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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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