Why Do Asians Use Chopsticks?

Chopsticks on an empty plate

A lot of us use the knife and fork, but there’s another set of utensils used by billions of people around the world—and it has a truly ancient past- the chopsticks.

The Chinese have been wielding chopsticks since at least 1200 B.C., and by A.D. 500 the slender batons had swept the Asian continent from Vietnam to Japan. From their humble beginnings as cooking utensils to paper-wrapped bamboo sets at the sushi counter, there’s more to chopsticks than that which meets the eye.

Capable of reaching deep into boiling pots of water or oil, early chopsticks were used mainly for cooking. It wasn’t until A.D. 400 that people began eating with the utensils. This happened when a population boom across China sapped resources and forced cooks to develop cost-saving habits. They began chopping food into smaller pieces that required less cooking fuel—and happened to be perfect for the tweezers-like grip of chopsticks.

Another school of thought believes chopsticks’ ascent came courtesy of Confucius. As a vegetarian, he believed that sharp utensils at the dinner table would remind eaters of the slaughterhouse. He also thought that knives’ sharp points evoked violence and warfare, killing the happy, contended mood that should reign during meals. Thanks in part to his teachings, chopstick use quickly became widespread throughout Asia.

Different sizes and types of choptsicks

Different cultures in Asia adopted different chopstick styles. In Japan, chopsticks were 8 inches long for men and 7 inches long for women. In 1878 the Japanese became the first to create the now-ubiquitous disposable set, typically made of bamboo or wood. Wealthy diners could eat with ivory, jade, coral, brass or agate versions, while the most privileged used silver sets. It was believed that the silver would corrode and turn black if it came into contact with poisoned food.

For anyone that has ever had difficulty eating rice with chopsticks, you may have wondered why anyone would choose this particular utensil for consuming such food. In Asia, the majority of rice is either a short or medium grain variety often with starches that are particularly gummy or clumpy. As such, it sticks together and is quite easily picked up by chopsticks. In comparison, many Westerners eat long grain rice, often highly processed, with is much fluffier and the individual grains are more distinct and for the unpracticed hand, difficult to eat with chopsticks.

Chopstick etiquette is also a highly important factor in Asian culture and history. They can also vary greatly from country to country and from person to person, but in general:

  • In traditional Chinese culture, it’s poor etiquette to:
    • Spear your food with your chopsticks.
    • Dig around in your food for a particular item. This is referred to as “digging your grave” and is considered extremely rude.
    • Tap your chopsticks on the edge of your bowl. This is what beggars do to attract attention.
    • Children to hold their chopsticks incorrectly, as this will reflect poorly on the parents.
  • In Japanese culture , it’s poor etiquette to:
    • Cross your chopsticks on the table.
    • Stick your chopsticks vertically in rice, as this is a practise reserved for funerals.
    • Transfer food from your chopsticks to another person’s plate.
  • In Taiwanese culture, it’s poor etiquette to:
    • Bite on your chopsticks or to let them linger in your mouth for too long.
    • Use your chopsticks to pick up contents from a soup bowl.
    • Place your chopsticks on the table. You should either use a chopstick rest or place them across the top of your bowl.
  • In Korean culture, it’s poor etiquette to:
    • Pick up your utensils before your elders.
    • Bring your bowl closer to your mouth to eat.
    • Use chopsticks to eat rice unless you’re someone considered lower class. Spoons should be used instead.
  • In Vietnamese culture, it’s poor etiquette to:
    • Place you chopsticks in the shape of a V once you’ve finished eating. This is considered to be a bad omen.
    • Pick up food directly from the table and eat it. The item should be placed in your own bowl first.
    • Place your chopsticks in your mouth whilst choosing food.

This list is by no means exhaustive.

It will be good to know that because of how much influence Asian countries are having on other continents especially because they do business and school together, organisations and individuals are learning to use the chopsticks. You don’t want to be the person messing up the table while having a business meal with clients in Asia. So, if you get the opportunity, try to use the chopsticks. There are uncountable videos on YouTube that will teach you how to use one.

Is there any unpopular local utensil you know people use? Please share with us in the comment section.

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