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Chopsticks Vs. Forks: Which Is Correct in Thailand?

The former executive director of a successful nonprofit agency now content specialist, Cynthia writes about a variety of researched topics.

A pair of chopsticks on a lovely plate.

A pair of chopsticks on a lovely plate.

Chopsticks, Please

I was confused! I went to a Thai restaurant for dinner one evening. When my order arrived, I asked for chopsticks. Screech! Stop! The waitress looked at me as if I had chopsticks growing from my ears. She politely, though a little snidely, informed me that "We don't use chopsticks to eat in Thailand."

Ok, so I've never been to Thailand, and she obviously had been, or at least her close relatives had. But I have been to numerous Thai restaurants and have never been denied chopsticks before. In fact, some even had the chopsticks already at the table. Were they wrong? Were they just humoring me? Have I been wrong all this time? Had I been guilty of some heinous faux pas? Or did my waitress just not want to make a trip back to get them?

Was Asking for Chopsticks in a Thai Restaurant a Faux Pas?

So, after my dinner—with no chopsticks—I headed straight to research. What I found made perfect sense. Much of Thailand's population is of Chinese descent; ergo, many people use chopsticks for eating. So, I hadn't committed some dreaded faux pas, after all, asking for the chopsticks.

As it turns out, chopsticks replaced hands as the choice for eating in China as far back as the Shang Dynasty (1766–1122 BC). It is believed they began as two sticks to retrieve the hot food that was prepared in huge pots. Those that were hungry and just couldn't wait are thought to have used long sticks to retrieve the food from the pots—and thus beat others to the food.

The earliest pair of chopsticks found were made of bronze and were excavated from the Ruins of Yin. They date back to 1200 BC. Today, chopsticks are made of a variety of materials and come in many decorative styles. Most commonly made of various types of wood, chopsticks can also be made of bronze, jade, ivory, bone, plastic, or even silver and gold.

It should be noted that there is a movement underway in China to reduce, if not eliminate, using wood for manufacturing chopsticks because of the massive number of trees that are destroyed each year. In fact, the United States exports chopsticks to China regularly.

What's the History of the Fork?

As for forks, we know how ornate they can be, even today. The fork is thought to have originated in Greece and migrated to the royal courts of the Middle East around the 7th century. It was later exported to Italy, although it took a while for its use to become a part of the culture until around the 16th century.

Catherine de Medices introduced the fork to France in 1533. And in 1608, the fork arrived in England when Thomas Corgate brought it to court. Still, in England, France, and Italy, hands and knives were the preferred method of eating, and forks were considered pretentious. Acceptance was slow to come, but when it did, the nobility was the first to embrace its use. They created elaborate utensils with different-sized and numbered prongs for eating a variety of different foods.

So, Are Chopsticks Used in Thailand or Not?

So, as to the original question: Are chopsticks used for eating in Thailand? Well, as it turns out, chopsticks did indeed spread from China into other parts of Asia, including Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and the northern provinces of Laos, Burma, and, yes, Thailand.

To be truthful, chopsticks are used in Thailand primarily when eating noodles. The fork and the spoon are both a part of the Thai dining table. So, the answer? It depends on what you are eating and where in Thailand you are eating.

Japanese print by Utagawa Kuiyoshi (1797–1861).

Japanese print by Utagawa Kuiyoshi (1797–1861).

Tips on Eating With Chopsticks

Using chopsticks for eating is a great way to enjoy a meal. With most Chinese and other Asian meals where chopsticks are the norm, the food is usually cut into small pieces and served with rice or noodles. This makes using chopsticks easy. When the soup is served, decorative porcelain spoons are used.

There are points of etiquette that you should be aware of if you are going to use chopsticks when eating. Before using chopsticks when eating out, read these tips.

  1. Since chopsticks are tapered, it may be tempting to spear your food with them, particularly if you are having a little difficulty. Don't! It is bad manners to spear your food with chopsticks.
  2. Do not stick your chopsticks upright in your food, especially not your rice. This is considered to mimic incense sticks that are placed upright in rice as an offering to the dead.
  3. Do not cross your chopsticks when placing them across your plate or bowl. This is a Chinese symbol of death. Lay them parallel with the tapered end pointing left, but not on the table. Use the chopstick holder if one is provided.
  4. Never point with your chopsticks. They are considered an extension of your hand. Just as it is impolite to point with your fingers, the same is so of chopsticks.
  5. When using chopsticks, hold them as close to the top of the chopstick as possible, elongating the chopstick and making its use look more elegant.

It Takes Patience and Practice

If chopsticks are not your normal eating utensil and you decide to eat with chopsticks, the trick is learning how to use them effectively. Admittedly, it requires some patience and a lot of practice. When you have mastered the skill, you will see that it will slow your eating, helping you to enjoy it more.

An indirect result of using chopsticks to eat is that it will contribute to limiting your portions. That is most often a good thing if you are interested in either losing or maintaining your weight.

Chopsticks from Korea, Japan, and China

Chopsticks from Korea, Japan, and China

Chopstick Collectors

There are many different styles of chopsticks. For example, in Japan, the ends of the chopsticks taper to almost a point. In China, they are blunter. In fact, there are so many styles of chopsticks that there are chopstick collectors. These tools can be as fun to collect as they can be to use. Online is an excellent source for finding a variety of chopstick styles.

The Next Time You're Eating Thai Food ...

Just remember: The next time you are eating one of the many wonderful dishes from Thailand, don't automatically ask for the chopsticks—and if you do, don't be offended if they hand you a fork.

© 2011 Cynthia B Turner