August 5, 2009
Last week I wrote about the history of the fork, which was considered decadent and blasphemous when it was introduced to Venetian society in the 11th century. Chopsticks, the eating utensils of choice in parts of Asia, have no such scandalous past, although their history is just as interesting.
In fact, it was the ancient philosopher and vegetarian Confucius’s disdain for another common utensil, the knife, that may have helped cement the chopsticks’ role as China’s preferred food-conveyance implements (and ensured countless embarrassing Western date moments in future millennia).
According to the California Academy of Sciences, which houses the Rietz Collection of Food Technology, chopsticks were developed about 5,000 years ago in China. The earliest versions were probably twigs used to retrieve food from cooking pots. When resources became scarce, around 400 BC, crafty chefs figured out how to conserve fuel by cutting food into small pieces so it would cook more quickly. This new method of cooking made it unnecessary to have knives at the dinner table—a practice that also jibed with the non-violent teachings of Confucius, as expressed in one of his numerous quotable quotations: “The honorable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives on his table.”
By 500 AD, chopsticks had spread to Japan, Vietnam and Korea. Early Japanese chopsticks were used strictly for religious ceremonies, and were made from one piece of bamboo joined at the top, like tweezers. Contrary to the frequent Western misconception, Thais do not commonly use chopsticks.
During the Chinese dynastic times, silver chopsticks were sometimes used because it was believed they would turn black if they came in contact with poisoned food. This practice must have led to some unfortunate misunderstandings—it’s now known that silver has no reaction to arsenic or cyanide, but can change color if it comes into contact with garlic, onions, or rotten eggs, all of which release hydrogen sulfide.
Other chopstick lore lingers. According to an article in a Malaysian publication, some Asians believe if you’re given an uneven pair, you will miss a boat or plane. An old Korean superstition holds that “the closer to the tip one holds a pair of chopsticks, the longer one will stay unmarried.”
Aside from having a steep learning curve (if you haven’t mastered it, try a how-to video), chopstick use is also fraught with potential faux pas for clueless Westerners. If this Japanese survey is accurate, there are dozens of ways to offend, from standing chopsticks up in a bowl of rice (which is said to resemble the incense sticks at funerals) to “allowing tears of soup to drip from your chopsticks.”
Once you’ve got your technique nailed down, though, you might want to consider making it a regular habit: some people claim that chopstick use can improve memory—which will come in handy for remembering all those rules of etiquette.
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