Chopsticks never made any sense to me. Eating rice with them is a special kind of torture. I’d corner a pile of rice on my plate, smoosh it together with chopsticks, and lose half the pile on the way to my mouth. The futility of eating rice with chopsticks was inversely proportional to the size of the rice pile; the smaller the pile, the harder it was to get a few grains to your mouth. There were times when I’d manage to get two grains of rice in my mouth. This is fantastic for dieting, but lousy for sustenance.
The first time I had dim sum with Andy’s family was a revelation. (It was also something of a humiliation.) First, the rice wasn’t put on a plate — it went it bowls. Second, the rice was sticky. Third, Andy and his family lifted the bowls off the table and held them directly under their chins. They used the chopsticks to shovel the rice directly into their mouths. Any rice that fell off the chopsticks landed back in the bowl.
Andy’s family also ate fast. They took huge bites. Whole dumplings disappeared into Andy’s maw. Which shouldn’t have surprised me. I’ve won money because people did not believe Andy could fit an entire doughnut in his mouth.
I never thought to try eating a dumpling whole. For one thing, my mouth is about half the size of Andy’s. But even if my mouth had been twice the size of his, the manners my mother had drilled into my head as a child would have prevented me from an attempt. I was trained to take small bites, so I could swallow quickly and answer when asked a question. Massive mouthfuls were only acceptable on Taco Night, where my Ex-Stepfather gained familial respect by eating a hard-shelled taco in two bites. (Big Brother could only do it in three bites.) Except for Taco Night, we were expected to sit up straight, elbows off the table, and to bring our food up to our mouths on a spoon or a fork.
So it dawned on me, watching Andy’s Cantonese family successfully chow down, that it wasn’t the chopsticks that were the problem. It was me. I had been a total idiot to eat Chinese food with American manners. Duh. Each culture’s acceptable table manners developed in conjunction with their cuisine and eating utensils.
For example, in China, land of wrapped food, the chopsticks carry the potsticker to the diner’s mouth whole, without piercing the thin wrapper. Which makes sense – it youcut up a potsticker or pierce it with a fork, that sucker is going to fall apart and you’ll be stuck trying to convey a bunch of slippery little pieces to your mouth with chopsticks. (I speak from experience.) When Andy makes potstickers, he even uses chopsticks to put them in the pan and remove them from the pan.
In my home, the big familial faux pas was chewing with your mouth open. Open-mouthed chewing was grounds for an instant parental reprimand. If my parents didn’t notice it, well, one of my seven siblings would, and they would rat me out instantly. (If I got exiled from the table, my food was fair game.)
At dim sum, everyone chewed with their mouths open. Which makes sense – you can’t close your jaw with a massive mouthful. (Well, I can’t. Andy can.)
I soon adopted Chinese table manners. My rice went into a bowl. I held the bowl up to my chin. Safely isolated from watery sauces which destroy cohesion, the sticky rice stayed together in the chopsticks for the short trip to my mouth.
I scooped that rice into my mouth very quickly. I think I ate more rice in my first meal with a rice bowl than I’d managed in twenty years of dining at Chinese restaurants.
I tried stuffing a potsticker in my mouth whole. It felt weird, but it worked. And I only chewed with my mouth a teensy bit open.
Jian dui (fried dough balls covered in sesame seeds and stuffed with red bean paste) were too big for my mouth. But jian dui was my favorite food at dim sum, and so I was determined to conquer them – without the damned fork the oh-so-helpful wait staff kept trying to press on me. I figured out I could eat half of the ball off the chopsticks in one bite, keep the chopsticks in the air, and then come back for a second bite.
I’d NEVER have left any food on the fork or spoon in my white childhood. You were supposed to not only remove every bit of food from your utensil, you were required to do it silently – with your lips. My mother could not stand the sound of metal clicking against tooth enamel. (I believe 4 out of 5 dentists agree that metal scraping tooth enamel is BAD, by the way.)
But with soft wooden chopsticks, ha! No nasty clicking if your teeth hit. No future veneers, either.
And noodles? Well, chopsticks work much better than a spoon or a fork. Once you’ve gotten hold of the noodles, you use the same rice bowl shoveling technique! Plus you slurp to cool down the noodles. BECAUSE SLURPING IS OKAY IN CHINA! My mother would have hated China. The woman had a fit over the noise a straw made when you got to the bottom of your drink. (There was no slurping in my childhood. Not even from drinks CALLED “Slurpees.”)
Bring on those noodles. After two years with Andy, I now slurp with a vengeance. In fact, even if I’m eating with girlfriends at P.F. Chang’s, I grab my rice bowl and chopsticks without thinking. Halfway through the meal, I see my friends wielding their forks and realize that like Andy, I now match my utensils and manners to the cuisine. Though I will never match my husband in speed of consumption nor in chopstick dexterity, of course.
The transition between white manners and Chinese manners became automatic. When Andy gets his chopsticks into Asian cuisine, I ignore the ensuring speed and carnage. I forgot that it’s a little disconcerting for other Western diners.
On our honeymoon, we went to an Asian-fusion restaurant with Canadians Yelena and Mark. Andy ordered the fish, which was served whole, complete with head and eyeballs. The rest of us ordered more western entrées.
There was the usual conversational lull when the food arrived. I averted my eyes from Andy’s plate, the better to avoid eye contact the fish. (Yes, I prefer to pretend my food was never a living creature, which is very hard to do when it IS STARING AT YOU.)
A minute or two later, I asked, “What do you guys think?”
There was no answer. I looked up. Yelena and Mark stared at Andy, who had polished off most of his fish. With chopsticks. And yes, in under two minutes.
Andy bit off an eyeball. Yelena swallowed and wrenched her gaze back to me. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“Your beef? How is it?”
“Oh, um, fantastic,” she murmured, pushing a piece around her plate.
Neither she nor Mark ate much until Andy’s fish was reduced to bones a few seconds later. They didn’t say much until dessert. And they politely declined our invitation for another group dinner, though they joined us for tea and drinks on the beach daily. I was a little disappointed, but I understood.
Some people just can’t handle the power of properly wielded chopsticks.