Tracing the origin of chopsticks and how it became the staple utensil of China
Words Yvonne Jacob
One of the things on my personal to-do list is to learn how to use chopsticks. Really. Thanks to the lockdown and the constant need to be occupied with something, I’ve tried the #DalgonaChallenge and #BananaBreadChallenge but what next? So, I made a to-do list as an attempt to learn a few things during the lockdown, one of them being, learning how to use chopsticks. I remember when my college friends and I got together, and we decided to make Maggi around midnight. For some reason, one of them suggested we use chopsticks because why not? I never knew what real struggle was until then. Of course, I’m overexaggerating, but it was tough, alright. I eventually had to switch to a trustworthy fork even after each one of my friends gave me a demo on using chopsticks. Clearly, I am that person who’ll go to the extent of stabbing her food with a chopstick to get it. But I’m sure people would’ve suffered from the same plight back in 1200 B.C.E.!
That’s right. Chopsticks found their way to the Chinese dinner table around 3000 years ago. But they weren’t used as eating utensils at that time. The Chinese used twigs to stir food in pots and for stirring boiling water since it was safe and convenient. It was around the time when China’s population saw an upward growth when there came a need for conserving resources. That’s where the concept of having smaller, bite-sized food that would require lesser fuel to cook came in. The new method of cooking made it unnecessary for people to use knives to cut their meat.
Somewhere, this practice also suited the non-violent teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius’ anti-knife beliefs. According to Confucius, who was known to be a vegetarian, the usage of knives at the dinner table was a reminder of the slaughterhouse. One of his quotes also states that “The honourable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives on his table."
Chopsticks vary throughout Asian cultures. In Japan, bamboo chopsticks were adopted in 500 C.E. for religious ceremonies. Japanese chopsticks are also comparatively shorter and sharper as they are a particularly important utensil to have Japan’s main food: fish. Sharper chopsticks made it easier for the Japanese to remove fish bones and the fact that their chopsticks were short was actually because they usually eat individual portions and not shared ones. I can think of one character who would be happy with this idea of not sharing food. Can you hear him screaming “Joey doesn’t share food,” already?
Strangely enough, there are some superstitions around chopsticks too! People believe that if you find an uneven pair of chopsticks at your table setting, it means you are going to (not even “you might”) miss a boat, plane or a train. A Korean superstition says that the closer you hold your chopsticks towards the tip, the longer you are likely to stay unmarried. Makes me think, dodging marriage-related questions would be a lot easier in Korea. You can just blame it on your chopstick skills!
Now that we all have learnt something about the history of these utensils, who’s up for learning how to use them? Maybe we could do this with the next story and celebrate with a big bento box after the lockdown!