Food styling with Chopsticks – getting it right

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I was born in Taiwan and raised in South Africa from the age of three but my parents made sure that I never forgot my Taiwanese roots. Whether it was speaking Hokkien and Mandarin or using Feng Shui to arrange my household furniture, being Taiwanese was something I could be proud of… and this includes proper chopsticks etiquette. This post is free advice from a Taiwanese South African to all food stylists and food bloggers on how to style with chopsticks.

There are various methods and etiquettes for chopstick use for the different cultures, like Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese. However there are many methods and ways to avoid that overlap. I’ll be focusing on Chinese and Taiwanese cultures(since my Taiwanese culture originates from China and that is, of course, my culture) and specifically for food styling and food photography.

Chinese culture is an ancient one, written history dates back to over 5 000 years ago. With such a rich history, there’s bound to be passed down traditions. And just like the traditional colonial table setting, there is a proper way to lay out your Chinese (Taiwanese and Japanese) table setting. When I was young, I attended holiday Buddhist camps where we learnt the utmost respect towards culture, meditations and how to lay the table with Chinese bowls, plates, chopsticks and spoons. See below. In my childlike wonder I felt it had a bit of a Mickey Mouse look-and-feel. To be honest, I don’t use this when styling today since my husband and I eat less formal but there are other traditions to show my appreciation and respect for Chinese culture.

My mama grew up in a home that had strict food etiquette and she passed these rules down to her children. These were the rules when eating and we were scolded if we were otherwise. Today, as an adult, I appreciate the lessons and hope to pass them onto anyone who wants to listen. I drew them out because it hurts my soul to physically make these mistakes.

  • Rather don’t – The most Taboo: RIP setting

Sticking your chopsticks into your food like this represents death. Yup, DEATH. Why? In Chinese, Japanese and Taiwanese culture, we gift offerings to the deceased to honour them, placing incense sticks into bowls of rice and the resemblance is not thaaaat uncanny. So please… of all of the don’ts, this one is the worst. Just don’t do it.

  • Rather not – Criss cross

The criss cross looks like X, opposite to the tick, and symbolises denial.

  • Rather not – Placed apart

It’s just bad etiquette. The two sticks are used together, not separately like a knife and fork.

  • So do – Place them together (parallel)

Placing them apart from one another just doesn’t make sense.

  • Rather not – Impale food

Your chopsticks are utensils to pick up and hold, not spears.

  • So do – Place them together on the side on top of a bowl

If you don’t have a chopsticks rest, this way allows you to rest your chopsticks without your ‘used’ chopsticks touching the table.

  • Rather not – Place them together in the centre on top of a bowl

This indicates you’re done with your meal. So unless it’s an empty bowl, which won’t be likely for a food shoot, don’t place them like this.

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