Saturday, June 22, 2013

Chopsticks: A Hungry History

Fun fact: The word "chopsticks" first appeared
in print in 1699 when Scottish adventurer,
William Dampier, first described them in his
travel history, Voyages and Descriptions. Other
"firsts in print" by Dampier include avocado,
cashew, and barbecue. 
Chopsticks, or as most of us know them better, the troubling utensils with which we struggle at all Chinese restaurants, are the main utensil in China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Although there is no official record of their first usage, historians estimate that chopsticks saw their roots in China circa 1200 BC, on the tail end of the long reign of the Shang Dynasty. Somewhat ironically, they were implemented as a replacement to forks.

In their initial usage they were not eating utensils, but rather cooking tools. The thin tapered sticks were perfect for stirring large pots and seizing bits of foods stuck at the bottom. Chopsticks began making their ways into the hands of the masses as eating utensils when a food scarcity made forks and knives obsolete. Crafty chefs knew that to make food last long they should cut it into many little pieces, for quick little bites. (The Chinese word for "chopsticks" translates roughly to "quick little fellows.") This newfound freedom from previous cutting and eating utensils very conveniently complemented the increasingly popular philosophy of Confucianism, which asserted that, "The honorable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives at his table." Thusly chopsticks as we know them began to take form, from twig-like branches to the elegant, to simple tapered bamboo sticks, to the elegant utensils they are today.
Fun fact: Higher-ups used silver chopsticks
because it was commonly believed that
silver would blacken when exposed to the
many poisons of the day. It doesn't.
However, it does blacken when exposed to
hydrogen sulfide, found in rotten eggs,
garlic, and onions. 
Within 100 years of their advent in China, the quick little fellows were popular in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, and with their popularity developed mysterious lore and powers. It is rumored in Malaysia that if you are given chopsticks of differing sizes, you will miss a boat or a plane. In Korea, the closer to the tip you hold your chopsticks, the longer you will stay unmarried. In China, if you stick your chopsticks straight up in a bowl of rice, you wish death upon someone. Resting your chopsticks across each other is also a symbol of death in China.

Contrary to most Western thought, chopsticks do lend themselves to eating rice, noodles, and even noodle soup, if one has the patience to learn and perfect the art. Oftentimes, the rice or soup bowl is held close to the mouth to avoid unnecessary spilling or splashing. It is worthwhile to bear in mind that chopsticks share more in common with a shovel than a harpoon, and should be used thusly. They do not, however, serve adequately as cutting utensils, so unfortunately the Confucius philosophy of knives as a symbol of violence had to be abandoned in the name of graceful and efficient eating.

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