There is a major faux pas in Japan about leaving your chopsticks stabbed upright in a bowl of rice. If you’ve read any guidebook on local etiquette, you’ll know that this is a pretty serious offense. Basically, it relates to the visual similarity this chopstick posture has to incense sticks commonly seen during Buddhist funeral rights. Things that relate to death tend to be taboo in this neck of the woods. (see East Asia’s avoidance of the number “4”) In case you’re wondering if this is some arcane superstition that few people in the modern world care about, I assure it is not. They teach this in the schools. In fact, just to prove my own point I tested this out on my wife the other day by inserting my chopsticks standing antenna style in my white sticky rice right in front of her. She became visible distraught and demanded I remedy the situation. It didn’t help that she had attended a funeral earlier that day, so timing could have been better on my part. I quickly removed them and apologized.
I began to wonder if Western dining utensils have any similar customs, but aside from the general place settings and civility of not poking your sister’s eye out with a fork, I couldn’t really think of anything in the “don’t put your butter knife in this direction because it reminds us of death” vain. But that doesn’t mean that we are heathens and that we just use knives, forks, spoons, and sporks in any way we see fit. No sir.
I remember reading (probably in Lonely Planet, is that still a thing?) that in today’s post-modern mixed-up world , separating between Western cuisine and traditional Japanese food, has become distilled down to a simple question: Can you eat it with chopsticks? It sounds silly but many foods of dubious import are considered Japanese. Take for instance tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlet). A European import in the late 1800’s, but one that has been adopted wholly into the Japanese menu.
Do they eat this with a knife and fork? Nope. And notice the surgical precision of the vertical cuts. Each chunk is just small enough (barely) to be gripped by chopsticks. Therefore…it’s Japanese food. You’ll see this with many fried foods over here.
But if the Japanese get to delineate their culinary world with chopsticks, I feel that westerners should at least protect some of our food from this arbitrary gastronomical hijacking. For years I have witnessed some of the most egregious chopstick use on every manner of Western food import. It needs to end. Consider this: Your in-laws, after over-spending on a strawberry shortcake barely the size of a Twinkie, bust out their unique version of “Happy Birthday” and present it in front of you candles blazing. You make your wish, the cake is sliced, and are given first choice on a small plate. Yay! The joys of the simple life. Ruined by the site of your wife, using chopsticks to tweezer her way through the vanilla icing. Despicable. Eating cake with chopsticks. I recommend to move to Japan and become a long-term resident just to witness this absurdity.
But it doesn’t end there. We don’t eat cake that often, so thankfully I am spared the insult. However, we do eat salad. And chopsticks seem to be the preferred implement. And not just your standard green side salad (with the old Japanese standby dressing… mayonnaise), all kinds of salad concoctions are eaten sans-fork. Macaroni, potato. Fruit! All expected to be navigated in this ridiculous manner. Have you ever tried to pick up a mini-tomato with a chopstick? Good lord.
So have all these foods become Japanese as well? I guess so. Some foods need to be left chopstick-free. We need protections on sliced watermelon, apple pie, and mashed potatoes. I mean, the Japanese already own downtown Waikiki; don’t let them claim our chicken pot pie. Call them out on their behavior.