"I never learned to wield chopsticks with dexterity or skill, as if they were graceful extensions of my fingers. Get it right, and no morsel of food, great or small, slippery or sticky, is beyond your reach."
Audra Ang - The Guardian
Nixon tried back in the day and apparently his efforts encouraged other Americans to try. It's actually a lovely photo - look at the look of nervous curiosity on Nixon's face and the skill with which his counterpart of the time - Chou en-Lai handles his. Those were the days - back when the Chinese were reasonable people and even Tricky Dicky looked like a statesman.
I put myself in the same category as Nixon. Whenever I have a Chinese meal with my fellow Italian students - well two of them are Asian and they organise it all - I am very nervous and generally end up using the tactfully supplied fork. So why on earth would I write about chopsticks?
Well, inspired by that kitchen tips video and the very nifty way of making gnocchi the right shape with chopsticks I decided to search around to see if I had any. And I found the ones I had vaguely remembered. Here they are. They were bought as mini gifts for my book group friends on a trip to the Brighton Pavilion back in 2010. At the time, most of our members took trips overseas in our winter months and it had become a tradition to bring back bookmarks for the other members of the group. I had searched everywhere in my two weeks in England, having forgotten all about it whilst in France, and had not been able to find anything suitable. And there in the Brighton Pavilion souvenir shop were these little packs of chopsticks - yes I know, not bookmarks - but somehow following my weird train of thought, I thought they would do.
The ones above are the leftovers. It was really for the cases that I bought them of course - I suppose they could be used as bookmarks - and they are as gaudily flashy as the Pavilion itself which is actually rather more Indian looking as a building than Chinese. Well Moghul anyway. Anyway I shall now store these chopsticks away for the next time I make gnocchi. They certainly won't be used for eating.
But then the original chopsticks which date back to 1200BC were used for cooking. They were not used for eating until around 400BC. And yes we are talking China here. They spread from China into the rest of South-east Asia shortly after they began to be used for eating in China. The bronze chopsticks that were found and on which the original date is based were longer - long enough to reach into a pot of boiling liquid to remove things. Some people think that originally they would have been sticks used for the purpose of fishing things like meat out of a boiling cauldron. It is interesting though isn't it, that the Asians would have devised this solution to the problem whilst others devised other methods - a spear, a long knife? It is also interesting that its use as a cooking implement - not just to fish things out of hot liquid, but also to move things around in a wok or similar pan, evolved into its use as an eating implement. I mean that's a long time between 1200BC and 400BC. If there's a connection to be made why not make it before?
The generally accepted reason for the adoption of chopsticks for eating is the following:
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." Stephanie Butler - History
The implication is that prior to that point in time people just ate with their hands - which they still do today in India and the Middle-east. And Confucius is given the blame for not using knives and forks:
"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, contented mood that should reign during meals." Stephanie Butler - History
Thailand is now the only South-east Asian country I think, maybe the Phillipines too, that doesn't use chopsticks. But they are all different. Different lengths, pointed, blunt, different materials, different rules ... Wikipedia lists all the differences quite succinctly. In the past at one point the aristocrats used silver because they believed the silver would change colour if the food was poisoned. The way they are used in all these different countries is different too - do you bring the bowl up or leave it on the table, to slurp or not to slurp...? It's a minefield, that the website Everything chopsticks will help you negotiate.
"Then there is the long list of chopsticks don'ts: don't point with them, don't spear food with them, don't use them to tap your bowl; only beggars do that." Audra Ang - The Guardian
Plus the superstitions. Audra Ang has a few:
"There are also many superstitions attached to them: dropping chopsticks is bad luck, sticking them upright in your rice is taboo because of the imagery of incense sticks at funeral altars, and finding an uneven pair means you're going to miss transport."
But if you really want to know the legends, and origins, and etiquette, then China Culture Tour has it all.
Including how it is written in Chinese - now and then. The English term, according to Wikipedia either comes from the Chinese pidgin phrase 'chop chop' which means quick, or 'chow chow' which means food. The Chinese word kuài means quick so I think I'm going with the chop chop version. Chopsticks therefore equals quick sticks. Which is a modern expression to mean 'hurry up' isn't it? Isn't language wonderful?
The Asians are definitely very quick with them. Well they learn from a very early stage it seems. I think they have special, thicker chopsticks to train them with. Maybe that''s what we should do - at home anyway. It would be a bit embarrassing to use them in public. The Chinese children seem to master them pretty quickly though. I've certainly seen very small Chinese children in Chinese restaurants here wielding chopsticks with great skill.
It sometimes looks a bit of a messy way of eating, but then I guess we are equally messy - particularly when it comes to eating things like spaghetti - or soup. There's a tendency to slurp soup.
I guess we all think the way our culture does things is the right way and I do certainly feel that chopsticks are somehow unnatural. But then you look at the picture above and you see the Chinese wielding them with skill and you have to admit that it's an equally valid way of eating.
And chopsticks are actually a very current problem for the Chinese for two reasons. Firstly the majority of chopsticks used in restaurants, street stalls, and cafés are disposable and made from wood, bamboo or plastic. This is environmentally unsound - it takes twenty years to grow the trees. And we all know about plastic. There is a move by the government to make people use their own chopsticks - a bit like the move to make people use their own coffee mugs here. With the same resistance from the populace of course. But remember way, way back, aristocrats used to take their own set of eating implements with them to banquets. But good luck with that one.
Then there is the current COVID problem. Eating Chinese food in a restaurant as we all know, usually means large groups of people dipping into the food on the central lazy susan with their chopsticks - just like Chou en-Lai in the photograph at the top of the page. And the Chinese seem to do a lot of this communal kind of eating. Well it goes without saying really that this is not a safe way of carrying on in the present circumstances. The government is encouraging serving spoons to be used rather than one's own chopsticks. But good luck with that one too I should think. I mean how can you enforce that?
"In China, chopsticks are as quintessential to life and culture as tea and rice or noodles (depending on whether you're in the north or south)." Audra Ang - The Guardian