Chopsticks might be the utensil of choice in many parts of Asia, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all affair.
Originating in China, the design of the chopsticks evolved to suit different cuisines, and the correct etiquette has been shaped by cultural influences over time. So what’s considered perfectly acceptable use in one country can be quite rude in another.
China: the birthplace of chopsticks
Chopsticks were first used in Chinese kitchens some 5000 years ago, but their arrival on the dinner table wasn’t until much later, when noodles appeared in the Chinese diet. Until then, spoons were used for eating, but as anyone who has desperately rummaged for cutlery in an office kitchen knows, eating noodles with a spoon isn’t easy.
The rise of chopsticks in homes was cemented in part thanks to Confucius’s dislike of knives. He thought using knives at the dining table was a barbaric practice, instead encouraging the culinary tradition of serving food chopped into bite-sized pieces. And so, chopsticks became the utensil of choice.
Chinese chopsticks are commonly made from bamboo, though plastic chopsticks are now also popular. They are longer than the Korean and Japanese versions at around 27cm, supposedly to make it easier to reach communal dishes, and are squared in shape and blunt at the tip, perhaps another nod to knife-averse Confucius.
When chopsticks spread from China to other parts of Asia, certain Chinese cultural taboos came with them, and are now widely observed.
Here’s a quick guide:
- don’t stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl of rice, as this symbolises incense sticks in a food offering to dead ancestors.
- don’t pass food from chopstick to chopstick, as this is how bones are passed between family members at Buddhist funerals.
- keep the ends of your chopsticks at equal length, whether in use or not – again, the alternative signifies a coffin.
- don’t use mismatched chopsticks and don’t cross your chopsticks because yes, death.
The rest is just common decency: don’t suck on your chopsticks, don’t rinse them in your tea, don’t gesture or point with them, don’t hover or dig around for food on a communal plate, place them neatly together on top of your bowl or on chopstick holders, don’t spear food and – even if you might desperately want to - don’t use them as drumsticks.
Korea: chopsticks and a spoon
Chopsticks made their way to Korea in approximately 500AD. Made of metal, Korean chopsticks are flatter and shorter than Chinese versions, at approximately 25cm long. According to the Korean Cultural Centre in Australia, this design makes it easier to eat certain Korean foods.
“Koreans use chopsticks not only to pick up food but to make foods easier to eat. For instance, kimchi has to be cut with a chopstick and a lot of meat dishes like galbijjim (braised short ribs) or tteokgalbi (short rib patties) do as well,” explains AyYoung Kim of the Korean Cultural Centre in Australia.
“Also, Koreans use spoons much more than the Japanese or Chinese, who only use spoons for eating soups,” says Kim. A Korean set will come with a pair of chopsticks and a metal spoon – a tradition that originally came from China, though it’s no longer followed there.
In Korea, this spoon is used for eating rice, soup, stews and any liquid or juice left in the bowl. Don’t hold the spoon in the same hand as your chopsticks – it seems quite an impossible feat, but impolite nonetheless. And while in China it’s perfectly acceptable to lift your bowl to your mouth and push food in with chopsticks, this is quite rude in Korea (and Japan).
The Korean Cultural Centre in Australia says chopstick etiquette is becoming less strict, but there are still rules. “Your elders are the first to lift their spoons and chopsticks, and you finish eating after your elders finish their meals,” says Kim. “Do not put your spoon and chopsticks on the table earlier than elders at the end of the meal.”
Japan: couple’s chopsticks
Japanese chopsticks are shorter again than Korean chopsticks, ranging from about 17-23cm. Commonly made of lacquered wood, they are thinner and tapered almost to a point. This design supposedly makes it easier to debone a piece of cooked fish, a key element of the Japanese diet, and better for picking up delicate, smaller pieces of food. They’ll come paired with a chopstick rest, or hashioki, to keep them off the table when not in use.
Japan is also the birthplace of disposable chopsticks, waribashi. Disposable chopsticks are now used around the world. The Twitter world recently got all excited by the idea that we’ve been using them incorrectly all this time, with that connective piece of wood at the end designed to be broken off and used as a rest. Turns out it was only true for some types of disposables. You should also never rub your disposable chopsticks together to get rid of splinters in Japan – this is considered insulting to the restaurant because it suggests that the chopsticks are cheap. You’ll be doubly insulting the chef if you then proceed to swirl your soup around with a chopstick.
Feel like using chopsticks? Why not try our Tonkotsu ramen.
Disposable chopsticks were borne of the Japanese concern with shared chopsticks. It’s impolite in formal situations to use your chopsticks to eat from communal dishes (to avoid the Asian equivalent of the double-dipped chip, use the serving chopsticks, or turn your chopsticks around). Even within households, it’s not uncommon for family members to have a personal pair. Traditionally there would be a ‘his and hers’ set, the man’s pair being longer than the woman’s. Children’s chopsticks are shorter still, made from plastic, and connected at the end for easier use.
Japan probably retains the strictest chopstick etiquette, with specific names for all the chopstick crimes you can commit. A common one is namida-bashi, or ‘crying chopsticks’: allowing soup or liquid to drip from your chopsticks onto the table.
Beyond East Asia
While China, Korea and Japan have the most noticeable differences in chopstick styles, there’s still the rest of South-East Asia to consider, where chopsticks travelled along with Chinese culture.
In Vietnam, where the Chinese (and chopsticks) arrived early on, chopsticks are at their longest, and taper to a blunt point. In the rest of South-East Asia, chopsticks are generally of the Chinese style, and mainly used in dishes of Chinese origin. In Thailand, for instance, most meals are eaten with a spoon and fork, but chopsticks are reserved for eating noodles and noodle soups.
If you can’t remember which rules apply where, don’t be too anxious. Even attempting to use chopsticks as a hapless foreigner usually results in a comment about how impressive your skills are – no matter how many ‘chopstick tears’ you’ve spilled on the tablecloth.
And so long as you’re not standing chopsticks straight up in your rice – or worse, using them to practice your drumming skills - chances are what you’re doing could be perfectly acceptable etiquette… somewhere.
Quick and easy to prepare, this recipe traditionally calls for Japanese wheat noodles called somen, but soba or ramen noodles will work equally well. The dressing, made with Korean fermented chilli paste and chilli powder, forms the foundation of this dish, so taste the mix to ensure it’s punchy and well-balanced.
While not technically an "instant noodle" dish, this gluten-free stir-fry is so quick – and requires so little preparation – we deem it as such. Paired with crispy, five-spiced chicken, pickled chillies and celery, these noodles deserve a place on the weeknight rotation.
Zaru soba is a popular Japanese summer salad. The cold noodles are traditionally served in a zaru (bamboo basket). Chopsticks are used to pick up a small amount of the noodles which are then dipped into the sauce, mixed with some wasabi and ginger. The carrot isn’t traditional but we’ve included it for texture, colour and substance.