As if just using chopsticks -- the utensils, not the song from Big -- wasn’t hard enough, it turns out there’s a whole code of conduct that comes along with them. Use them incorrectly and you’ve performed the Eastern equivalent of putting your elbows on the table and chewing with your mouth open.
To help avoid those faux pas, we consulted a group of experts and asked them to share a few basic protocols. Heed this advice. Not only will it help you save face. But it'll also help you avoid pissing off slumbering ghosts.
Don’t assume that all Asian foods require them
“Chopsticks are technically the major eating utensils for the four East Asian countries -- China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam,” says Andrea Nguyen, the cookbook author behind Viet World Kitchen. So in the Philippines, for example, most dishes are actually eaten with a fork and spoon. Next time you're at Jollibee, don't bother asking for sticks to eat your spaghetti.
Don’t use the same ones for every cuisine
The shape and materials change depending on the country. “The pointier tips are more typical of Japanese chopsticks. In general, there are more dainty, individual pieces of food eaten in Japanese cuisine and the rice tends to be stickier, whereas the blunter ends of Chinese chopsticks are more ideal for grabbing sizable hunks and scoops of rice,” explains Cathy Erway, author of The Food of Taiwan.
Don’t stick them vertically into a bowl of rice
This is true in most Asian countries, including China and Japan. "You only do that when making offerings to dead people,” warn Harris Salat and Tadashi Ono, the owners of Brooklyn’s Ganso and Ganso Yaki. It’s also a no-no to pass food from chopstick to chopstick because it resembles a Buddhist funeral rite. Nobody wants to contemplate mortality while eating.
Don’t pick up nigiri with them
The proper technique? Lift sushi up with your fingers, turn it over, and dip it into soy sauce fish-side first. That way the rice won’t start to break apart before it hits your mouth.
Don’t taint shared plates
“During formal meals, if you have to pick up food from a communal plate, turn your chopsticks around and use the clean ends,” advises Nguyen in a tip that recalls George Costanza’s double-dip technique.
Don’t separate them
"When chopsticks aren’t in use, they sit together on either a chopstick rest or rice bowl. They're always a pair,” say Salat and Ono.
Don’t try and eat your curry with them
“Chopsticks are for noodles only in Thailand,” says Chef James Syhabout of San Francisco's Hawker Fare. It goes without saying, but they’re also pretty bad for pudding.
Don’t hold them at the tips
“A common learning-curve issue for many people new to using chopsticks is positioning their fingers too close to the tips,” observes Erway. “Once you gain more control of using the chopsticks -- which I believe just comes from experience -- you can move your fingers down further.”
Don’t use them to point at people
Pointing is rude in any culture. Pointing with chopsticks is worse.
Patty Lee is a reporter and editor who has written for Zagat, Time Out New York, New York Daily News, and Cooking Channel. At all other times: an eater of desserts, aspiring world traveler, and proud Brooklynite. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.