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Here’s a little cultural blog for the weekend. Might even come in handy when ordering that takeaway later…
Everyone knows that Japanese people use chopsticks to eat their food. Let me tell you why chopsticks are so cool:
1. You only need one hand
2. Manipulating your hand and fingers in this way on a thrice daily basis is good for your heart
3. As they are made from wood, they don’t taint food – especially raw fish or food with a high acid content.
4. They encourage excellent hand-eye coordination and precision
5. Chopsticks are multipurpose utensils – you can eat with them, stir-fry, deep-fry, whisk and detangle noodles with them. A true chopstick master can even separate a raw egg yolk from its white, WITHOUT BREAKING THE YOLK. (*bows modestly. Yes, I can. Thank you very much.)
6. The very nature of their engineering prevents you from shovelling large quantities of food into your mouth in one go, thus allowing you to appreciate the flavours and textures of your meal.
7. Chopsticks can be beautiful works of art, and can have chopstick rests to match – from whimsical and cute, to elaborate and elegant.
8. They are light, take up very little space and are eminently portable – perfect for those bento box picnics.
Anyone can learn to use them – both my kids were using chopsticks confidently by the time they were 3 years old. Japanese food really does taste better when chopsticks are used.
Of course, we all have chopstick disaster stories (well, I don’t personally, but I do by association).
The first time I took Hubby (who was Boyfriend then) to a Chinese restaurant, we were still students, and going out for meals was a huge luxury. He confessed he’d never been to a proper Chinese restaurant or used chopsticks properly. However, he was a quick learner, and seemed to have grasped the basics by the second course.
He was wrestling with a portion of stir-fried aubergine with ginger and garlic, when his two chopsticks suddenly crossed over with a fair amount of force, catapulting aubergine and onion haphazardly through the air, which landed with a meaty splat on another diner’s table. Oops.
Still, he is better with them than his poor father. When I said ‘anyone can learn to use them’, I meant ‘anyone except my father in law’. If I don’t provide a fork or spoon with our meals, Pa-in-Law would definitely go hungry. His excuse is his left-handedness, but that doesn’t wash, as my son is also left-handed.
Now, while I absolutely advocate chopstick use around the globe, there are a few little taboos associated with chopsticks – at least, in Japan.
1. Never stab things with them – not even food.
2. Don’t use them to point at people
3. Don’t suck on them
4. Don’t separate them (ie. Don’t put one in the left hand and one in the right)
5. Don’t tap them on things – they are not drum sticks
6. Don’t stick your chopsticks into the communal plate – in other words, if there is a plate of food in the middle of the table, use the given serving spoon/fork/chopsticks to serve yourself, not your own chopsticks, although this rule is sometimes relaxed if only family members are present.
7. Don’t stick them into a bowl of rice like a flag in a sandcastle.
8. Here’s the big one….. Never, NEVER pick up, or even TOUCH, another piece of food that someone else is touching or holding with their chopsticks.
I see people doing this at restaurants and it actually gives me goosebumps, and makes me shudder.
When I was a little girl, I remember my mother dropping a slice of meat near my plate. As she struggled to fasten onto the slippery morsel, I went to helpfully add my chopsticks to hers to double the effort, as I saw it.
She shrieked. Actually shrieked. I jumped back in shock, and wondered what had happened.
“Never do that again!” she said. “You must never touch chopsticks with someone else’s chopsticks, or even take food from the same dish that someone else is helping themselves to at the same time!”
Sheesh, I thought. What an overreaction…
However, now I know the REASON behind it, I also shriek when my kids go to touch chopsticks.
I will talk you through a typical Japanese funeral. (I know it seems like a pointless digression, but bear with me.)
People are cremated when they pass away – no one in Japan is ever buried as they are. In fact, it’s against the law. The family and friends of the deceased will attend a ceremony in an incense-filled room, listen to the priest’s prayers, and then then come to the shrine’s ‘altar’ to pay their respects individually, by pinching flakes of aromatic wood chips and sprinkling them on a burner and clapping their hands together.
Then the friends and family make their way to the crematorium where the remains of the deceased will be tactfully presented to the closest relatives. Now, I always imagined when people said ‘ashes’ that they meant a fine, grey powder. This may be true of western cremations, but Japanese cremations leave some clearly definable bones. As a final act of respect, the closest relatives will pick up the bones with long chopstick-like implements – TOGETHER – to symbolise the unity of the family’s farewell; they transfer these bones carefully with the chopsticks to the urn.
This is the ONLY time chopsticks touch each other, or pick up items with another helper, so you can see what a taboo it is to do this at the dinner table.
Similarly, Taboo Number 7 – ‘don’t stick chopsticks into a bowl of rice’ – arises from the tradition of serving rice in this manner to one’s ancestors at the shrine’s altar. Mixing death with dinner time tends to be a no-no.
If you’ve never tried using chopsticks before, have a go! If you already can, use them more often! Remember, you don’t have to eat solely East Asian food with chopsticks – I like to eat salad with them; I know someone who eats Wotsits with them, to avoid cheesy, smelly fingers. (My plan would involve NOT eating Wotsits in the first place.)
If nothing else, they make for great Summer Fayre stall game – simply tip a bumper bag of M&Ms onto a plate; provide a paper cup and a pair of chopsticks, and give the intrepid customer 30 seconds to pick up as many sweets as possible with the chopsticks. Any sweets in the cup after 30 seconds, they can keep.
And if you really can’t use them, then chopsticks make a great diet accessory. Slightly frustrating, but you WILL lose weight…