Samui Wining & Dining
Easy Pickup

Why Chopsticks are here to stay.

 

7Any fool knows what chopsticks are. They’re bits of wood you eat with aren’t they? Yes, that’s right. But there’s a bit more to it than that. Chopsticks are small even-length tapered sticks, and are the traditional eating utensils of East Asia. China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam are known as the four ‘chopstick countries’. (In Thailand they are commonly used just for eating noodles since the introduction of Western utensils by King Rama V in the 19th century.) They are commonly made from wood, bamboo, metal, bone or ivory, and in modern times, plastic as well. Bamboo has been the most popular because it’s inexpensive, readily available, easy to split, resistant to heat, and has no perceptible odour or taste. It is believed that silver chopsticks were used in Chinese royal palaces to detect poison (possibly toxic metallic oxides). If poison existed, the chopsticks would blacken. It is now known that silver has no reaction to arsenic or cyanide, but if rotten eggs, onion or garlic are used, the hydrogen sulphide they release might cause the chopsticks to change colour.

    While the precise origins of chopsticks are unknown, there are several legends. In Chinese folklore it is said that two farmers were cast out from their village. They hid deep in the woods searching for food until one day they came upon a storehouse with meat. Stealing some of the meat, they cooked it over a fire. When the meat was done and a delicious aroma filled the air, they used sticks to pull the hot meat off the bone, rather than wait for the meat to cool. Thus chopsticks were born

      Chinese chopsticks, called kuai-zi (quick little fellows), could be as old as 5,000 years. They were definitely in use by the Shang Dynasty (1766 BC – 1122 BC). Their popularity could stem from Confucius who said “The honourable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives on his table.” I’m sure not all of us agree with the ancient philosopher, after all, many of the great chefs preparing your meals today will be men!

       His dislike of knives is understandable. He equated knives with acts of aggression, which went against his non-violent teachings. The enduring popularity of chopsticks since those times may actually be linked to Chinese cooking methods. Before stir-frying, the food is cut into tiny pieces, making it easy to manipulate.

       Each of the four main chopstick countries differs slightly in their chopstick design. Chinese ones taper to a rounded end, and are around ten inches long (these are the ones used in Thailand). Japanese (hashi) sticks are shorter and taper to a pointed end. Korean (jeotgarak) ones are of medium length, made from stainless steel, aluminium, silver and even brass. Wooden versions are also used in cooking, and disposable wooden chopsticks are delivered with home delivery food. In Vietnam (dũa) they tend to be long, taper to a blunt end, and are traditionally wooden.

      But, how do you use them? With difficulty many people would reply! Often we will give up after a few attempts, either because we don’t want to look silly, or we are just plain hungry and want to get on with eating.

      Here’s one technique you can try: grasp one chopstick like a pencil but a little higher up. Keeping the chopstick in the same position, lift up your index finger so that it is free to move. Still keeping the chopstick in the same position, shift your thumb so that its tip is above the chopstick (the chopstick will stay in place by the pressure of your thumb pushing it against the side of your middle finger). This chopstick remains stationary at all times. Place the second chopstick between the tip of your thumb and index finger and move it up and down. If the ends fail to line up, it will be difficult to hold things. It may feel awkward at first but it does get easier! But definitely the best way to learn is by asking a Thai person while you’re here. They’ll take great pleasure in patiently teaching you, and you’ll take back an Oriental art!

      As far as etiquette is concerned, there are quite a few ‘rules’. But don’t be overly concerned. It is common, and acceptable, for Westerners to use a spoon and fork as well. It can be quite tedious to try and pick up rice, grain by grain, but it is not expected of you to utilise chopsticks in this manner. Thai sticky rice is easier to manage though. If a dish is prepared in such a way that an item is too small or too big to be picked up with chopsticks, then it is not designed to be eaten that way. When you have finished your meal or are resting, don’t stand chopsticks in a bowl of rice or anything else because the act resembles part of a traditional funeral rite. And try not to wave them around as if you were conducting a philharmonic orchestra. Also auditioning for a role as drummer with a rock band would be impolite, undoubtedly funny to some, but still impolite!

      Certainly chopsticks have been around longer than any other manufactured eating implement, and a large proportion of the world’s population uses them every day. Will they still be around in years to come? They will if you keep practicing!

    
Rob De Wet


 


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