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Grandma's Kitchen:   Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Chopsticks... But Were Afraid You'd Drop in Your Lap
Chopsticks and bowl graphic

by B.K. Davis

Somewhere in the beginning of Chinese history, some ravenous and enterprising person used a pair of long straight sticks to pluck up a morsel of food and eat it, steaming, from the cooking fire. Thus the first pair of chopsticks was born. To the Chinese, food is more than a symbol of life and health; it represents luck and prosperity. A meal strengthens one's health and spirit. The act of eating is more than merely fueling the body, it is a celebration of life. The aesthetics of the Asian table and the delicacy and contrasting flavors of the meal are as much a part of eating as the nutrition.

No knives graphic

Knives are not needed to eat a meal prepared for chopsticks. Confucius wrote that, "The honorable man allows no knives at his table." It was considered a grave insult to have an implement of fighting or slaughter at a friendly dining table, therefore, chopsticks were the most appropriate alternative. There is a grace and elegance in an experienced chopsticks user that is not present when eating with the hands or juggling the knife-fork-spoon combination. The choice of utensil also determines the preparation of the meal. Food is cut into small pieces in order to be manageable with chopsticks. This also allows quick cooking with less fuel and allows a dish to be eaten at peak temperatures that may be too hot for fingers to pick up. The additional advantage is that one must savor the food slowly, rather than gulping down great chunks at a time. (This can be an excellent diet tool since one eats less when eating more slowly because the sense of "fullness" is noticed sooner.) It is natural that such an important cultural tool would develop a rich history and folklore to surround it.

Chopsticks graphic

The original Chinese name for chopsticks is zhou. The written character was related to the Chinese word "help;" however, since it sounded like "stop" this was not used by the common people living on boats in China's waterways and harbors. Instead they used the more auspicious word k'uai-tse, meaning "quick little children." Eventually this was widely adopted as the spoken name, with the written character remaining the same as before.

In Japan, chopsticks are called hashi. This word means "bridge," aptly describing the chopsticks' function as a bridge between mouth and plate. It also relates to the early Japanese variation of chopsticks that were joined at the top by a little bridge, causing one to use them like tweezers. In the pidgin English spoken by Chinese immigrants in the 1800s, chop meant "quick," leading to our word chopsticks.

The first widespread recorded use of chopsticks is attributed to the Shang dynasty (1766 B.C.- 1122 B.C.). The oldest existing pair of chopsticks is made of ivory and was discovered in the ruins of an 11th century B.C. palace. Since then, they have been made of nearly every conceivable material, including jade, gold, ebony, cloisonne, lacquer, bone, brass, agate, and a dizzying variety of exotic woods, the most common material being bamboo. Korea is the only country that routinely uses metal chopsticks.

Chopsticks made of ivory were believed to fly apart into pieces on contact with poisons. Silver chopsticks were supposed to turn black on contact with poison. Actually silver does discolor on contact with rotten eggs and sulfurs. (Imagine the shock of some poor imperial food taster faced with a dish of eggs which he had approved that had tarnished the royal silver chopsticks.) In Dream of the Red Chamber, an 18th century Chinese novel by Ts'ao Hsueh-Ch'in, a peasant girl is shamed and embarrassed during her first meal at the home of a noble because she drops a slippery egg picked up with a pair of unfamiliarly heavy gold chopsticks. (This would be a gaffe equivalent to drinking one's finger bowl at a western banquet.)

bowl and chopsticks illustration

Chopsticks are the utensil of choice in many Asian countries, mostly in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Chopsticks were said to be introduced to Korea by Ki-Ja, the founder of the first Korean dynasty. Ki-Ja began life as Chi-tzu, a minister of the Shang dynasty in China. When the Shang dynasty was supplanted by the Zhou dynasty, Ki-Ja immigrated to Korea, bringing chopsticks with him. However, it took nearly 900 years for them to become the primary utensil in Korea.

Chopsticks came to Vietnam by way of the Chinese occupation that lasted from 111 B.C. to 938 A.D. As a rule, the Vietnamese adopted only what they found useful from Chinese conquerors and discarded the rest in favor of their own culture. In Japan, the first chopsticks imported from China were used exclusively in religious ceremonies until Shotoko Taishi's reign as Japanese regent from 593 A.D. to 622 A.D. He is credited with introducing chopsticks for daily use. They are now the only utensil allowed at a Japanese table.

A traditional Chinese and Japanese wedding gift, chopsticks symbolize a close and fruitful marriage. Once they were a customary gift from the husband's parents to ensure the newlywed's fertility. If this gift failed to work, the childless couple could, on the 15th day of the first lunar month, sneak into the house of a neighbor with many children and steal a pair of their more prolific chopsticks. Still a popular wedding gift, it is the worst kind of bad luck to give the disposable sort that are designed to be torn apart and discarded after a single use, especially with the current divorce rates!

chopsticks illustration

Chopsticks are viewed by some as an art form. In 1987, a New York jewelry designer entered a pair of sterling silver chopsticks with an elegant Grecian Ionic Column design in an international design competition. She won the grand prize, and the chopsticks are now on display in the Cooper-Hewitt Nation Museum of Design. Collectors appreciate the folklore and history embodied in the pieces they acquire and see them as family heirlooms rather than mere utensils.

For tips on chopsticks use and etiquette, see the next issue of Jade Dragon Online!

If you have any easy, tasty Asian recipes to share, please send them to us at P.O. Box 23744, San Diego, CA 92193-3744. E-mail: editor@jadedragon.com. If we use your article, we will send you a Jade Dragon Online t-shirt.

Other recipes from Grandma's Kitchen:
Soybean Magic
Fiesta – Filipino Style
Chinese Kitchen Medicine
Filipino Party Foods
Healthy Summer Eating
Vietnam’s Chicken in Lemon Grass
Korean Homestyle Cooking
Prosperity for the New Year
The Fine Art of Korean Cooking
The Ever Pan-Tropic Bamboo and Indonesian Soup
Tofu Bubble and Chinese Cabbage
Shrimp Hui Tofu
Fighting the "Baby Fat" Blues with Asian Food
Connie’s Cuisine

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