We’ve all been there: you’re out for dinner with people you don’t know too well. You’ve ordered the noodles (or the rice, or the ramen…) without even thinking about it and, when it arrives, you realise the only cutlery on the table in chopsticks.
If this scene is enough to bring on a stress-induced prickle of sweat down your spine, have no fear: you are absolutely in the right place.
Chopsticks often seem like a total uphill battle if you’re not too versed in their ways. Regardless of whether you’ve used them from a young age or not, no one’s born knowing how to use chopsticks; it must be learnt - and that includes feeling a bit gawky and self-conscious at first. We sat down with Ellen Chew, restauranteur and owner of Rasa Sayang in London’s Chinatown, to find out whether there are any tricks to holding chopsticks properly, as well as some tips and etiquette to help you along the way.
What is the correct way to hold chopsticks?
Maybe a couple of generations ago, Ellen says there would have been a RIGHT way to use chopsticks, but now that’s not really the case. Ellen even knows people who’ve grown up using chopsticks as their primary method of cutlery who don’t do it the traditional way.
That being said, there are two main ways that people tend to use chopsticks: the traditional method and the crossover method.
The traditional way to use chopsticks
This is the traditional and most typical way to use chopsticks. The bottom chopstick rests in the crook between your thumb and forefinger, while the top chopstick is held above, controlled by the index finger and grasped like a pen.
To hold chopsticks this way, hold the bottom chopstick like a pen. Then, slide the top chopstick on top, and move your index finger’s grip from the bottom chopstick onto the top. If you move your index finger up and down, you should find that the bottom chopstick stays (relatively) still while the top chopstick does all the work.
The crossover method
Ellen says some people find it more comfortable to control chopsticks using the crossover method, which is also perfectly socially acceptable. In this method, there’s a back and a front chopstick. The back chopstick stays still while the front chopstick crosses in front and controls the food.
To try your hand at the crossover method, hold the back chopstick in place in the crook of your thumb and pressing the front up against the pad of your ring finger. The front chopstick is then crossed over the top, with the fatter end of the chopstick placed above the fatter end of the back chopstick, then controlled using both the index and middle fingers.
How to make using chopsticks easier?
No matter which method of holding chopsticks you find most comfortable (or maybe you’ve found your own way entirely! You do you, my friend!), there is one basic tip that will make your own life easier. So much easier.
Holding your chopsticks about three quarters of the way up might *sound* like it would make them harder to control, but it really will give you the upper handy over a pesky prawn that’s dying to slip away. Holding your chopsticks further up, away from the food-holding end, will give you more control and will make it easier to grasp big things and smaller items alike.
Is there a rude way to hold chopsticks?
When it comes to good table manners and chopsticks, it’s great to keep a few things in mind to make sure you’re not going to offend anyone you’re sitting down to dinner with.
In Chinese culture, it’s super important to never stick your chopsticks into a bowl of rice, standing upright. It might seem like a handy place to pop them to stop them rolling away, but this is an absolute no-no.
Chinese culture loves and leans into symbolism in many forms, says Ellen, and standing your chopsticks up in a bowl of rice looks very similar to the incense holders you might find on a grave or altar for someone who’s passed away in China. Not only would doing this be considered rude, but it would also be seen as a really bad omen. Instead, if you need to momentarily put them down, lay your chopsticks across the top of your bowl. Lots of Chinese restaurants or Chinese homes might also have chopstick rests, which is a great option, too.
So we're not sticking our chopsticks up in our food. Brill. Next up, never use your chopsticks to poke around in or stir up communal dishes. Not only is it not very hygienic if your chopsticks have been in your mouth, but it’s also considered pretty rude in Chinese culture.
And lastly, when eating hot pot, never dip your own personal chopsticks into the communal pot. Instead, it’s common practice for each diner to have two pairs of chopsticks: one for personal use and eating, and one to dig around in the hot pot with. There might also be a pair of communal chopsticks when eating hot pot. These are usually much longer so you can really root around and find the good stuff that might be lurking at the bottom of the pot. Grab the goodness with the big 'sticks, pop it on your own plate, then switch to your personal 'sticks to hotpot like a seasoned pro.
Is it rude to use a fork?
You’ve tried the traditional method, the crossover method, you’ve fiddled round to see if there’s any other comfortable way to hold your chopsticks, and it’s still not happening. That’s ABSOLUTELY okay.
Ellen says there’s no shame whatsoever in asking for a fork. You’d be surprised how many people do, and any Chinese restaurant will always have them some forks on hand. At the end of the day, as long as you’re tucking in and enjoying the good food, it doesn’t matter how it’s getting from plate to mouth.
What’s more, having the confidence to ask a waiter for a fork might be the thing to relieve another person at the table’s chopstick concerns, too.