For those who are unfamiliar with the country, Japanese use chopsticks as their main utensil. Yes, you can find knives and forks everywhere but any visit for a meal at a Japanese home will require the use of chopsticks. They are called hashi 箸. They are also called otemoto おてもと/お手許 and for washoku 和食, the traditional cuisine of Japan, they are considered the proper instruments for enjoying the meal.
It might seem simple enough, as chopsticks are very common throughout Asia. But there are subtle differences between sets used in Japan, China and Korea as examples.
Japanese chopsticks are usually slight shorter than other countries with thick backs and tapering to a finer point. They are usually made of wood or bamboo and are oftern lacquered. Korean chopsticks, on the other hand, are of a medium length and made of brass or silver and have a flat, rectangular shape and come with a spoon.
Chinese chopsticks are usually longer and thicker than either Japanese or Korean. Their sides are rounded or squared and the tips are flat and blunt. They are most commonly made from melamine plastic or bamboo.
In Japan, chopsticks have different lengths, too. Men normally have chopsticks 23cm in length and women 21cm in length. Finding the right size when buying will enable you to get used to the grip and be better able to control it.
Here are some of the type of chopsticks in use in Japan.
Young, newly married couples like to have their own his and hers chopsticks called meotobashi夫婦箸. This literally translates as a couple`s chopsticks. This represents the hope that if the matching chopsticks are used, the couple will be always happy and healthy. We have just finished the New Year`s celebrations and for those of you who stayed in Japan, and had to opportunity to visit Japanese friends or go out to eat osechi ryori, you would have seen fancy chopsticks wrapped in decorative red and white paper. These are known as iwaibashi祝い箸 or celebration chopsticks. They are bleached white and are pointed at both ends, the reason being you are sharing your meal with the gods.
Chopsticks used during a traditional, expensive and high-end Japanese meal called kaiseki 懐石 are rikyubashi 利久箸. These are named after the famous Japanese tea master Sen no Rikyu.
The ones most foreigners will be used to are the disposable chopsticks found in ramen shops, restaurants and convenience stores. These ones are called waribashi 割り箸. Waribashi have been used in eating places in Japan since the Edo period 江戸時代, Edo jidai (1603 – 1868).
Learning to use chopsticks properly takes a bit of practise. Getting a good grip is important and learning steady control is vital to avoid spilling food all over the place.
Japanese society in general place great importance on table manners, particularly the use of chopsticks.
In order to avoid embarassment, I will list out some things you should NEVER do during a meal with chopsticks.
Firstly, when bringing food to your plate, you should do so in a quick and efficient manner. Allowing your chopsticks over food while wondering which one to pick is known as mayoi-bashi 迷い箸. Doing this will portray you as a greedy person.
When you have all your food on your plate, you should place your chopsticks on a chopstick rest called a hashioki 箸置き. A lot of times, you will find your chopsticks resting on these when you food arrives on
a tray at restaurants. If you don`t see it, you can make one yourself by folding the wrapper the chopsticks came in.
Never ever stick your chopsticks vertically into your rice as you will immediately offend every Japanese around you. Chopsticks are only ever stuck into rice during a funeral and doing this, called tatebashi 立て箸 or hotoke-bashi 仏箸 is thought to bring bad luck to the table.
Also, if someone asks you for some food, pass the plate over to that person. Never ever pass food via chopsticks. This is known as hiroi-bashi 拾い箸. During a Japanese funeral, there is a ceremony known as hashi-watashi 箸渡し where the bones on the deceased are passed by chopsticks from one family member to another to be placed in the urn.Doing this with food is a terrible mistake.
Sometimes, after dipping food in the sauce, one is tempted to lick any sauce that might be dripping off the end of the chopstick. This is known as neburi-bashi 舐り箸 and portrays you as a selfish person.
Also, some people after licking the sauce off, tend to bite or chew the chopsticks. This is a taboo called kami-bashi 噛み箸.
If you are served miso soup during your meal, do not use your chopsticks to stir the soup looking for the best ingredients to eat. This is called saguri-bashi 探り箸 and gives the impression you are playing with your food.
You`re sitting at the table and there`s food in plates everywhere. If the dish you want more of is not in front of you, ask the person next to you to serve you or bring the dish to you. Do not use your chopsticks to reach out to pull the plate closer to you. This is known as yose-bashi 寄せ箸. Chopsticks are for picking up food to eat, not pulling/pushing.
Another common mistake foreigners make is stabbing your food with your chopsticks. We all know it can be difficult to pick up food with your chopsticks but to use your chopsticks to spear the food in order to pick it up is known as sashi-bashi 刺し箸 and considered improper. Same as us stabbing food with a knife and using it to put food in our mouths.
When taking food from the dish, do not dig through trying to find the best or biggest pieces. This is called koji-bashi こじ箸 and resembles someone digging through his own grave and is extremely offensive.
When you have managed to pick up that tasty morsel of food you wanted and dipped it into the sauce, make sure there is no sauce dripping from your chopsticks as you are about to place the food into your mouth. This is called namida-bashi 涙箸. You should either let the sauce drip off first or, like many Japanese, use your left hand to prevent any sauce from falling onto the table or other plates.
If you want more rice (seconds/ okawari おかわり), do not hold both your rice bowl and your chopsticks with the same hand. This is called mochi-bashi 持ち箸. It is a taboo to hold both the rice bowl and chopsticks in the same hand.
You have now settled down with your meal and have decided to engage in conversation or tell a story to the other guests. Make sure you put your chopsticks down first before gesturing. Doing so is considered very rude and called odori-bashi 踊り箸. It is the equivalent of you trying to talk and pointing at people with your knife or fork.
If food gets stuck in your teeth, resist the temptation to use your chopsticks as a toothpick! This is known as せせり箸 and is frowned upon. Use a toothpick or excuse yourself and go to the bathroom to remove that annoying piece of food.
If you are taking a rest between eating, put your chopsticks down on the chopstick holder or resting on the sauce plate. Do not put them on top of your rice bowl. You only put your chopsticks on top of your rice bowl when you have had enough and are finished with your meal. To put your chopsticks on top of your bowl while there is still food in it is considered offensive.
When placing your chopsticks down, always remember to place them in a right to left formation. The tips should always be facing left. If you are using a disposable pair of chopsticks, place them in the wrapper they came in after your have finished.
These are the main things you should look out for when using chopsticks.
Most of it, really, is just common sense. If you are in doubt, have a look around you and see what the Japanese are doing and follow their example, unless they are doing something that is wrong, as above!
Most of all, practise using chopsticks and you will get the hang of it. If you are really keen to learn how to be adept at using chopsticks, you can practise at home trying to pick up small items like beans and you
will soon be eating like a local. However, even if you aren`t any good with chopsticks, as long as you observe the basic rules above, you will be fine and enjoy eating washoku 和食.
Itadakimasu 頂きます いただきます！