Today I have the immense pleasure of hosting, Ruchira Shukla of Nirjharini fame on my blog. Just like her blog name, her writing is lyrical and strikes emotional chords. Ruchira is a dear friend, perhaps among my closest friends in the blogworld. She is honest, endearing, affectionate and a very loyal friend. I am blessed to have found her. I have always admired her writing. You have to read her Japan series and travel posts; they are outstanding. She is Japan’s Ambassador to India, as she single handedly educates us about their customs and traditions. In continuation of that series, today, she tells us about the Japanese and their usage of chopsticks. So, here’s over to her:

***

In many ways, Japan still remains a mystery to the rest of the world. For here, the ancient and the modern not only coexist but seem to do so in great harmony. The land of the rising sun is as comfortable with its bullet trains and cutting edge technology as it is with Zen and Geishas.
Japan has a unique culture, with its own peculiarities and quirks that seem natural to the Japanese but intrigue all foreigners. One of the most interesting and peculiar things about Japan is that while the rest of the world uses spoons and forks, the Japanese insist on eating their food with two pieces of wood!

My first brush with chopsticks was when I went to Japan on a scholarship. I was told I would starve to death there unless I learned how to eat with chopsticks. This was much before Japanese food became popular in India and very few people knew about chopsticks. Luckily, I had a friend who had lived in Tokyo for a few years and along with the mandatory electronics that everyone brings back from Japan, he had also brought chopsticks. I promptly paid him a visit, borrowed his chopsticks and very confidently tried to pick up a piece of carrot with them. Half way to my mouth the carrot slipped out of the chopsticks and bounced across the table. I tried again, this time trying to keep a firmer grasp on the chopsticks. The carrot slipped out again. In desperation I just stabbed the piece with the sharp end of my chopstick and picked it up. Only to be told my by friend that to pick up food like this is considered to be the height of bad manners in Japan.

The rest of the afternoon was frustrating to the extreme. By the time I had gone through a huge bowl of cut up veggies and fruits, most of which had landed everywhere except in my mouth, my hands were cramped and aching.

My first few meals using chopsticks were a disaster. I remember food flying across the table or dropping back on my plate with a plop as I grappled with my chopsticks and my red faced apologies to my Japanese hosts. I am sure it was only their inherent politeness that prevented them from rolling on the floor laughing at the clumsiness of this foreigner.

That was years back. I can now pick up a stray strand of rice with as much finesse as I would pick up a salad leaf. In fact, I believe that it makes complete sense to eat Japanese food with chopsticks. In Japan, meat and vegetables are cut into bite size pieces and placed in numerous small bowls before they are brought to the table. So you don’t really need to cut up your food further, you just pick it up and eat it as it is. This is very easy to do with chopsticks. Unlike our rice, Japanese rice is very sticky and easy to handle with chopsticks. The acceptable norm is to bring the rice bowl close to your mouth and sort of shovel the rice in with your chopsticks. Even when you are served miso soup, you are supposed to use chopsticks to eat the bits of food floating in your soup and then simply pick up the soup bowl and drink the remaining broth.

Japanese chopsticks

The ultimate chopsticks test is eating a piece of Tofu with them. Tofu is extremely soft and squishy and most of the time I just end up pushing it around the plate and crumbling it further in an effort to pick it up with my chopsticks.

Restaurants in japan that serve western cuisine will have spoons and forks on each table but traditional Japanese restaurants will rarely have any other cutlery except chopsticks.
Now that I am an expert in wielding my chopsticks, I get some sort of sadistic pleasure when I see first timers struggling with them. The traditional Japanese restaurants are the kind of places where you need to take your shoes off at the entrance and then sit cross legged on cushions before low tables. It’s bad enough having to sit in this cramped position without suddenly finding yourself surrounded by numerous bowls of food out of which you are expected to eat daintily using chopsticks. For the uninitiated, such an experience can be unnerving.

Using chopsticks is not at all difficult if you know how to do it properly. The trick is to hold them with one chopstick resting on the base of your thumb. This chopstick remains stationary while you hold the second one almost like you would hold a pencil, grasping it with your thumb and finger. You need to move this top chopstick to pick up your food.

image2

Like they do with most things in life, the Japanese take their chopsticks very seriously. If you are not holding your chopsticks properly or are not following the etiquette associated with them, the Japanese just assume your home training has been pathetic, and you have been raised like a barbarian.

Japan actually has special training chopsticks that have placeholders to slip your fingers in. These are used to teach kids how to use chopsticks properly so that they don’t grow up and malign their family name.

Japanese chopsticks

There is a lot of etiquette associated with using chopsticks. You are not supposed to stick your chopsticks straight into your rice bowl or use them to pass food to another person. Both of these are rituals associated with funerals. You shouldn’t place your chopsticks crossed over each other or rub them together and horror of horrors play with them and use them as drumsticks on the table while you wait for the food. The last one would shake even the placid Japanese out of their habitual politeness!

The most common type of chopsticks are the wooden disposable ones. The fancier chopsticks will be painted or have lacquer work on them. Such chopsticks come in their own beautiful cases and are much in demand with tourists, who much to the chagrin of the Japanese, either end up using them as hair pieces or stick them in their pen stands!

image 4

So the next time you are eating noodles, try eating them with chopsticks. It might be a lot of fun.

On the other hand, as your food keeps falling back on your plate you might finally understand the true meaning of the saying – There is many a slip between the cup and the lip – Or in this case, the chopstick and the lip !

 Pics: All pics are from free-to-use Japanese websites.

Comments

comments

Do you worry about SEO optimizing the content you write? Now you need not. Get my SEO Cheat Sheet to write kickass Blog Posts that rank well.

Get it for FREE here

Thank you for subscribing.

Something went wrong.

57 Thoughts on “The Japanese and the art of using Chopsticks

  1. Brilliantly written, Ruchira. With the right dose of humour too. Really enjoyed it. My first tryst with the chopstick was when I moved to London. I can’t remember the name, but they did not have forks or spoons and everyone looked at me like I had asked to sleep with the owner’s wife, when I enquired about the cutlery – extremely dirty looks. But being a foodie, I do like to experiment with stuff – so needless to say, I’m rather comfortable with chopsticks these days. Though I can hardly claim to “pick up a stray strand of rice with as much finesse as I would pick up a salad leaf” – maybe with the finesse of picking up a small piece of panko-fried pork 🙂
    Sid recently posted…I rememberMy Profile

    • Oh yes, they give you very strange looks when you ask for a spoon. Something on the lines of how dare these foreigners enter our restaurant when they don’t even know how to use chopsticks.
      Glad you enjoyed the post Sid. And good to know you are comfortable with chopsticks. Its fun once you know how isn’t it !
      Ruch recently posted…The Japanese and The Art of Using ChopsticksMy Profile

  2. I want the one with placeholders.
    I remember avoiding chopsticks before marriage. But while we were on our honeymoon, my husband took me to an authentic Jap restaurant where I had no option but to use the chopsticks. I know what you mean by sadistic pleasure Ruch, because I remember my husbands amused face when he saw me struggling with them. Having lived in Japan, he could easily finish his rice but God knows how I managed. Such a delightful post Ruch.

  3. As soon as I saw Japan in the title, I knew it had to be Ruchira 🙂 Well, I don’t know how to eat with chopsticks. And I am not sure if I have the patience to even try it out because I would be so tempted to eat the stuff that I would dig my fingers straightaway. Obviously, I would be the bad mannered foreigner in Japan.
    Jas recently posted…Caves of the UnknownMy Profile

  4. As usual, I loved the article Ruchira. I have tried eating with chopsticks too….and as you said, I falied miserbaly at it. And since I was not required to do it, I never pursued it either. But that picture you just shared above and the explanation of how the two chopsticks should be aligned, I think I might give them a try again 🙂
    Ghata recently posted…Guest Post : Return of the TravellerMy Profile

  5. I have not eaten japanese food, let alone use chopsticks … And after reading this I am scared …

  6. That was a wonderful post Ruchira. Thanks for sharing the info… real help 🙂
    Tara Nair recently posted…Two Month StoryMy Profile

  7. The first time I tried using chopsticks was in Sydney when I went to s Sushi Restaurant…I was horrible at it…It’s tough… I have tried several times only to drop my food on the table
    nabanita recently posted…I’ve Spoken..It’s Your Turn Now!My Profile

  8. Forgot to say how much I enjoyed the post 🙂
    nabanita recently posted…I’ve Spoken..It’s Your Turn Now!My Profile

  9. Interesting read! I have never used it and it seems very tricky 😉
    Love the pic with the kid’s hand 🙂

  10. Loved reading this piece. It’s as much because I like everything Japanese as it is about your writing style, Ruchira.
    Gurdev Parmar recently posted…Swach Bharat Abhiyan – a good startMy Profile

  11. Chopsticks are common in quite a few countries in SE Asia including Singapore and so i was nodding along as i read your post…. Have seen them a lot around here and no i am still a student when it comes to using them….Guess i should get one training one in that pic …. Thats so cute ha ha
    jaishvats recently posted…Simple Sweet Act by a taxi driverMy Profile

  12. Very nicely written. I really enjoyed reading this post.
    If only I knew there were training chopsticks. If I visit, Japan or any other country that uses chopsticks, I think I should bring back some of those for my little ones. I learnt to eat with chopsticks not so long ago; maybe 2 years back. I’m still not an expert, but I did do some practising at home, later.

    The friend who guided me (he’s Indian) said he liked eating with chopsticks because you eat slow and you don’t overeat when you eat this way I tried it and I got just what he meant. 🙂

  13. Thank you so much Rachna for giving me an opportunity to write on your blog and for the very lovely introduction ! I am indeed lucky to have found friends like you in the Blogworld !
    Ruch recently posted…The Japanese and The Art of Using ChopsticksMy Profile

  14. I don’t have the patience to use chopsticks. I envy people who can, it looks so graceful.

  15. That was a fun write, Ruchira, and I, too, immediately thought of her the moment I saw Japan in the title, Rachna! Being a culinary stick-in-the-mud and not really bothered about anyone considering me a barbarian, I have had no experience with chopsticks and, if I ever did try Japanese cuisine, I would probably start on it with my fingers and deny you your sadistic pleasure 🙂
    C. Suresh recently posted…The need to lieMy Profile

  16. Quite an enjoyable read, Ruchira. I can’t use chopsticks and so I avoid going to joints where there are no forks! My husband who picked up the use of chopsticks when he lived in Hawaii has tried to teach me many times but my answer has always been – I am not planning to move to Japan or Hawaii, so why bother? 🙂 But I do enjoy seeing people use them so gracefully!
    Beloo Mehra recently posted…Is it True? Is it Untrue?My Profile

  17. Pingback: Tangy Tuesday Picks. Creative blog posts

  18. As soon as I saw the post title, I thought of you Ruchira! 🙂

    My first chopsticks experience was decades ago at a sales dinner – where we had no choice but to eat with chopsticks. The biggest challenge was to tackle the soup! It was great fun, though. I’d love to get those trainer chopsticks!

    Congrats on being featured in the Tangy Tuesday picks, Rachna!
    Vidya Sury recently posted…Encouragement. Peer Pleasure #MicroblogMondaysMy Profile

  19. Nice post! I have no experience in using chopsticks but reading you post, I really want to give it a try. I guess the eating with chopsticks also helps in eating the right amount (to little) food to help digestion. Thanks for sharing your experience 🙂
    uma recently posted…How to Share a YouTube Video in WhatsAppMy Profile

  20. Bhavana Rao on December 3, 2014 at 2:10 am said:

    Gosh, Ruchira, this sounds quite scary. Japanese sounds quite authoritative and superstitious 😀
    I would probably scream, pull my hair and run out of the restaurant if I am given these many etiquettes to eat my food. 😀
    Take a bow lady 🙂

  21. oh wow…quite some story about chopsticks, Ruchira 🙂 That baby chopsticks are so cute. I tried eating with them a few times, but never succesful 🙁 Japan and Ruchira….title says it’s you…btw, I always had this qn in mind. Aren’t you the tallest of person in Japan 😛
    Found In Folsom recently posted…Another Morning!My Profile

  22. Interesting post. You seem to be a real connoisseur in Japanese traditions. I am sure you must have been at a tea party as well.

    It is very interesting to eat with chopsticks. Like everything in life, I never managed to get the right way of using chopsticks. Nevertheless I worked out my own way of using them and I can manage even rice though I might not satisfy the Japanese in terms of elegance. Nor will I ever please an European in my use of fork and knife though I tried my best. Same with their performing arts as well – I ended up dozing off through both my first Kabuki as well a my first Opera experience much to the scandalized looks of the Japanese and Europeans respectively.
    The Fool recently posted…A brief history of Washing – where Panchatantra meets Arabian NightsMy Profile

  23. I prefer chopsticks even though my daughter shudders every time she sees me holding them incorrectly. But I manage, without making a splash.
    purbaray recently posted…Gurgaon On Foot? Broom Through It!My Profile

  24. Feels good to read about the culture of using chopsticks and the finesse of enjoying Oriental cuisine with this! So much to learn…:)
    Rahul recently posted…Come Fly With MeMy Profile

  25. Your post has been featured in this week’s Tangy Tuesday Picks! You can check it out at http://adda.at/1ybGjYX

  26. I have to learn the art of using chopsticks and btw, I can do other things you’ve mentioned very well, like playing drums 😛

    Rachna, you are right – she is the ambassador of Japan for all of us.
    Saru Singhal recently posted…Of knots, stains and winterMy Profile

  27. Sadly, this is one skill that I have not mastered despite my best efforts. And now I have simply given up!
    Rickie recently posted…Practically A Movie Review – Happy New YearMy Profile

  28. :-p I really must take you to a Japanese restuarant as soon as I can. Thanks for reading Rickie !

  29. Great post as always Ruchira ! Enjoyed reading your adventures with chopsticks. Have always marveled at the dainty way the Japanese use chopsticks !
    Asha recently posted…Footloose in the hinterlands of GoaMy Profile

  30. How did I miss this gem?! Love it!! I learnt to eat with chopsticks from my dad who was born in Singapore..I wish I could get those training chopsticks for the rest of my family!!
    Roshni recently posted…The day of compassion #1000SpeakMy Profile

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge

Post Navigation