The Origin of Chopsticks

Although it may seem odd, chopsticks are designed to be convenient for eating rice. Unlike the fluffy long grain rice that most Westerners are accustomed to, traditional Asian rice is a short or medium grain. The starch levels in these varieties create a more sticky and clumpy texture that’s easier to pick up with chopsticks.

Welcome to the second Delicious History Prize Post. Today’s topic was chosen by the lovely Aaron Podmore as a reward for donating to the podcast project.

Aaron was interested in the history behind a wide array of eating utensils, but after some initial research I discovered so many interesting facts that I couldn’t possibly fit them all into one blog post. As a result, I’ve decided to start an entire series on the subject  in order to satiate both my and Aaron’s interest. Today we’re going to kick it off with a look into the origin of the chopstick.

Created roughly 5,000 years ago in China, the earliest versions of chopsticks were used for cooking (they’re perfect for reaching into deep pots full of hot water or oil) and were most likely made from twigs. It wasn’t until 400 AD that they began being used as utensils, which was due to a population boom across the country. Consequently, resources became incredibly scarce and cooks began to cut their food into smaller pieces. The bite sized morsels rendered knives obsolete, as there was very little left to cut. However, they were now perfect for eating with chopsticks. Thus, a trend was born.

The knife’s decline in popularity can also be attributed to the teachings of Confucius, who was a vegetarian. He believed that that they weren’t appropriate to eat with because they would remind eaters of warfare, violence and slaughterhouses. As he himself said, ”The honorable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen.  And he allows no knives on his table.”

Within a mere 100 years, chopsticks had migrated to other Asian countries, such as Japan, Korea and Vietnam. One distinct difference between Japanese and Chinese chopsticks was that the former were made from a single piece of bamboo that were joined at the base. In addition, Japanese chopsticks were originally used solely for religious ceremonies. Regardless of their differences, chopsticks remained popular in both countries and are still the primary utensil of choice.

Can’t get enough historical chopstick trivia? Check out some of these awesome bonus facts:

– Silver chopsticks were sometimes used during Chinese dynastic times in order to prevent food poisoning. It was believed that they utensils would turn black if they came into contact with any life threatening toxins. Unfortunately for those engaging in this practise, silver doesn’t turn black when it touches the likes of cyanide and or arsenic. However, it most definitely can change colour if touched by garlic, onion or rotten eggs – all of which release hydrogen sulfide which reacts to silver. This would have undoubtedly led to some awkward situations and/or accidental executions. Whoops.

– Chopsticks are not commonly used in Thailand, which is a common Western misconception.

– The ruins of Yin provide both the earliest examples of Chinese writing as well as the first known chopsticks. They were a bronze set that were found in one of the tombs at the site.

– Korean superstition states that the closer to the tip that you hold your chopsticks, the longer you will remain unwed.

– In traditional Chinese culture,it’s poor etiquette to:

  • Spear your food with your chopstick.
  • Dig around in your food for a particular item. This is referred to as “digging your grave” and is considered extremely rude.
  • Tap your chopsticks on the edge of your bowl. This is what beggars do to attract attention.

Can you use chopsticks? Do you love them? Hate them? Do you feel superior to other white folk when you utilise them in an Asian restaurant? Tell me all about your chopstick adventures in the coments!