Travel in Asia: Dining in Taiwan
Confucius said “The honorable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen, and he allows no knives on his table.” Forget about the knife and fork when you go to Taiwan. You will only get a knife and fork if you are eating in a totally Western restaurant like “The Brass Monkey” in Taipei.
Everywhere else, if you are in Taiwan, eat the way that the Taiwanese eat. Chinese people have been using their chopsticks, or kuaizi, as their main tableware for more than three thousand years. Learn to use your chopsticks!
Absolutely nothing ever appears on the Taiwanese dining room table that cannot be single-handedly manipulated and consumed with a pair of simple wooden chopsticks. Of course, as the popularity of Chinese cuisine spreads around the world, it is de rigueur to eat Chinese food with Chinese chopsticks. Thus, many foreigners are familiar with the intricacies of the twin sticks.
Taiwanese only use a western knife and fork when eating western food, such as French fries or steak. They prefer to have everything cut, sliced and diced into mouth-sized morsels in the kitchen, so that when food is served, it only needs to be placed into the mouth and enjoyed. There is no need to lose precious minutes cutting up a steak, or helping small children dissect their meals. It is ready-to-eat.
When I first got my chopsticks, I tried to use them in strangely inventive and wonderfully intricate ways, much to the amusement of my Chinese hosts. First, I tried to stab large pieces of meat with a single stick, thinking that if I could skewer the meat, I could somehow get it to my mouth. Then, I tried to hold the plate near my mouth and use my chopstick to shovel food into my mouth. The food usually ended up in my lap, causing embarrassment to me and great humor to my hosts.
Finally, I took the time to observe my Taiwanese friends and watch their incredible expertise with their implements. It seems that it really isn’t that hard if you hold your chopsticks correctly.
I finally mastered that delicate art of holding the bottom stick stationary between my thumb and fourth finger, while using the tip of that same thumb and my index and middle fingers to manipulate the top chopstick, in order to capture a bite-sized morsel and steer it toward my mouth. The grip is the secret – if you have the right chopstick posture, it isn’t that hard at all to grip large items and hold them tightly while maneuvering them to your mouth. Of course, it takes a little more skill to pick up individual kernels of corn and eat them, without accidentally flicking them across the table, to land embarrassingly into your host’s soup bowl.
A typical Chinese meal will last several hours, with new dishes arriving about every fifteen minutes. When the new dishes arrive on the table, laden with mouth-watering meats, tasty tofu and fine fish, no serving utensils come with the food. Each person’s chopsticks are his or her own serving tools. Everyone will immediately stand up and reach for the newly-arrived platters. Those who are a little slow with their chopsticks will miss out on the choicest pieces whenever a new dish comes to the table.
Chinese cuisine simply tastes better eaten with chopsticks. And there are distinct benefits to having to work a bit harder to consume your food: for one thing, it forces you to realize exactly how much you are eating, and it also slows down your eating, allowing better digestion. Try it, you’ll like it.