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Sunday, May 23, 1999


Slim down for summer with the chopstick diet

When my mother announced she would finally be coming to visit me in Japan this September, I asked her if she had any questions. She replied, "Yes, do I have to eat with those sticks?" This is when I realized that perhaps a lesson in "chopsticking" would be helpful. Mom, this one's for you: Chopsticks 101.

Most traditional Japanese food such as noodles, rice and fish are eaten with chopsticks. Chopsticks allow you to grab the food, a concept entirely different from that of the Western fork, which is used to pierce food. Udon noodles are very thick and don't lend themselves to being wrapped around a fork, and some sashimi isn't soft enough for a fork to pierce. So it's best to try to use chopsticks if you want to eat real Japanese food.

There are other benefits to using chopsticks besides gastronomic ones. Many an explanation at a business luncheon has been aided by the use of chopsticks to mark the increase or decrease in sales on an imaginary chart. For skiers, chopsticks are necessary props to add exciting visuals to ski-crash anecdotes, as in, "I crossed my skis like this, then . . ."

Children find that the wooden, disposable chopsticks can be used like sling shots to launch food such as fish eggs or other leftover aerodynamic fare. Sticky rice is excellent for molding into ammunition.

There are a few no-no's you should be aware of when using chopsticks, so as not to embarrass your Japanese hosts.

* Never try to attack your food with one chopstick in each hand. Believe me, it doesn't work.

* Don't pierce your food with the chopsticks to get a hold of it. This is really bad manners.

* Beware of chopstick launching. This is a phenomenon that happens when you are wrestling with a piece of food with your chopsticks and suddenly, one chopstick self-launches to the other side of the room. No one knows why this happens.

A few chopstick practice sessions at home are invaluable. In tourist restaurants there are instructions on how to hold your chopsticks on the outside of the paper sleeve they are wrapped in. Don't read these instructions. Hold the chopsticks in any way that works for you. If no way works for you, keep trying. The food will taste even better when you finally get to it.

Restaurants will provide you with wooden disposable chopsticks that have square ends. If you eat at someone's home, they may give you chopsticks with round ends, possibly the lacquered kind. These chopsticks are for advanced users only. The round lacquered chopsticks have tapered ends that make them harder to navigate. You'll notice these chopsticks make a slight clacking sound. This is the sound of the two tapered ends hitting each other after they slip off every piece of food you try to pick up. I recommend that beginners use the wooden disposable chopsticks.

During your first few days of chopsticking, you will be constantly reminded that gravity is your enemy. After having successfully grabbed a piece of meat, for example, you will then look up at your partner, finish the sentence you were in the middle of, and proceed to take a bite of that juicy morsel, which is no longer there. As a matter of fact, it's back to where it was before you picked it up. This is food with negative calories.

Never one to give up on the first bite, you try again. This time you are grabbing the morsel a little more securely. You've got it this time. Until the chopsticks do a spastic twist and cross themselves, sending the morsel into a half-gainer spin before it plops back on your plate. Despite the temptation, you don't accept the fork that the waiter is now offering you. Instead, you say, "Oh no, I'm fine. Really," and you lift the morsel again with your chopsticks and deliver it expertly into your mouth.

With chopsticking, practice makes perfect. Well, almost. Even veterans experience an occasional spastic twist now and then.

Luckily, it doesn't take long to get the hang of eating with those sticks. As a matter of fact, within a couple weeks, you'll be such an expert at using chopsticks, you'll have the gall to be offended when a Japanese person asks you, "Can you use chopsticks?"

E-mail your comments and questions to: amychavez@mailexcite.com

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