From My Wok to Yours - Taking the Mystery Out of Everyday Dining and Meals!!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Chopsticks, Demystified.

In my preparations for hosting dinner for some amazing friends, I was looking through the kitchen cabinets for serving dishes when a thought came to me, "What will we eat with?"

Safest would, of course, be a knife and fork.  However, to try and adhere to the traditional Chinese food meal that we will be having, I would definitely consider presenting chopsticks at the table.  I do, though, want my guests to be able to EAT the food and not spend too much time wrestling with their food before it makes it to their mouth.

CHOPSTICKS, when used properly, are an extension of the fingers. A pair of them is a very versatile set of eating implements. Using them, one can pick up, prod, stir, squeeze, and even tear foods apart. These eating implements have had a long evolution from twigs to their current state, and they were not always the implements of choice for the Chinese. When they did come into use, they were used for serving and getting foods out of pots; they were not intended for eating. That makes sense because their original name, zhu, is a cousin or cognate for one that relates to the word for boil.

Use of early implements in China included fingers and spoons. Ladles, which are really enlarged spoons, were used more for liquids that for solid foods. It was during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE) that chopsticks began lifting solid foods and taking them to the mouth. Spoons were more often used to eat noodles and fingers more often used for rice and other foods. It was not until into the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE) that chopsticks became the main eating implement for virtually all solid foods. It was then that the name kuai zi became the word for this pair of sticks.

Exactly when chopsticks were used the very first time is still a mystery. Historians believe that occurred before the Shang Dynasty, circa the 16th century. We know they were available around 1200 BC because some were found then southeast of Tali in Yunnan. This and other tomb discoveries from that period include bronze and iron artifacts that included many pairs of chopsticks made out of both of these metals. While we know they had chopsticks during that time period, we do not know if they used them daily and certainly do not know all of their purposes.

One might ask, “Were chopsticks only used for ritual purposes? Were they used only by
those ruling the country? Where they used only for specific holidays and special events? Were they used only to lift food out of one or another kind of cooking pot? And if so, was their use limited to a particular kind of food?”

What is known is that diners used them to take meats, vegetables, and other solids out of soup and stew pots. Also known is that eating with fancy chopsticks became a desirable thing to do soon after the first chopsticks were invented. A king of Zhou is said to have used ivory chopsticks. His uncle chided him and said that next he would want to drink out of jade goblets and eat rare animals and other exotica on special dishes. He probably did.

During their early use, chopsticks were not to transport rice or other grains to the mouth. Fingers remained the utensil of choice for those tasks, and did so for hundreds more years.

Today, we call chopsticks kuai zi, which translates to ‘hasten,’ ‘hurry,’ even ‘quick boys.’ Do you know that this new name is not used in the province of Fujian? There, they still use the ancient word zhu for what began in Neolithic times as the use of twig-or-tong-like tools. They became an item that defines many Asian cultures, certainly the Chinese. Seeing chopsticks, does every person know which cultures are associated with them and which with other Asian cultures? Probably not.

Chinese chopsticks are long and usually square on the top with rounded bottoms. They did range from six to ten inches in length, but now are reasonably standard at ten-and-a-quarter inches long, their rounded lower halves slightly tapered. Japanese chopsticks are close to two inches shorter and round from top to bottom. The length of Korean chopsticks ranges from ten to twelve inches in length, most made of stainless steel. Vietnamese chopsticks are more similar to Chinese ones than Japanese ones. Like both of them, most are made of bamboo.

The elite, starting in the Zhou Dynasty (1046 to 256 BCE), delighted in using chopsticks made of expensive materials. Over the years, they ate with those made of ivory, the preferred material in the Guangdong province. Also popular all over China, were chopsticks made of rosewood and sandalwood, polished bone, lacquer, and others made of amber, jade, silver, gold, even rhinoceros horn. Some of the more expensive non-metal ones were tipped in silver. Why? Because people thought silver turned black at the touch of a poison. (Silver does detect hydrogen sulfide released from rotten eggs, but it does not detect arsenic, cyanide, and quite a few other poisons.)

In earlier times, long chopsticks did remove meats and vegetables from cooking pots. That was the task of long ones that ranged from fifteen inches to two feet. Since the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644), shorter ones take foods from plate or bowl to mouth. Now, everyone uses them for rice, noodles, and all foods, and using fingers is not too polite. It is also found to be impolite if one is using one’s chopsticks to take food from a common plate. Restaurants provide service utensils for that. In homes, a family member can use their own chopsticks to take a piece of food from a common plate, but they should not touch any other food. To do so, is considered thoughtless behavior.

How one eats rice correctly is an important social skill. It is correct to lift the rice bowl and place it close to the lips. Also correct is to shovel rice into the mouth with one’s own chopsticks. That requires holding the rice bowl with the left hand and the chopsticks in the right. The Chinese definitely discourage left-handedness. Just think how many would knock the chopsticks out of the hands of others when sitting around a table. In ancient times, that would not be a problem because noodles were eaten with fingers or spoons, and rice was a finger food. Today, both of these are consumed with chopsticks. Imagine how difficult that task is for left-handed people who know that the correct way to eat their noodles is to put the chopsticks in one hand and the spoon in the other. Their chopstick ends do battle with those of the rightie next to them.

Chopsticks are never used as knife and fork - that is one in each hand. And, they never are used to stab a food. That is an acceptable in Japanese style, but considered rude by Chinese standards. There are other do’s and don’ts of chopstick use. Some of these include:
       ·        Never stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl because upright sticks resemble incense used to honor the dead.
·        Never take food from someone else’s chopsticks, you get their germs with the food.
·        Never use chopsticks for decor such as in one’s hair because these may look pretty, but this dishonors the food they are intended for.
·        Also, do not cross your chopsticks because that can mean death or ‘the end.’ In some restaurants, chopsticks crossed at a table tell the waiter your meal has ended.
Using chopsticks correctly is a sign of good parenting. The further towards the top they are held, the more gracious and glamorous your eating style. Grasping them too tightly reduces leverage and makes eating less pretty. And, if the bottoms of both sticks are not exactly even, food can slip away and make the eater look sloppy. That is why at a Chinese table, there is lots of tapping as people even the ends of their chopsticks.

People tell fortunes with chopsticks. Those who handle theirs with three fingers are considered easy going. For young women, particularly those in Taiwan, the higher up they are held, the farther away such a woman settles when married. Holding them low on the sticks means the person is conservative; holding them higher up means a more active nature, and higher up also means such a person likes many kinds of food. If they are held with all five fingers means that person is destined for greatness; only four fingers and good omens are ahead. Hold them at the tippy-top and that person is a big risk taker. Young children who use them correctly show and tell theirs is a good brain.

There are phrases about chopsticks that also speak. Borrowing chopsticks speaks of standing in for someone else. Give expensive chopsticks and the message is that the receiver is straight and upright. And there are rules for chopsticks that speak, too. To be proper, never lick your chopsticks. Turn yours around and use the square end to serve food to someone else if no serving chopsticks appear on your table.

Eating, even with chopsticks, has always been serious business to the Chinese. Make sure you never fool around with your chopsticks. Not even with disposable ones.

Until then, Eat Well, Friends!!
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