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Jun 17, 2012 06:34 PM

Using the back/ larger end of chopsticks when taking food from a communal plate

So whenever I eat Japanese or Chinese food with people other than my boyfriend, we transfer food from a communal plate to our own plates with the non-eating end of the chopsticks, then turn them around to eat. As far as I'm aware, this is common practice in chopstick-using restaurants since there is no designated serving utensil. (Boyfriend and I don't bother turning our chopsticks around, and if I'm grabbing something distinct like a piece of sushi and know I won't be touching any food but the piece I'm taking, I don't usually bother unless I'm with someone very formal, which might be a faux pas).

My question is this: is this not done in Korean restaurants/tradition? Yesterday, we (boyfriend & I) were graciously hosted for a meal out by a Korean family (mother and two children) that we know slightly. She explained to us that meals in Korean restaurants are usually eaten family-style. When she demonstrated how to eat the food (wrap rice, sauce and meat in a lettuce or sesame leaf, fold up) she didn't turn her chopsticks around, so we followed her example and didn't either. She ordered a spicy pork dish mainly for us and separated out a little dish of the meat for herself (kids didn't like pork) before we started eating, so I suppose there was no real eating-end of chopstick contact there except between boyfriend & I. But in the communal dishes of various kimchees and other sauces, no one seemed concerned about dipping the eating end of the chopsticks or the soup spoons.

I'm not super germaphobic in this kind of situation, but I'm curious if there is a custom difference with Korean food or if the difference was specific to the fact that there were kids involved and it was a fairly casual meal.

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  1. I lived in Japan for a few months and was taught the reverse chopstick technique also. When in casual, friendly situations it almost seemed insulting to use the large (non germy) end but in formal environs it was expected. Haven't spent time in Korea tho...

    1. I have lived in Japan since 1977, and it seems to me that people will reverse chopsticks for serving in only the most formal situations. To be honest, these days I rarely see people doing this.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Tripeler

        That's my experience in both Taiwan and China - if you do the reverse chopstick serving, you're being ultra polite and formal, but it would be unlikely at a casual dinner or family dinner.

        When we entertain guests from abroad, we usually ask for extra chopsticks for serving, knowing that visitors tend to be squeamish about using eating utensils for serving.

        1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

          The best thing to use for serving from large plates are the larger "kitchen chopsticks" which are different from those which are used by the people eating.

          1. re: Tripeler

            I find the large ones difficult to use accurately, due to increased length - my husband uses them all the time while cooking.

      2. Traditions and politeness aside, I believe it has more to do with what you were taught to do at the family table when you were young ( or not taught, if you are unaware of the practice )......if the family did not go out or entertain guests much, the setting was informal and family only. I know the custom because....many years ago my friend's family had a relative visiting from abroad and I was invited to their home for dinner. I saw the relative reverse his chopsticks to gather food into his bowl......I was inquisitive, so I asked him why he did so....and he explained the customary practice. My friend was never taught or introduced to the such, he knew nothing about it.

        I always ask for spoons or extra chopsticks to serve others....or myself, in the presence of mixed company dining.

        1. Really interesting to hear everyone's perspective on this. I first learned this practice when watching boyfriends mom, who is Chinese, packing of leftovers at a restaurant, and assumed it was more widespread than it apparently is.

          1. Yes, Koreans are less squeamish about sticking their chopsticks and spoons into communal bowls. In fact, it goes beyond "less squeamish": I think they actually see it as a positive thing, reinforcing social bonds among friends, family, colleagues, etc.

            See also:
            Table Manners in Seoul

            Chinese Table Etiquette Question