Standing the Test of Time
By Henri Merceron
Between 3,000 and 5,000 years ago, it is believed that the ancient Chinese cooked their food in large pots and fished it out with twigs from nearby trees. As the millennia peeled away, the population grew and the resources for fuel became less abundant. It was observed that food cooked more quickly when chopped into smaller morsels and, hence saved fuel. In response, the long twigs that were previously used were shortened and became chopsticks, much more useful tools for picking up morsels.
Throughout history, there are written references to the existence of chopsticks forged out of a wide array of materials besides bamboo and wood. The primary ones included ivory around 1100 BC, followed by bronzed (1100- 771 BC), lacquer (206-24 AD) and gold and silver (618-907 AD). While common folk routinely used wood and bamboo chopsticks, the elite exhibited a preference for the more precious materials. It was widely believed that silver chopsticks turned black if exposed to poisons. In fact, arsenic, cyanide, and other poisons have no effect on silver. However, rotten eggs, garlic and onion release sulfur compounds that do darken the metal.
It is generally accepted that Confucius, a vegetarian, promoted the widespread use of chopsticks around 500 BC. “The honorable and upright man keeps well away from the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives at his table,” he stated. The practice of cutting food into bite size morsels in the kitchen precluded the need for knives and other utensils (beside chopsticks).
By 500 AD, the popularity of chopsticks had spread to Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. Ki-Tse, a minister of the Shang Dynasty in China, immigrated to Korea when the Zhou Dynasty assumed power around 1100 BC. He founded the first Korean dynasty and introduced chopsticks to his adopted country. However, it was centuries before the Koreans came to accept them for normal day-to-day use. Chopsticks were introduced to Vietnam during the Chinese occupation of that country between 111 BC and 938 AD. The Japanese originally used chopsticks for religious ceremonial purposes until the rule of Taishi in 593 AD, who encouraged their use for dining.
Food culture has influenced the appearance of chopsticks used in the four countries that use them as their primary utensil. Chinese chopsticks are called kuai-zi (“quick little fellows”) and are nine to ten inches in length. They are circular at the bottom and square on top, believed to represent the earth and the sky, respectively. Whereas, the first Japanese chopsticks (hashi) were actually connected at the top, resembling long tweezers, contemporary ones are short (7-8 inches), rounded, pointy and separated. This style is well adapted to the Japanese diet, consisting of thin flat food, such as slices of fish. Unique amongst the group, the Koreans rely on metal chopsticks which may withstand the high temperatures to which they are subjected as diners reach for barbecue meat, a favorite staple in their diet. Vietnamese chopsticks (doi dua) are similar to those of the Chinese, whose food is similar in style and texture.
The etiquette that surrounds the use of chopsticks is steeped in tradition and culture. When one finishes eating, chopsticks should be placed on the plate and pointing to the left. Never stick them into food, as this is a practice best reserved for funerals. Never spear your food. Chopsticks were only to be held in the right hand (even if you were left handed) and your wrist should never twist in such a manner as to expose your palm upward. This is considered unrefined. Some things are obvious and would also be considered inappropriate with Western utensils in hand; do not wave your chopsticks around, play with them, point them at others, use them to select the choicest morsels, or grab food from the communal plate and put it directly into your mouth. And then, there are some interesting differences between cultures. For instance, in China, one should not be surprised to find that their version of double dipping is acceptable. It is okay to use your personal chopsticks to remove food from the communal plate. It is also proper to lift a rice bowl to your mouth and scoop in the contents. These practices are not acceptable in Japanese culture.
Chopsticks have in recent years gained honor and recognition in the form of The Chopstick Festival in China that celebrates the artistic and stylistic diversity exhibited in the production of this utensil, and the Japanese Chopsticks Day on August 4th. On the latter, Japanese women purchase new chopsticks and burn used ones in an expression of appreciation. Interestingly, the recent recognition of the unique and aesthetic virtues of chopsticks has paralleled an unprecedented flood in the production of disposable chopsticks. While Japanese have been credited with inventing the first disposable chopsticks in 1878, the Chinese dominate the industry, today. They produce more than 60 billion pair each year. One thing is certain; with the popularity of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Japanese food, the role of chopsticks in the global community will maintain a significant presence.