Do you double dip?

Do you double dip?

You would never double dip a chip, but you don’t think twice about going in for seconds with your chopsticks. Local experts weigh in on Shanghaining’s germ swapping ways
Chinese food, double dipping
These tables will soon be filled with food, but will anyone even reach for the gongkaui?

You’re not the type of person who would double dip a chip, are you?

For most of us, the idea of double dipping is gross -- the equivalent of wiping your saliva onto shared food. But, would you think twice about diving -- chopsticks first -- twice back into the communal service dishes on just about every table in Shanghai?

Well for some reason, for most of us, that seems to be a different story all together.

With runs on supermarkets across China for iodized salt and people taking trips to Hong Kong for baby formula, seems we’re all concerned with food safety, but should we be re-examining the basic risks we take when eating every day?

As a teenager growing up in Shanghai in late 1980s I remember vividly the Hepatitis A outbreak. For a while, people challenged the custom of 'double dipping' and started using gongkuai -- public chopsticks.— Huang Juemin, doctor, Shanghai United Family Hospital

A cultural norm

We all learned not to double dip as kids.

It’s so much a cultural no-no that it’s even been featured on "Seinfeld." Recall the episode in which George Costanza is caught dipping his chip twice, at a funeral service no less, and is accused of spreading germs to all the other dip eaters.

Amazingly, that "Seinfeld" episode inspired a study at Clemson University which was published in the prestigious Journal of Food Safety. Conclusion: yes, double dipping chips does spread germs, and the more times you dip, the more germs dive into the dip.

Who me, double dip?

But wait a minute, in China we all “double dip.” If you say you don’t, you’ve never been to a good Chinese meal in Shanghai.

In restaurants when we share plates of food, almost everyone takes more than a bite with their own personal chopsticks from the shared plates. That means our saliva-covered chopsticks are carrying germs back and forth all meal-long, making for one big shared germ fest on all the plates.

However, few people, Chinese or Western, seem to view double dipped chopsticks in the same dubious light as a double-dipped chip.

“When I was young, my parents would only mention this issue when they caught a cold,” says Lisa Wu, a student at Shanghai International Studies University. “They'd keep a separate bowl and use a pair of new chopsticks to pick out some food for themselves. But the rest of the time, we never really thought twice about sharing.”

Double dipping -- chopsticksSharing germs doesn't stop Shanghaining from going back again and again.

Wu says that right after the SARS epidemic, there was a public debate on whether people should adapt Western ways of eating, with separate individual servings or at least the use of “public chopsticks” or gongkuai.

Public chopsticks are chopsticks provided for general serving, like a serving spoon, and not used for eating. However, Wu says when the SARS crisis petered out, so did the chopstick discussion.

Make that a double

Huang Juemin, a pediatrician at Shanghai United Family Hospital, was amused at first when asked about the topic, as she says it had just been on her mind.

“I just had a work lunch with doctors from the local children’s hospital and I wondered about the ‘double dipping,' when my chopsticks reached the dishes,” she says.

“As a teenager growing up in Shanghai in late 1980s I remember vividly the Hepatitis A outbreak. For a while, people challenged the custom of 'double dipping' and started using gongkuai -- public chopsticks.”

“Yet when I moved back to Shanghai a few years ago from the United States,” she continues, “I noticed that people have started to double dip again.”

Clearly, if people regularly got deathly ill from double-dipping chopsticks, the whole country, not to mention other Asian nations which share dishes, would be regularly convulsed with epidemics.

And Dr. Huang says she hasn’t seen any evidence of that. “To be honest, I haven’t seen increased infectious diseases among children,” she says.

Chop it twice

Interestingly, several people say they worry that not using personal chopsticks to share food, in other words, not double dipping might be considered rude.

And I’m not sure if I look rude when I reach out to grab the first serving of food to avoid other people’s germs!— Huang Juemin, doctor, Shanghai United Family Hospital

“I feel people should use public chopsticks,” says Dr. Huang, “but I sometimes feel embarrassed to ask others to do so, since I don’t want to look snobbish or stuck up by friends or relatives. And I’m not sure if I look rude when I reach out to grab the first serving of food to avoid other people’s germs!”

In online forums, many young Chinese say that when eating with friends and family, they wouldn’t make a point of using public chopsticks as that might seem condescending or too formal.

However, the overall trend of using public chopsticks seems to be growing.

In a survey of nearly 5,000 people conducted by Zhejiang Gongshang University, nearly all respondents either “highly supported” or at least “approved of” the use of gongkuai .

And that’s good news according to Dr. Huang.

After discussing the double dipping issue with her internal medicine colleagues, she says they all believed that “definitely there is an increased risk for H. Pylori and Hepatitis A, if not Hepatitis B infections.”

So her final advice?

“I think we should make an effort to use public chopsticks from the public health standpoint.”

It seems that the double-dipped chopstick ought to go the way of the chip and become a social faux pas -- could this be fodder for an upcoming Chinese sitcom episode?

Want to read more about Chinese dining habits? Read on at "5 Chinese eating habits explained".