No matter where you happen to be enjoying Asian food in the world, knowing how to use chopsticks correctly will come in handy. Learning how to eat with chopsticks is easy: No need to panic or suffer through the embarrassment of being the only one at the table to ask for a fork!
Once you learn the correct way to handle chopsticks, knowing a few simple rules of etiquette will make you that much more of a cultured pro.
First, learn about etiquette in Asia.
If given a choice, wooden chopsticks are far less slippery for beginners than the plastic or metal versions. Unfortunately, despite the small size, the demand for disposable chopsticks far surpasses the ability to make them from wood scrap.
An estimated 20 million mature trees are logged each year just to supply only China with billions of throwaway chopsticks. Plastic and metal chopsticks, while slightly more tricky to use, are far more sustainable.
- See more about responsible travel.
How to Eat With Chopsticks
Just as riding a bike, the mechanics of using chopsticks are simple -- it's just a matter of practice. Once you get the hang of how to eat with chopsticks, you may find yourself looking forward to the next opportunity to practice. Using chopsticks pleasantly forces you to slow down, take deliberate bites, and ultimately enjoy a meal a little more than had you just 'shoveled' it in with spoon or fork!
The 'secret' to eating with chopsticks is simply to move only the top chopstick. The bottom stick is held stationary in your fingers, while the top stick -- controlled by your first two fingers and thumb -- is moved to pinch bites of food.
See tips and diagrams for holding chopsticks properly.
Eating Tricky Food
Chopsticks seem extremely impractical for eating certain foods, however, there are polite workarounds. In many Asian countries a spoon will accompany dishes that are difficult to manage with only chopsticks.
- Lifting a bowl to face level and pushing rice into your mouth is both acceptable and perfectly normal in all parts of Asia with the exception of Korea. Alternatively, chopsticks can be held side by side to shovel rice from your plate.
- Slurping soup and noodles -- even with noises -- is acceptable in Asia. You can drink directly from your soup bowl.
- Large chunks of food can be torn or cut apart on your plate using chopsticks, however, do not impale a big piece of food as a way to lift it to your mouth.
- If no serving utensils are provided at a communal or family-style meal, turn your chopsticks around to use the clean ends when transferring food from communal dishes onto your own plate.
- In China, large pieces of food that cannot be broken apart (e.g., fried chicken) should be lifted with your chopsticks and nibbled; avoid using your hands whenever possible.
Tip: With the exception of sashimi, most types of sushi -- especially nigiri -- are eaten with the fingers rather than chopsticks. See how to eat sushi the correct way and more interesting facts about Japanese sushi.
Basic Chopstick Etiquette
Now that you can successfully bring food from your plate to your mouth by using chopsticks, knowing some basic etiquette will make you that much more of a pro.
Despite the temptation to play with them, remember that chopsticks are eating utensils, just as a knife and fork. You would never play drums on the table with two spoons, point at someone with a fork, or leave a knife standing vertically stuck into a steak -- treat chopsticks the same!
When taking a break, place your chopsticks in a tidy fashion to the right of your plate, preferably with the tips on the provided rest and without pointing them in anyone's immediate direction. Putting chopsticks on top of your bowl or plate indicates that you are finished and the staff may whisk it away!
Learn some basic Chinese table manners.
What NOT to Do with Chopsticks
- Do not rub chopsticks together to remove splinters or wooden strings.
- Do not tap chopsticks together in the air for practice or on a bowl to make noises.
- Do not leave chopsticks standing in a bowl vertically.
- Do not hold chopsticks in your hand with all five fingers as you would a weapon.
- Do not use chopsticks to gesture while talking or to point at people or dishes. A common newbie mistake is to use chopsticks to point at a particular dish you are recommending. Even worse, never use your chopsticks to gesticulate or point at food while grunting with your mouth full!
- Do not pass food to people with your chopsticks -- doing so resembles the practice of passing cremated bones at funerals. Instead, put the piece of food you intend to share directly onto the other person's plate.
- Do not suck sauce off the ends of your chopsticks or nibble on the ends.
Tips for Advanced Chopstick Etiquette
To show utmost respect to Asian hosts in a more formal environment, or maybe just to demonstrate some cultural knowledge, you can follow these additional tips for chopstick etiquette:
- Particularly when eating in Japan, allow elders or senior members at the table to lift their chopsticks first. See more about Japanese dining etiquette.
- Don't pick through dishes -- either communal or on your own plate -- for specific pieces of meat or vegetables that happen to be your favorite.
- Avoid crossing your chopsticks, as it symbolizes death in some cultures. Always keep them held in eating position or placed in a tidy, side-by-side configuration.
- If disposable chopsticks were used, place them back inside of the paper wrapper at the end of your meal and leave them to the right of your plate.
- If a chopstick rest is not provided on the right side of your bowl, some Japanese prefer to fold their own out of the paper provided for the disposable chopsticks.
- Koreans use spoons to eat soups and even rice. Always put your chopsticks to the right side of your spoon when resting on the table; the reverse is done at memorial dinners for deceased loved ones.