China – part 5 (of 20)

The Chinese have been wielding chopsticks since around 1200 B.C., and by A.D. 500 the slender batons had swept the Asian continent from Vietnam to Japan. From their humble beginnings as cooking utensils to paper-wrapped bamboo sets at the sushi counter, there’s more to chopsticks than meets the eye.

Capable of reaching deep into boiling pots of water or oil, early chopsticks were used mainly for cooking. It wasn’t until A.D. 400 that people began eating with the utensils. A population boom across China sapped resources and forced cooks to develop cost-saving habits. They began chopping food into smaller pieces that required less cooking fuel—and happened to be perfect for the tweezers-like grip of chopsticks. As food became bite-sized, knives became obsolete. Their decline—and chopsticks’ ascent—also came courtesy of Confucius. As a vegetarian, he believed that sharp utensils at the dinner table would remind eaters of the slaughterhouse. He also thought that knives’ sharp points evoked violence and warfare, killing the happy, contended mood that should reign during meals.

part 5 01.jpg

Different cultures adopted different chopstick styles. Perhaps in a nod to Confucius, Chinese chopsticks featured a blunt rather than pointed end. In Japan, chopsticks were 8 inches long for men and 7 inches long for women. In 1878 the Japanese became the first to create the now-ubiquitous disposable set, typically made of bamboo or wood. Wealthy diners could eat with ivory, jade, coral or brass versions, while the most privileged used silver sets. It was falsely believed that the silver would corrode and turn black if it encountered poisoned food.

part 5 02.jpg

Throughout history, chopsticks have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with rice. Western long grain rice (often highly processed) offers individual grains, whereas Asian rice’s short or medium grains release more starch during the cooking process, offering a gummy product which can easily be picked with chopsticks.

Chopstick etiquette:

  • Do not make noise, draw attention or gesture with it
  • Do not use chopsticks to impale or spear your food
  • Do not leave them standing upright in any food
  • Serving chopsticks are used to take food from serving dishes and should be returned once you served yourself. They are often in a different colour from the individual chopsticks
  • Do not rub your waribashi together (those wooden chopsticks that you need to break apart). Some people rub them together as a matter of habit, but this is only needed if they are so cheap that they are splintery. Doing this with good quality sticks is thus deemed an insult
  • If you are supplied with chopstick rests, use them

If you have mastered the art of using these seemingly straight forward (mind the pun) utensils – consider yourself lucky. Chinese children are taught from the age of 3 to use them!

part 5 03.jpg

Continue reading China – part 6 (of 20).