Chopsticks are a cornerstone of Asian cuisine, as globally recognisable as the dishes they pluck and carry to hungry mouths. They’re a feature of most Asian restaurants, regardless of their global location, and those of us less versed in the sorcery of using two fine sticks to gracefully transport food must occasionally suffer (what feels like) the crippling embarrassment of asking for a fork.
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The History of Chopsticks
The Chinese have been using chopsticks as their primary eating implement for some 3,000 years. It’s thought that the oldest pair, found near modern day Gaoyou, date to somewhere between 6600 and 550 BCE – but experts are still squabbling over whether they are in fact hair pins, not eating implements.
Legends of the origin of chopsticks abound. In one, Jiang Ziya, a legendary figure of the Western Zhou dynasty (1045–771BCE), was given a pair of magical bamboo twigs by a magical bird. These were capable of revealing poison and saved him from his murderous wife. In another, Da Yi, a concubine of King Zhou of the Shang dynasty (1766–1045 BCE), fed him with her hairpins when the food was too hot to hold.
While their origins remain debatable, what’s more certain is that chopsticks really took off in the Han dynasty (206 – 220BCE), with the growth in floured wheat foods like noodles and dumplings.
Culture and Chopsticks
Food culture and chopsticks have grown together. In the Chinese tradition, chopsticks are long and thick, so families eating around a table together can sample all dishes, no matter how distant. There’s also dizzying etiquette around the use of chopsticks that varies throughout Asia. To name just a few Chinese no-nos: it’s considered rude to point your chopsticks at people, leave them standing in your bowl upright, allow sauces to drop from them and use them to spear food.
For all those people thinking ‘knives and forks are better!’, the ancient Chinese would clearly disagree. Tomb painting show that although knives and forks appeared in tandem with chopsticks and spoons, they didn’t make it out of the kitchen, and they remained largely as cooking rather than eating implements until they were re-introduced by Europeans. Even today, chopsticks are the most used utensil in Asia, and China alone snaps through 45 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks a year.
It was my mum – born and raised in Hong Kong – who taught the woman who would become my grandmother – born during the Second World War and raised in England – to use chopsticks. My grandmother fondly recalls her trip to Japan in the early 90s, and the shock that greeted her when she – a Westerner – was able to use chopsticks.
Different Eating Habits
Whenever I visited my Chinese family as a child, eating together was always a feast, with a colourful spread of dishes at every meal and more food than you could eat. But it was also a litany of unfamiliar etiquette: bringing their rice bowls to their mouths and shovelling rice straight into their mouths felt like a much more efficient way of eating, if not very different to the British table manners I was taught at home and school. I didn’t learn to use chopsticks properly until I was a bit older, perhaps around ten, and eating with a fork as everyone’s chopsticks clacked around me felt slightly embarrassing.
Growing up in a culture where chopsticks are seen as the challenging implement and knives and forks the norm, there are reminders that Western cutlery can be tricky for the untrained hand. In a formal meal at a Cambridge college with a group of visiting Chinese students unfamiliar with using a knife and fork together (‘we usually just use a fork by itself, for eating fruit’, they told me), there was lots of confusion, food stabbing and one flying roast potato. I spent most of the meal trying to teach them how to use what I thought was an intuitive system, and saw plenty of parallels with my mum teaching me to use chopsticks.
As mixed ethnicity people, there so many aspects of our cultural exposure that we take for granted. We have a lesson in world cultures within the walls of our own homes, and watching them fuse to create something as diverse as we are, is something marvellous.
My brother cooks virtually everything (from bacon to pasta) using chopsticks as his cooking implement of choice, just like my mum does. We regularly have meals at home where we’ll have Chinese dishes as a main course, and then finish it off with a bread-and-butter pudding or apple pie and custard.
In a world of chopsticks, knives, forks, spoons and good old hands-on, there’s no real right or wrong. And no matter how many times we discreetly gesture for a fork, or drip sauce off our chopsticks, it’s ultimately culture. And like food, it’s good to share, respectfully experience, and appreciate.