Samui Wining & Dining
A Tale of Two Chopsticks

Stories and myths about the Asian cutlery for both skilled and novice users.

 

9Under the roof of the bonkers circus that was the Wong household, lived a bunch of eccentrics that made The Addams Family looked like a bundle of yawning vegetables. Growing up in that berserk environment, where chopsticks were weapons and incense was fragrance, I can now take pride in my learnt aloofness in dealing with peculiar social situations. Since we are on the subject of chopsticks, let us travel to a special day in the past to visit one of those 'mellower' Wong dinners, when the meal didn’t actually result in a full eruption of the Krakatoa.

    It all started with my walking skeleton of an aunt voicing concern for my 'chopstick-like' figure. This aunt had no idea how to communicate with her ADHD daughter of joy, and the psychologist must have told the mother she ought to foster a mutual interest in order to bond with the restless teen. Somehow, that interest manifested in me. Bullying me, to be precise. Anyway, back to the table, taking a cue from my aunt’s eloquent comment regarding my physique,

the cousin began to ferry layers and layers of meat into my rice bowl – with much chopstick skill, speed and finesse to impress a seasoned Pizza Hut salad loader – until the tower finally quadrupled my body weight. Note that leaving food unfinished is considered blasphemous in a Cantonese bowl, and reluctantly I was obliged to start scoffing like a hot dog eating champion. In between breaths, I glanced up to see my manic depressive mother staring and weeping at me. Her illness had been chronic, and since I was so accustomed to the frequent opening of her floodgate, I simply asked: “You okay?”

      Unfortunately she didn’t receive my empathy positively. She proceeded to throw down her chopsticks and wailed in hiccups: “You hold… your chopsticks… so close… to the end. You’re going to… grow up… alienating your family...” I should have known better not to ask, since the best medicine for her was a smile and silence. I forced a grimace and reversed one chopstick so that I was neither holding one stick too close to the end, or the other too close to the tip.

      Meanwhile, my father’s unquenchable quest for belly pork had generated gravity for the stir fried kale and crispy pork. As the plate lurched closer and closer to my father, he began to 'grave dig' – a term used to describe the frowned-upon act of cherry picking food. At the precise moment his unhinged tongs sequestered a prized piece of meat, my humourless grandfather dead-panned and chopstick-slapped his son's wrist with so much force that the ivory weapon was sent missile-like towards my two-year-old baby brother’s face, leaving a dent on his left cheek. What was a high-chair sitting baby supposed to do, apart from bellowing an eardrum-splitting thunder? To add to the commotion, my father was now yelling repeatedly “What did you do that for?” at his own father, while my bullying aunt was snapping at my hysterical mother for ruining the dinner atmosphere... thus presenting a golden opportunity for my tower of meat to return to the main dishes. Although it is true that 'Nobody puts baby in the corner', Chinese babies grow up getting stabbed by chopsticks all the time, and the two-year-old had just better stop crying and get used to it. What doesn’t kill you only make you stronger, kid.

       reflect some bona fide chopsticks traditions. Us Chinese often label spindly long legs as chopstick legs, and we really do think that the higher one grips their chopsticks, the more heartless one is. Chinese literature routinely symbolises the 'throwing down' of the chopsticks as anger and frustration. Clan elders are infamous for their intolerance towards awful table manners. Finally, cherry picking with the chopsticks is genuinely called grave digging.

      Indeed, there are many chopstick tales to add to the fascinating appeal of the bamboo cutlery. The most celebrated one being the silver chopsticks. The ancient rich and famous would eat only with their personalised silver chopsticks, whether in their house or at a restaurant. Since silver tarnishes easily in the presence of poison – which often comes in cyanide served with noodles and a smile – officials and tradesmen relied heavily on their silver chopsticks to extend their life expectancy.

      And if you have a farang friend who is blind to the charm of the chopsticks, tell them this story. During the Ming dynasty, a group of 'red beards, green eyes' – a Chinese term for foreigners – was paying pilgrimage to an Imperial trade official. At an elaborate state banquet, the chief of the group let slip that the Chinese ought to modernise their trade, as well as their old-fashioned chopsticks. “Rather barbaric of you to eat with such a backward tool of two simple makeshift sticks, no?” suggested the foreign diplomat. Upon hearing this, the Chinese official merely reacted by eloquently ferrying a tiny peanut into his mouth using chopsticks, and said: “It is in line with our hospitality that our guests may spear food with miniature weapons – knives and forks – as they wish. We respect your huntsman culture even if your antagonistic way of eating contradicts our humble liking.” The foreigner, worried his miscalculated comment was going to sabotage his country’s trade interests, ordered the entire entourage to master their chopsticks.

      It’s never too late to learn a skill, and if you still don't know how the chopsticks work; it's easy. First of all, hold the upper chopstick as you would a pencil, and insert the bottom stick between the middle and the ring finger. Secure the bottom stick by clutching softly at the base of the thumb. Aim to grip the chopsticks a quarter of the way down from the top (and not too close to the bottom, or one risks looking like a clueless bear doing Sudoku). Aim the travelling chopsticks at a non-slip piece of sizeable meat, such as a chunk of steak. Move only the upper stick by wriggling the middle finger, and grip by applying force on the index finger. Practice makes perfect, and once you have mastered the technicality of picking up pieces of steak, sea bass and omelette, you will soon be able to pick up fish balls, peas and even marbles too.

      Finally, to avoid repeating the aforementioned Wong woes over the dinner table, here are a few points of etiquettes to bear in mind:

                  1. Even if you’re left-handed, try to be a right-hand chopstick user to avoid elbowing your neighbour on a round Chinese dinner table.

                  2. Do not wave your chopsticks around. You’re not Harry Potter.

                 3. Sticking chopsticks in a bowl of rice is like sticking incense in a bowl of tribute rice. Nobody around the table is dead enough to be

                      worshipped yet.

                 4. Don’t spear with your chopsticks. If the stubborn food refused to be picked up, use a spoon.

                 5. Lastly… Even I, as a Chinese myself, don’t operate the chopsticks perfectly. Unless you have an angry dad like my father’s,

                     don’t worry too much about correctness. Just enjoy your meal.

 

 

Kawai Wong


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