A Guide To Chopsticks
A whistle-stop tour of these delightfully precise and elegant oriental utensils.
Chopsticks are not an uncommon sight wherever you’re dining around the world. Traditionally associated with Asian cuisine; whether Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai or Korean; they’re now a mainstay in the cutlery drawers of many homes and even in pubs and restaurants serving multicultural dishes.
But did you know there are several different styles, materials and functions of chopsticks and that they date back over three millennia? Let’s first look at the origins of these charming dining tools.
East Asian roots
Chopsticks were first used in China as far back as 1200 BC with the most primitive of these tools uncovered from the ruins of Yin, the historic Chinese capital. They were cast in bronze and are believed to have been cooking tools – used to stoke fires, stir deep pots and transfer food from pot to plate.
Chopsticks had evolved into eating utensils by the time of the Chinese Han Dynasty, from 206 BC to 22 AD, and within 500 years, their influence had spread throughout Asia, from Japan across to Vietnam.
Before we delve into the cultural differences that have evolved as chopsticks crossed the continent, let’s go back to basics.
Utensils and serving tools
Chopsticks are elegant tapered sticks held in the dominant hand and used to grasp food. They’re a very neat and precise instrument, favoured by some over the knife and fork for the fact they can’t be overloaded or used to eat too quickly. In fact, they are often seen as an aid for healthier dining, as you take small mouthfuls which gives the brain time to process how much food is being eaten. Some cultures use chopsticks for the whole meal from start to finish, whereas others, like in Korea, combine chopsticks with a rice spoon, or use them for a certain course.
Chopsticks are comfortable and easy to use, but mastering them is an art, much like the humble knife and fork. Beginner chopsticks can have a helper hinge to hold the two sticks together, ideal for younger or less dextrous diners. What they are made of traditionally comes down to the country you are in or the cuisine you’re eating, but they’re found in wood, bamboo, plastic, metal, fibreglass, even bone. Some styles are easier to grip, others conduct less heat, there are different lengths of chopstick, some are pointed, others blunt and some styles and materials more durable than others.
Wood or bamboo chopsticks tend to have a rougher texture which makes them easier to grip. The wood means they can withstand high temperatures without altering the taste of the food and they are inexpensive, but they can warp and deteriorate over time.
Metal chopsticks are harder wearing than wood, easy to clean and can be sanitised in the dishwasher. But they conduct heat easily, meaning they’re not ideal for cooking. An exception to this is grilling meat as they don’t char like wood. They can also be difficult to grip if not engraved at the hand and or food ends and are more expensive than wood.
Plastic chopsticks are great for sticky dishes like rice, but harder to use with more slippery food. They don’t wear easily and don’t transfer heat, but can melt if used too close to a naked flame.
It’s widely thought that chopsticks were made popular in China at the word of the peaceful-living philosopher Confucius. The devout vegetarian discouraged the use of the knife and fork, seeing them as violent implements reminiscent of the slaughterhouse. Instead, he wished the dinner table to be a sanctuary of calm and contentedness. And with food often scarce and chopped into very small pieces to stretch further, knives were seldom required for dining anyway.
Chinese chopsticks are traditionally longer than the Japanese or Korean tools at 28cm in length, and this is due to the nation’s custom of sharing food. Longer chopsticks can reach further across a table and dip into hot or deep pots. Chinese chopsticks are blunt, with a large surface area ideal for picking up sushi rolls, noodles and rice. Through the ages, they’ve been fashioned from a variety of materials, like bamboo, plastic, wood, bone, metal, even jade, ivory or silver! During the Han Dynasty, chopsticks evolved from cooking implements to dining utensils and were used together with a rice spoon, but by the Ming Dynasty, they’d confirmed their place at the table.
Japanese chopsticks are much shorter than Chinese, at around 20cm for men’s and 18cm for women’s and children’s. There’s less of a tradition of sharing food in Japan and people tend to keep their own personal set, so the shorter length makes them more portable.
Because fish is a staple of Japanese dining, their chopsticks are pointed for the removal of fish bones and scales, and they’re ideally shaped for delicate manoeuvres to pick up small beans and finely-chopped foods. Often made of metal like titanium, or wood with a lacquer finish, Japanese chopsticks tend to have circumferential grooves near the tip to help grip the food.
Occupying a middle ground between the Chinese and Japanese tools, Korean chopsticks are made from metal – either stainless steel or silver – and are on average 23-25cm in length. They are often paired with a spoon, which is used to eat the rice. The chopsticks have tapered ends, but they are not as pointed as Japanese chopsticks, and they’re flat rather than cylindrical so they stay still on a flat surface for barbecuing.
Mind your manners
Regardless of the cuisine, it’s advisable to be mindful of the basic etiquette around dining with chopsticks. Again, this will vary according to the culture in question, but here is a quick rundown of some of the biggest faux-pas.
Don’t stick your chopsticks vertically in your food as this is reminiscent of incense used at funerals. Don’t use your personal chopsticks to take food from communal dishes – use the serving chopsticks instead. Don’t eat directly from the serving dishes – place the food on your plate and eat from there. Don’t stab at or spear the food and don’t use your chopsticks to push the serving dishes about. When you’re not eating, place the chopsticks in a rest or across your dish; never gesture, point with or chew them.
In China, it’s poor etiquette to set your chopsticks down pointing at another person, and always make sure your elders are served and start eating first. In Japan, it’s rude to cross your chopsticks on the table or rub them together, as this indicates you think the chopsticks are cheap. In China and Japan, it’s acceptable to hold the bowl up and scoop the food into your mouth, but this is not the form in Korea.
What’s in a name?
You may wonder where the term “chopstick” originates and it doesn’t seem to come from the native terms; kuaizi in Chinese (meaning quick), hashi in Japanese ( bridge) and sujeo in Korean (a blend of “chopsticks” and “spoon”). More likely, it’s derived from the pidgin English “chop-chop”, meaning quickly.
Cooking with chopsticks
Chopsticks were used for cooking long before they became a commonplace dining utensil. Cooking chopsticks are usually made of bamboo and much longer, at around 35-40cm. They’re ideal for tossing noodles and stir fries and are also great for adding finesse when plating up rather than clumsily scooping out piles of food.
So there you have it; precise dining instruments bringing elegance and flow to East Asian dining for three thousand years and counting.