Tips for using Chopsticks at an Official Chinese Function

By gdlhbook, April 3, 2016

Chopsticks are pairs of narrow sticks which are used to eat solid food in China. Chinese chopsticks are squared-off and blunt at the end. At most official Chinese functions, they will probably be made from porcelain.

Before you start

Most Chinese formal entertainment will be in public places. It is a very great honor for a guest to be invited into a private home.

Pay close attention to seating arrangements. Chinese functions are much stricter about seating protocol than their Western equivalents. Wait for the host or the server to guide you to your place.

The most senior person at the table is the first to serve himself. From there, eating priority passes down the table to both sides. Wait for the person next to you to start eating before you begin. The person to your other side will wait for you before he begins.

The food layout

Foods will be served from dishes placed on the table. Meat and vegetable dishes are usually placed in the center of the table. Foods will have been precut to the right size to be picked up by chopsticks.

Sticky rice may be served in individual bowls for each guest, or it may be molded into balls which can be picked up with chopsticks. Be careful not to press too hard, because it does not take much for the ball to fall apart.

Using your chopsticks correctly

It is good manners to use your chopsticks with your right hand, even if you are left-handed. The rule originates from the Chinese habit of eating in close physical proximity to others, where it is necessary to avoid bumping into the person eating next to you. This won’t be as much of a problem at a high-end official Chinese function, but it is still appropriate to use your right hand while eating with chopsticks.

You may help yourself directly to any solid food on the table, provided you pick it up with your chopsticks. You may even reach across the table to take a piece of food from a dish on the other side. This food goes straight from the common serving dish to your mouth, but try to put as little of the chopsticks into your mouth as possible. Never lick them.

For the soup tureen, use the supplied ladle to fill the bowl at your place setting. Then use your own spoon to eat from your bowl.

If there are noodles, try not to break them, especially if they are the good-luck noodles served during Chinese New Year. If any morsels have bones or shells, place them on the saucer at your place setting. Do not place them in your soup bowl.

Do not take the last piece of food from a serving tray. This implies that not enough food has been provided.

Otherwise, try to eat everything that is specifically offered, leaving not so much as a grain of rice behind. This shows respect for the labor which produced the food. Also accept and eat any food passed to you by another diner with his chopsticks. Try to eat from all the dishes equally, without showing favor to any particular dish. This means trying a piece of everything, no matter how strange it looks.

Yusheng

This fish dish and its customs are specific to the Chinese communities of Singapore and Malaysia. It is associated with the Chinese New Year, especially Renri, the 7th day of the celebration. This is a special case for chopstick users.

In a way, this dish is prepared right at the table. The ingredients are brought out, one at a time, and the diners all say “auspicious wishes” or a similar phrase as each ingredient is added to the mix. After the final ingredient is added, all the diners stand up and toss the ingredients in the air with their chopsticks. The height of the toss shows the height of the diners’ fortunes in the coming year.

Between uses

Chopsticks should be placed on the chopstick rest every few bites, or while talking. If there is no chopstick rest, use the edge of your saucer.

Never place your chopsticks on the dish or directly on the table, and especially never stick them upright in the rice. Make sure to lay them down so that they are not pointing directly at someone.

Finished?

Place your chopsticks on your chopstick rest or on the edge of your saucer. If there is no chopstick rest, place them side by side on top of your saucer.

Never cross your chopsticks. In China, this is a symbol of death. Otherwise, the same restrictions apply as between uses.

New to chopsticks?

If you have never used chopsticks before and you are invited to an official Chinese function, practice before you go. Eating with chopsticks can be tricky for those who have never done it before.

Fortunately, when using chopsticks, only the top chopstick moves. This is the part that “opens” and “closes” the chopsticks by moving the end points together or apart. Both chopsticks are held near the middle of the chopstick.

To use chopsticks correctly, hold the bottom chopstick like a pencil, but without using the index finger. Now slide the part that touches the thumb down towards the base of the thumb. The chopstick should rest firmly against the base of the thumb and the top of the middle finger, right at the first knuckle, with the middle of the thumb helping to keep it in place. Again like a pencil, the chopstick should be balanced against hte middle finger at about the halfway point. This is the chopstick that stays still.

Now add the top chopstick. Hold it lightly between the top part of your index finger and the pad of your thumb. The middle of the top chopstick should rest against hte inside of the first knuckle of your index finger. You can move this chopstick by small movements of the tip of your index finger.

If you are holding your chopsticks correctly in the middle, you can now use the tip of your index finger to bring the point of the upper chopstick against the point of the lower chopstick. If your chopsticks are a little bit off, just move the top one until the tips match. Once you have it right, you will be able to pick up a single grain of rice with the tips of your chopsticks. In fact, this makes good practice.

When you are first learning to use chopsticks, it’s best to use wood or bamboo chopsticks. These are less slippery than chopsticks made of porcelain or plastic, which will make it easier to pick up the food. Never spear your food with chopsticks.