For about 1.2 billion people, two straight, tapering sticks are a multi-tool used in dining, cooking, and spiritual ceremonies. Dive into the world of hashi (箸, chopsticks) – and find out what makes chopsticks so good that the Japanese rarely ever use other cutlery!
For many of my blog readers, a fork and a spoon are a fact of life. From early childhood, we embrace eating utensils as just that – tools for eating. But for about 1.2 billion people, two straight, tapering sticks are a multi-tool used in dining, cooking, and spiritual ceremonies. Today, let’s dive into the world of hashi (箸, chopsticks) and find out what makes chopsticks so good that the Japanese rarely ever use other cutlery!
The Chopsticks across East Asia
People started eating with chopsticks around 400 B.C.E. in China, but they originate from similar-looking cooking toolsfrom over 5 centuries ago.
When bamboo chopsticks were first brought to Japan (around 500 B.C.E), they were considered a precious rarity. That’s why they were, at first, only used in religious ceremonies.
In the Japanese language, the word for chopsticks – hashi (箸) – sounds the same as the word for a bridge (橋). Thus, chopsticks gained significance as a bridge between humans and the gods. Early styles of ceremonial chopsticks often featured tips on both ends of the stick – so that people and the divine share a meal, each eating with one side of the chopsticks.
After a while, hashi proved themselves as a handy tool that replaced fingers as a way to get food to the mouth.
Today, hashi are virtually the only tool used for eating Japanese dishes. An average Japanese person will use around 200 pairs of disposable chopsticks annually. That totals to around 24 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks – every year.
What’s the difference between Japanese, Chinese, and Korean chopsticks?
Each of these countries has developed a unique way of making and using chopsticks:
• Chinese families like to pick pieces of food from a big, shared bowl. They use very long chopsticks to reach far-away pieces more easily. Chinese chopsticks are round and almost completely straight, with no or a very slight taper towards the end. Instead of owning a personal pair of chopsticks, it’s common for Chinese families to keep a container with communal, identical chopsticks for everybody.
• Korean people call their set of utensilssujeo (수저). It typically contains a pair of metal chopsticks and a spoon. In Korea, it’s common for Koreans to eat rice and stews with a spoon, so it’s a part of the standard set. The chopsticks are thin and angular, almost exclusively made of metal.
• Japanese chopsticks are the shortest and pointiest. They range from 21 to 25 cm (8.3” to 9.8”) in length. Since Japanese people eat a lot of fish, fine-tipped chopsticks are ideal for removing fish bones and other detail work. They’re usually made of wood, bamboo, or lacquer. Each family member typically owns their own pair of chopsticks that they don’t share. In Japan, people virtually don’t use other types of eating utensils, apart from occasionally eating fried rice, ramen and soups with a Chinese-type spoon called chirirenge (散蓮華).
Quality Japanese Chopsticks vs.Two Wooden Sticks
Throughout history, Asian people often simply grabbed two sticks from a tree and whittled them into their own eating utensils for the day. Virtually all chopsticks in use today are store-bought or master crafted.
By far, wood is the most common material for chopsticks in Japan. Willow chopstick sets are revered and a traditional wedding gift, as they symbolize durability and a harmonious family.
• Nara prefecture of Japan is rich in cedar forests, and they’re the place of birth of waribashi (割り箸), the disposable chopsticks. The single-use chopsticks are made out of onepiece of wood, whittled and partially separated. You need to pull them apart before eating. They usually come in a paper wrapper, sometimes labeled with the word otemoto(おてもと), which literally translates to “close at hand”.
• You might have also come across shiny, vividly-colored chopsticks with intricate designs. Those are the lacquered chopsticksnuribashi (塗り箸). These luxury items are a 17th-century heritage craft from a part of Japan called Wakasa. Even today, most nuribashiare hand-made. Layers of lacquer are added and sanded away to create lovely, colorful patterns with seashells, dried eggshells, pine needles, and precious metals. Lacquered chopsticks can be a bit slippery, but they’re long-lasting and absolutely beautiful works of art. Displayed in museums today, chopsticks historically used by the higher class are also delicately decorated ivory, bone, and silver chopsticks.
These days, you may find colorful plastic chopsticks, but the material is not very popular. Most people prefer wooden chopsticks with a colorful finish.
Mind Your Table Manners in Japan
Table manners are an important part of a good upbringing anywhere in the world.
When dining with company, some manners are universal. For example, don’t play with your food or utensils, don’t talk with your mouth full (or cover it with your hand if you must speak), avoid spillage, don’t rest your elbows on the table, eat all of the food on your plate. Growing up, most of us adopt good dining habits.
Japan developed sophisticated dining etiquette, especially when eating with chopsticks. In general, Japanese people don’t hold a grudge when people from different cultures break some dining rules. But, when in Rome do as Romans do – impress your Japanese friends by mastering their eating customs. Here are some basic rules:
Setting the Table
The last step before a delicious dinner is setting your table. In a typical Japanese dining table set-up, each person gets a few bowls and plates, and eating utensils.
Here’s how to set the table for a right-handed person, Japan-style:
• Chopsticks are placed right in front of you, with their tips pointing to the left and resting on a small piece called chopstick rest (hashi-oki, 箸置き). It’s there so you can put your chopsticks down in a sanitary way and prevent them from rolling around.
• You’ll easily reach the rice bowl with your left hand. Your soup orstew goes to your right-handside. A bit further away, in between the rice and soup, is your main dish. Place your condiments and side dishes to the sides of your dining area.
• When serving yourself from a center plate, always use serving chopsticks(toribashi,取り箸) instead of your own. Don’t use the opposite ends of your chopsticks to grab that sushi (or any other tasty bite).
• Don’t drag or move bowls and plates with your chopsticks. Use your hands!
• Don’t hover over food with your chopsticks when you can’t decide what to eat next – whip them out when you know what you want to grab!
• Eating with disposable chopsticks (waribashi, 割り箸)? Chances are you have a pair of chopsticks connected at the top, wrapped in paper. Before you can use them, you need to separate your waribashichopsticks by pulling them apart. Grab the chopsticks by the middle, each in one hand, and pull them apart using equal force. If you want to follow proper table manners, hold the sticks horizontally when pulling them apart. Also, if you’re in a restaurant, don’t rub chopsticks together after pulling them apart, as in to remove splinters; it’s the equivalent of saying their chopsticks are cheap.
Eating with Chopsticks
• Feel free to lift your rice bowl and bring it closer to your face for comfort. But use your chopsticks to eat – don’t shovel rice into your mouth with them.
• As a kid, my parents taught me not to point at people (or things) with my knife or fork. In a similar way, the Japanese don’t point at people with chopsticks.
• When you slurp noodles or soup from your bowl (btw, slurping is a-ok!), place the tips of your chopsticks inside the bowl even when you’re not grabbing bits of food with them. That way, you won’t unintentionally point at people.
• Never stick your chopsticks and leave them standing in rice. This gesture, called tatebashi (立て箸), reminds the Japanese of certain funeral rituals. For the same reason, don’t pass food to others with your chopsticks. Pick up the food you want to pass along, and put it down on a plate closer to your friend.
• Don’t stab your food (e.g. piercing a piece of meat to skewer it on your chopstick). It’s only ok for kids, or if you just really can’t seem to master eating with chopsticks.
• No matter how enticing, don’t lick your chopsticks. Also, pay attention not to let liquid drip from your chopsticks anywhere near the center plates with food for everybody.
Using the Chopstick Rest – Hashi-oki (箸置き)
• You don’t have to hold your chopsticks in your hands all the way throughout the meal, but don’t put them down on the table or across the top of your food bowl. While this might be ok at home, on formal occasions it’s considered bad practice nicknamed watashi-bashi, 渡し箸). Instead, use the chopstick rest (hashi-oki). If you didn’t get one with your meal, you may use the paper wrapper, or rest your chopsticks along the edge of your bowl.
• When you’re done eating, put your chopsticks back on the chopstick rest or return them to their original wrapper.
Itadakimasu! (いただきます!, Bon Appétit!)
Now that you mastered the secrets of wielding chopsticks and learned Japanese table manners, you’re ready to dine with your Japanese friends and colleagues. Or simply head on to your favorite sushi restaurant and impress the chefs!
Hope you enjoyed my brief introduction to Japanese chopsticks! If you have any impressions or questions, feel free to write to me in the comment box below.