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Chopsticks: A History and How to Use Chopsticks - March 2001 Newsletter


Where's the fork and knife? Do you feel nervous and uncomfortable eating in a Chinese or Japanese restaurant when all you have are two sticks for utensils? After reading this month's feature on chopsticks, the only thing you really need to do is practice, practice, and practice. See you at the restaurant!

As to exactly when chopsticks came into use is not known for sure. Some historians say it was about 2000 years to 5000 years ago, and others say it was during Confucius' lifetime, around 500 BC. It is fairly certain that chopsticks were invented in China when the primitive Chinese started to use broken tree twigs to pick up their food cooked at the fire, and eventually, to retrieve food cooked in large communal food pots. As the population in China grew and resources became limited, the food was chopped into small pieces for quicker cooking and to conserve fuel. Because of the smaller, bite size pieces of food, there were no longer any need for knives at the dinner table, and thus, chopsticks became a staple utensil in the household. Over the centuries, the primitive twigs progressed into the modern, tapered chopsticks used today, and by 500 AD, they had spread to Korea, Japan and Vietnam.

In Chinese, chopsticks are called kuai-zi, "quick ones", because of their efficiency. When the Chinese language were translated into Pidgin English by commerce traders during the 19th century, the word "chopsticks" came into being because of its meaning for fast, as in "chop chop!" The Korean word for chopsticks is "juk-ga-rack", and the word "hashi" is Japanese for chopsticks, which means bridge. It probably has its origin from the earliest chopsticks imported from China. Looking like tweezers, it was made from one piece of bamboo joined at one end, thus a "bridge" connecting the two pieces. By the 10th century, these tweezers were separated into two pieces and became the chopsticks the Japanese use today.

Chopsticks are most often made from bamboo or other wood. Bamboo is the most popular material because of its resistance to heat, is easy to cut, is inexpensive and has no noticeable odor or taste. Other woods used are cedar, sandalwood, teak, pine and bone. These materials are most used to make chopsticks for the majority of the population. Royalty and the wealthy had chopsticks made from gold, silver, jade, bronze, brass, coral, pewter, ivory and other expensive materials. To identify the owners of these chopsticks, many were decorated with calligraphy or pictures, some sparingly and others more elaborate, depending on what the owners preferred. In the 17th century, the Japanese started to lacquer their wooden chopsticks for durability and were the first to create disposable wooden chopsticks (wari-bashi) in the late 1800's.

Chinese chopsticks used in households and establishments are usually about 9-10 inches long, square in cross-section and with a blunt tip (the "eating" end). Japanese chopsticks are generally shorter, about 7 inches for women and 8 inches for men (this difference in length is to the hand sizes between the two sexes), round in cross-section and with a pointy tip. Korean chopsticks are even shorter than Japanese ones and are usually made from a metal, and the Vietnamese utilize chopsticks that are equivalent to the Chinese. There are also short chopsticks for young children to use, and extra long chopsticks made for cooking, usually 13 inches or longer and made from a metal to withstand high temperatures. Most chopsticks, unless you're using the disposable kind, should be hand-washed to maintain the integrity and longevity of the material and finish. If your chopsticks come with a bag or holder, use it for storing your chopsticks. It will prevent scratches if the chopsticks should rub against other silverware.

Chopsticks Instruction

The following steps and diagrams will show you the correct way to hold and use chopsticks. With some practice, eating with chopsticks will become second nature.

* Place the upper half of one chopstick in the crook between the thumb and index finger, and rest the lower end on top of the ring finger just behind the fingernail. This is the bottom chopstick and it stays stationary.

* Place the upper half of second chopstick between the tips of the index and middle fingers and use the tip of the thumb to hold it in place. This is the top chopstick and it is moved using the index and middle fingers to pick up food.

Besides knowing HOW to use chopsticks, one should also know the proper etiquette of using chopsticks, or what NOT to do with them. If food needs to be served, use serving utensils. Do not use your chopsticks to pass food directly to another person's chopsticks or vice versa. This resembles the Japanese Buddhist funeral ritual where relatives are required to pass the bone fragments from the cremated body from chopsticks to chopsticks. Sticking chopsticks vertically straight up into a bowl of rice is also taboo because this resembles the offering bowl of uncooked rice at a Buddhist altar during funerals. If no serving utensils are provided, then it is fine to serve yourself by turning your chopsticks around and using the clean bottom ends instead of the tips. When it's time to eat, just remember to turn the chopsticks back around to the proper position. Among many others, the following actions involving chopsticks are most often cited and are viewed as bad luck and/or rude, and should not be practiced. They are: pointing or waving at someone or something with chopsticks in the hands, playing with chopsticks between bites of food, setting chopsticks down in a crossed position on the table, laying chopsticks parallel across the top of your bowl, dropping the chopsticks, using chopsticks to call somebody by hitting it against a plate, bowl or other flatware, using chopsticks to stab or pierce food that are difficult to pick up, and licking or biting the tips of your chopsticks. Touching the food or "fishing around" for the best pieces of food on a serving dish with your chopsticks is also rude and unsanitary. To hold both chopsticks together as one by gripping them with one hand like a spear may put some people on alert as this will appear to be an action of attack. When you need to put your chopsticks down, place them parallel together on the edge of your plate (not across the plate), or you can lean the tips of the chopsticks against the side of your plate and let the bottoms rest on the table. A better option would be to use a chopstick rest, if one is provided.

Chopstick rests are most often found in Japanese establishments. They are called hashioki, and originated in ancient times when religious offerings were made to the ancestral gods. Special chopsticks were used during these ceremonies and to keep their tips clean, the chopsticks were placed on stands. Eventually chopstick rests evolved from these stands and were used by the common people. They are typically made from wood, glass, ceramic, bamboo and other various materials. Molded to form many different designs such as fruits and vegetables, animals and flowers, branches and leaves, or a multitude of assorted shapes, chopstick rests can add a decorative touch to the table as well as keeping the tips of chopsticks clean.

Now that you know the do's, the don'ts and the how to's of chopsticks usage, visit Mrs. Lins Kitchen's diversified selection of chopsticks and chopstick rests today. You'll discover creations that are delicate and simple to the worldly and elegant, and everything in between for yourself, to give as a gift or to add to your collection.


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