Chinese Eating Tips
Well... I gave some Chinese Stir Frying tips and instructions on Hot Wokking Action about six months ago, promising to give more cooking tips... Then I got lazy, and didn't. So, today, I shall give some tips on eating with Chinese chopsticks.
Firstly, not all chopsticks are the same. Chinese chopsticks are cylindrical at the front end, and usually square at the back end, changing shape somewhere in the middle. Japanese ones are pointy and cone shaped from at least halfway down, or sometimes all the way to the back end. These instructions are focused on Chinese ones, and although the same techniques can be applied to both, they will work better with the Chinese ones. Chinese chopsticks aren't pointy for the same reason that you won't find knives of any kind on the table. Knives and pointy things are for killing people and animals with and also for cutting them up afterwards. Having them at the table is the etiquette equivalent of setting a loaded and unsafetied gun down next to your plate in case your steak decides to leave. This is also why Chinese food is generally cut up small enough to fit chunks into your mouth, or else into a size/shape where it can be held with chopsticks and have a chunk bitten off it.
I'm not going to give you instructions on how to hold chopsticks in your hand. It's not all that hard, and the little pictures on the paper wrappers in some Chinese restaurants give you a better idea than I will. However, the first very important tip that isn't on the paper wrappers is: once you've got the chopsticks in your hand, tap the tips against the table to get them evenly positioned. It's impossible to effectively use chopsticks that aren't evened off. Do this regularly throughout your meal, every time the chopsticks start to get even slightly uneven at the tips.
When you need to pick something up with chopsticks, you should use a gentle gripping action, just below the centre of mass of whatever it is you are trying to pick up. The ultimate tricky item is a straw mushroom coated in a light cornflour gravy. Grip the item just under the middle, and don't try to grip hard. Grip too hard, and whatever it is will just fly out from between the sticks. Grip too soft, and you won't be able to pick the item up. Grip gently, just below the middle of the item, and you should be able to just lift it up fairly effortlessly.
On to the most common use of chopsticks... As a shoveling instrument. Really. Shovel. With chopsticks closed. This is especially true when eating rice. When eating rice, you should have the rice in a smallish chinese style bowl that you can pick up in your off-hand. Place your fingertips under the bowl, where there should be a nice cylindrical rim which stays cool even if the bowl is full of hot rice and gravy, and your thumb facing down on the upper rim of the bowl. Pick up a couple of bits of not-rice-stuff and put them into your bowl. This step doesn't necessarily have to be done with chopsticks. It can be done with whatever serving implements are on the table. Lift the bowl up to your mouth (no, don't bend your head down) and shovel some not-rice (enough for flavour) along with a chunk of rice into your mouth with the closed chopsticks. That's the primary use for chopsticks when eating rice. If eating rice off a plate, do what most Chinese do... Use a fork and spoon. Well, alright, you can do it with chopsticks if you really must, but I'll get to that later.
Okay... That's chopsticks and eating rice. Chopsticks and noodles, that requires a slightly more advanced technique. The noodles will usually be on a plate, or else in a large bowl. Either way, the crockery is too big to pick up and bring to your mouth. If, for some reason, you're eating noodles out of a small tiny bowl, then you can just use the shoveling technique, just like for rice. Otherwise, you need to be able to use a spoon (and it really should be a deep Chinese soup spoon for best results, or at least a Western soup spoon, not an ordinary tablespoon, or worse yet, a dessert spoon) in your off-hand. A bit tricky, I know, but kinda necessary for this technique. First, hold the spoon so its base is horizontal and flat. Pick up and deposit a small bit of not-noodles (meat, veges, whatever) in the bottom of the spoon, possibly including a little bit of soup or gravy. Just enough for flavour.
Now, gently grip about 3-6 strands of noodles (however many will comfortably sit in the spoon - you'll see that later) with the chopsticks. Lift, slowly, until the noodles you are gripping have separated from the rest of the mass of noodles. You may need to gently shake the noodles a little bit as you are lifting. Do not grip too hard, or you will partially sever the noodles, resulting in bits of them dropping off randomly, confusing the issue a lot. Don't grab too many strands, or you will be forced to grip too hard. Don't grab too few strands, or they'll slip out regardless of grip. Gently, gently catchee
monkey noodles. Now, again gently, deposit the strands of noodles into the spoon. You may want to use a spiraling action as you are lowering the noodles. This should result in a spoon that is mostly filled with a hemispherical-ish pile of noodles about a centimetre plus in height, with none of them spilling out, or at least with not too much overhang.
You can now lift the spoon up to your mouth, and shove the whole thing in. If you're worried about losing the noodles, press gently down on the noodle pile with your chopsticks as you lift the spoon to your mouth. If the pile of noodles is too high and you can't fit the whole thing in your mouth, lean forward so your head is over the bowl/plate, and bite the pile of noodles about halfway down the spoon. Make sure you bite with your incisors (the front four teeth), not any of the others, or you won't be able to sever the noodles properly.
Now, here's the trickiest bit - you will also have to violate Western table etiquette. You must slurp as you bite down. It is imperative that you have a reasonable suction coming from your mouth as you bite down on the noodles, or they will not separate, and you will wind up with a tangled mess dangling from your mouth. This may result in fellow diners mistaking you for Cthulhu, losing their sanity, and possibly attempting to stab you with their chopsticks in order to prevent you from consuming all of humanity. Don't do it! Slurp instead! Honestly, it's correct etiquette to slurp! So... slurp as you bite halfway down the spoon. You may wish to have the chopsticks pressing gently down on the back half of the spoon as you bite. This should result in the back half of the noodle pile slipping down into the spoon as you pull it out of your mouth, although it will generally happen naturally with gravity anyway. A few bits may escape regardless, which is why I recommend leaning forward over the plate/bowl before biting down.
Mmmm... Okay. Now you've got the hang of the spoon and chopstick combo technique, you can use it to eat rice effectively off a plate. I, and probably most Chinese people, don't do it very often, since fork and spoon is just a helluva lot easier, but it is possible. Basically, use the chopsticks as a fork, shoveling a pile of rice plus some bits into the spoon, then pick the spoon up and put it in your mouth. The complication here is that it does require a fair bit more dexterity to manage the spoon in your off-hand whilst shoveling rice into it, as compared to simply dropping a pile of noodles into it whilst holding the spoon flat and still.
Once you've mastered that, you've pretty much mastered all there is to know about eating with Chinese chopsticks. In summary, use a gentle grip, don't be afraid to pick your rice bowl up and shovel, and if not doing that, make sure you're using a spoon in your off-hand.