest. Why? Because this is the way a bowl of rice is offered to the spirit of a dead person, at their deathbed or in front of their photograph on the household Buddhist altar. Crossing your chopsticks on the table or food is also considered to be a no-no for the same reason, but the upright-in-rice thing is the worst.)
  2. Pass food to your eating companion by having them take it from between your chopsticks with their chopsticks!
    (Don’t pass food from your chopsticks directly to someone else’s. The proper way is for you to place the food down in between yourself and the other person, on a plate. Then they can pick it up from there with their own chopsticks. Why? When a person dies and is cremated, their bones are passed from chopstick to chopstick as a part of the Buddhist funeral ritual. You should also not pick up one piece of food with two pairs of chopsticks (held by two people).)
  3. If you’re having trouble picking up a piece of food with chopsticks, just stab it with a chopstick!

    (Don’t spear your food in order to pick it up. Food must always be pinched between the two chopstick ends. Chopsticks are always used together, as if they are attached to each other invisibly. Think of them as tweezers or tongs, not a pair of skewers… spearing food is bad. Just sayin’.)
  4. If you can’t choose between two pretty pairs of chopsticks, no worries… just use one of each!
    (Do not use unmatched chopsticks. Why? Well for one, it looks funny. But it is also reminiscent of some funeral rites… always unlucky.)
  5. If you’ve got food stuck to your chopsticks, you should totally wash your chopsticks off in your drink.
    (… ew.)
  6. Instead of putting your chopsticks down, just hold them in your mouth… it’s so much more convenient!
    (Don’t leave your hashi in your mouth while you do something else with your hands, like pick up plates or bowls. Hello, dangerous!)
  7. Chopsticks make excellent swords!
    (Do not use your hashi as toys.)
  8. And we all know chopsticks are great drumsticks, too!
    (Do not pretend your hashi are drumsticks and pound the table with them.)
  9. Hey look… if I stick my chopsticks between my upper lip and my gums, I look like a vampire!
    (Ahem. Manners, people!)
  10. And if I stick them up my nose, I look like a walrus!
    (Do remember you will be eating with these later…)
  11. I have long hair, and a pretty pair of chopsticks, so I’m just going to stick them in my hair… isn’t that pretty?
    (There do exist hair accessories that look very similar to hashi, but it’s generally better not to use hashi that you plan to eat with as hair accessories.)
  12. When you break apart your disposable wooden chopsticks, rub them together to make sure all the splinters are gone before you eat with them!
    (This is actually an insult – by rubbing your chopsticks together, you are implying that the restaurant is cheap and is providing you with subpar chopsticks… definitely not something you want to be pointing out, even if true!)
  13. On a side note, if you’re eating sushi, you should definitely mix your soy sauce and wasabi together… because it’s DELICIOUS.
    (Wasabi and shoyu are meant to be enjoyed as two separate condiments, not as a single paste. This is an easy way to make yourself stick out as a foreigner!)
  14. Sucking on your chopsticks to get every last bit of sauce and deliciousness is highly encouraged!
    (You wouldn’t lick your plate at a restaurant, so don’t suck on your chopsticks either!)
  15. If you’re having trouble using your chopsticks, just pick up your rice bowl and shovel the rice into your mouth!
    (Do not shovel food directly from your rice bowl into your mouth. It makes you look like a pig. You’re supposed to pick your rice bowl or miso soup bowl up in one hand and eat with your chopsticks in the other hand. You can also bring your soup bowl right up to your mouth and sip.

    However, you’re not supposed to do the same with your rice bowl. You should pick up your rice in clumps and bring it up to your mouth, using the bowl judiciously to catch any drips. Other plates and bowls are never picked up. Pick the food up from them with your chopsticks, directly into your mouth, or if necessary put it in your rice bowl. But ideally you should put it on an extra plate, usually supplied each person, called a torizara (“plate to take things onto”). There are exceptions to this rule, like with tamago kake gohan (raw egg with rice).)

  16. To heck with serving utensils… just go in and grab food from communal plates using your own hashi!
    (If there are serving utensils… use them. However if there are no serving utensils, you should turn your chopsticks the other way and use the fat or unused ends to pick up the food.

    Shabu shabu, sukiyaki, etc. are all informal meals which are meant to be shared with the family or group all dipping into the same pot. So of course, the rules are going to be more relaxed.

    However if you are in a more formal situation, you should first watch what others are doing, but if in doubt, flip your hashi around. If you are serving other people (not yourself) from a communcal dish, the basic rules is to flip your chopsticks around unless you know that person very well.

  17. If you dropped one of your chopsticks on the ground or ate off the wrong end… meh, no biggie.
    (If anything happens and you’re using waribashi, simply ask for another pair! They’re super cheap, and it’s better to ask for another pair than to stick contaminated chopsticks into the communal dishes…)
  18. If you can’t make up your mind what to eat next, hovering your chopsticks over each dish is perfectly acceptable.
    (No wandering hashi – this is considered to be rather off-putting.)
  19. Gesturing and pointing at things with your chopsticks!
    (Don’t point at people or things with your chopsticks. This is considered to be somewhat ruder than pointing with ones fingers, which is also rude in Japan.)
  20. If you need to put down your chopsticks down, it really doesn’t matter where you put them.
    (If you are supplied with a chopstick rest, use it. Don’t rest your chopsticks on your bowl, or other dish. If you have waribashi, you can make an impromptu chopstick rest out of the paper holder.)

Other good tips:

  • Don’t let liquids drip from your chopsticks. It makes a mess, and YUCK!
  • Don’t stir your food around with your chopsticks. This is considered to be insulting to the cook, and doesn’t look very polite. (If you are eating natto gohan, or something similar, that’s different.)
  • Place hashi pointing in a right to left direction (the tips on the left). Placing hashi diagonal, vertical and crossing each stick are not acceptable, either at home or in a restaurant setting.
  • In formal use, disposable hashi (waribashi) should be replaced into the wrapper at the end of a meal.
  • Some cool things about using hashi:

    Eating with hashi helps you to eat slowly. You can pick up only so much food with hashi, almost always less than a mouthful.

    Eating slowly is healthy, and is a way of helping you achieve the Japanese concept of Hara hachi bunme (“Eat until you are 80% full.”) because it allows your brain to keep pace with your stomach. When you eat slowly, you know when you’re getting full, and you can stop yourself before you’re overstuffed.

    Eating salad with hashi is SO MUCH EASIER than with a fork. Think about it. Instead of chasing that piece of lettuce around the plate? Use your hashi to just simply grab it!

    Also? Try eating Cheetos with chopsticks. Voila – no orange powder stuck to your fingers!

    eating cheetos with chopsticks

    Ecological Impact

    In Japan, a total of 24 billion pairs are used each year, which is equal to almost 200 pairs per person each year.

    In April 2006, China imposed a 5% tax on disposable hashi to reduce waste of natural resources by over-consumption. This had the most effect in Japan as many of its disposable hashi are imported from China, which account for over 90% of the Japanese market.

    Reusable chopsticks (“my hashi”) are becoming more popular as a result. Some that we like include Sistema Klipo Cutlery Set to Go (Rachael just got Allison a set of these), Benetton My Cutlery Eco Friendly Portable Three-piece Utensil Set (that’s the one Rachael has), and To-Go Ware RePEaT Reusable Bamboo Utensil Set.

    * Kidding. While true to an extent, most of their etiquette rules are common sense!
    ** Seriously… kidding. Please try to respect the culture of any country you visit – they’ll love you and tourists in general all the more for it! ^_^

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  • Elizabeth T May 30, 2012 at 7:53am
    I'm Taiwanese but have a lot of family living in Japan, and grew up with the term "gong kuai" (which is actually Mandarin Chinese) to denote a pair of communal chopsticks used to serve food. For example, every winter when we have hot pot/shabu shabu, we'd each get our own pair of eating utensils, but we'd use a couple of pairs of chopsticks to pick food out of the pot. In retrospect, it probably would've been wiser to use saibashi so you don't burn your hand on the steam but eh, we survived. Also, my mother has told me on a couple of occasions that if you drop a chopstick, someone will give you something or that it's good luck. However, my search on the Internet led to results that are quite the opposite- that if you drop your chopsticks, it's considered bad luck. Of course, if you drop a chopstick, you WILL be given something- replacement chopsticks! And despite growing up in an Asian household, eating powder-coated snack foods was not something I had witnessed until college, when a college friend of mine would eat Doritos straight out of the bag-- with chopsticks! Pure genius. Thanks for mentioning My Hashi, too- I had only seen them available in Japan last year, but I'm glad the trend has started coming to the U.S., as well!
  • Diane Jun 1, 2012 at 9:38pm
    In 1972 When I was I was in Japan. Once I pulled my cheap wooden chopsticks apart,,,, I was instructed to quickly place (but not stir) my cheap ,wooden, splintery, chopsticks into the very hot green tea, to help swell the wood that would help seal any possible wooden splinters that may remain. I didnt just drop them in, I kept them in my hand and quickly dipped them into the hot liquid and then just as quickly pulled them out. Not a long drawn out process. I have had many splinters in my mouth when I dont do this step. SO if it is against culture... I appoligize. Any comments? Also I learned to tie my paper wrapper into a knotted chopstick rest to use while eating, and when done I place the used chopsticks into the paper knot to let other know they are used and no longer wanted.
  • Fuji Mama Jun 4, 2012 at 6:43am
    @Elizabeth T -- Love hearing about the Taiwanese customs! @Diane -- I wouldn't worry! If someone teaches you something, that is the way to do it, especially when you're with them! I have never personally heard this, but that doesn't mean anything. Japan has so many regional differences, that this could be one of those things, or it could be that etiquette has changed. Who knows!
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