An estimated 33% of the world’s population (give or take) use chopsticks on a daily basis. For the hungry first time user, guzzling down your meal with two small wooden sticks can be a real challenge. Chopsticks might seem tricky to master and somewhat unnecessary for those of us that grew up with a plastic knife and fork in hand, so why have they come to dominate the culinary habits of much of Asia?
Chopsticks are over 5000 years old, long sticks of bamboo were first used to retrieve morsels of food from cooking pots on the fire. Later on, evidence of chopsticks used as table utensils emerged as far back as 500-400 AD. It’s said the spread of popular chopstick use across China was down to population boom and fuel shortages; food was chopped into smaller pieces in an attempt to make the meagre rations go further (thus eliminating the need for knives at the table). Whatever the reason, people in Japan and Korea soon followed the trend not far behind!
The ultimate legend of Chinese culture Confucius (or debatably perhaps his disciple Mengzi) added his own two cents on the matter too, which always helps. Apparently a firm believer that “the honourable and upright man keeps well away from both slaughterhouse and kitchen, and allows no knives on his table.” 有名望的和正直的人要远离屠场和厨房。
FUN FACT: Did you know that Confucius was a vegetarian?
I’m not ashamed to admit that after 3 years in China, I am a total convert. Using chopsticks makes me appreciate my food more. Whatsmore, the sociable side to Chinese dinning, sharing and array of mouth-watering dishes, picking out tasty tit-bits from any dish at will, never gets old.
So here goes, top facts you should know about different types of chopsticks:
THE CHINESE CHOPSTICK
Typically unfinished wood, slightly rectangular top with a cylindrical blunt end. Doesn’t roll off the table so easily and more surface area means you’ve got a higher chance or transferring those tasty morsels all the way from the middle of the table right to your bowl!
FUN FACT: It’s a faux-pas to tap your chopsticks on the edge of your bowl, as this is what beggars do to attract attention.
THE JAPANESE CHOPSTICK
Traditionally lacquered wood or bamboo, with a rounded top and a pointy end that’s perfect for de-boning fish. They’re a little bit smaller than the Chinese equivalent and you often find red pairs for the ladies and black ones for the gents.
FUN FACT: Never stick your chopsticks vertically into your rice bowl, it’s reminiscent of incense sticks at a funeral.
THE KOREAN CHOPSTICK
The shortest model of the three, Korean chopsticks are usually stainless steel and flat or rectangular shaped. Potentially more hygienic but it definitely makes it harder to get a grip on your food!
FUN FACT: The king used pure silver chopsticks which would change colour if they came in contact with certain poisons. The people started using metal chopsticks to emulate him.
Anyway, hope this can inspire you to pick up a pair of chopsticks and come to China yourself. Even if you struggle to start with new chopstick inventions are coming up every day, so keep your eyes peeled for the latest ‘Chork’ on the market!
Philippe Touzin, the Zhuhai Office Manager has many great tips on how to behave at a Chinese Business Dinner, as he often goes on business dinners himself and has now learnt all of the little tricks on how to conduct yourself well.
- It is important to be extremely respectful. Imagine that this is a dinner that you are having with your very conservative grandparents – you have to be very polite and have good manners.
- If it is a formal dinner then you need to toast your drink with the eldest at the table, as he is the top of the hierarchy. The second priority to toast is the company’s boss.
- If ever you are going to give a speech at the table and need to address the people at the table, make sure that you know their hierarchy so that you address the top of the hierarchy first and make your way down the hierarchy properly. If you are not sure of the order of the hierarchy then you need to address them generally – never try to guess the order! The Chinese are very aware of protocol, and this is the easiest way to offend them and look bad.
- General guidelines to abide by if you are sitting next to the VIP (the boss or eldest at the table)
- If you are sitting to his left, you are considered to be his wingman. It is your job to make sure that he has the best food on his plate, that he has the best pieces of food, and you are the one to put the food in his bowl by using the communal chopsticks that come with the dishes. You need to ensure that his drink is always full and that he has everything he might need/want (i.e. if he needs a napkin for example).
- If the VIP is going to make a speech or stands up to toast, you stop whatever you were doing and not disrupt him – be as respectful as possible. When raising your glass to toast the VIP, the rim of your glass needs to go below the rim of his glass to show respect (basically to show that you are below him).
- Generally taboo/sensitive topics that are not to be mentioned are: Japan/Korea, foreign policy, visas, etc.
- The point of the business meeting is to try and create a relationship with the people you are sitting with. You want to get to know them a bit better personally; you want to build a trust relationship with the party – business is not to be discussed at dinner. Dinner is for getting to know them better on a personal level and for them to get to know you.
- If you do not want to drink alcohol at the dinner, then you have to state this from the beginning and be very adamant about it. Otherwise, they will keep forcing it on you. Once you start drinking and try to pull out they will not let you – it is either full-force drinking or no drinking at all. When they want to toast, you cannot refuse it (even if you are already very drunk, you will have to continue if they want to toast with you).
- If you are the only foreigner, they will try to get you really drunk. One of them will want to toast with you to do a shot, and then the next will also want to toast with you until you go around the table and toast with everyone – so each of them really only had one shot, but you’ve had ten at this point. So be prepared for this!
- The only way to get out of it is if by the third or fourth shot, the rest of the party is already tipsy and having a lot of fun, so you can start messing around with them (in a polite way!) by smiling and being very courtly, but turn it into a toast for everybody (“everybody cheers!”) and they will feel happy because they will see that you are having fun and in turn they will be having fun. You will still be drinking just as much, but at least you won’t be getting drunk all on your own!
- If you are going to pay the bill, then you have to sit facing the door, and this will mean that you are the VIP and you will be paying for the bill. If you are not going to pay the bill then do not sit facing the door!
If you are paying the bill, then when dinner is coming to an end, excuse yourself to go to the bathroom and then secretly go pay the bill. Then when you get back suggest if they are ready to leave and then they will be surprised that you already took care of the bill and they will be very thankful.
- Always order more dishes than needed, and bring two bottles of foreign wine/whiskey as a gift. If you go to a Chinese person’s house for dinner, the same rules apply (depending on how well you know the people) and you always need to bring a gift of fruit.
- Bring at least 15 name cards with you. Chinese business people love to hand out their business cards and it is good to have yours in turn to give out. It is also a great way of networking and getting your name out there.
- If you are at a banquet, make sure to go around to each table and toast with them.
- “Ganbei” (干杯) – shot (bottoms up!)
- “Yi kou yi kou” (一口一口) – one mouthful one mouthful (for when you don’t want to drink the whole glass in one shot)
- When paying the bill, even if you have been invited to the dinner and know that you are not going to be paying for the food, it is good to fight over who is paying for the bill. Don’t fight too hard, but show that you want to pay, this is polite. When eventually they pay, make sure to say “thank you” a couple of times!
- In general, if you are not sure what to do, just have a look at what the others are doing around you and just behave as they are. Be as attentive and observant as possible.