Eat with your eyes first!
Although I didn’t grow up around them, something about chopsticks always fascinated me. There’s just something about eating with chopsticks that makes you seem more elegant than you really are (or maybe it’s subconsciously knowing that you have better dexterity than 90% of people).
Somehow, my love for chopsticks waned these past few years. In fact, it was only until a midnight Japanese food run that I began taking notice of chopsticks again. As I mentioned in my previous article, I’ve since dusted off the chopsticks I had hiding in my storage, and now I’m back to being fully obsessed.
In the course of researching about the best chopsticks to add to my flatware collection, I stumbled upon a few interesting tidbits about chopsticks and regions; namely, the differences in sizes, lengths, and styles depending on the country of origin. And since sharing is caring, I thought I’d write up a quick (and hopefully informative) article to get all of you to board this chopstick train that I’m currently on.
The Where and Why of Chopsticks
Chopsticks were developed about 5,000 years ago in China, and their usage spread throughout East Asia—specifically Japan, Taiwan, the Koreas, and Vietnam. Contrary to popular belief, Thais eat with spoons and forks (unless they’re eating noodles, which is a dish with Chinese origins). Mongolia, although technically a part of East Asia, traditionally used chopsticks called savkh but phased them out in favor of traditional western flatware, most likely due to Soviet influence.
The popularity of chopsticks may have been in part due to Confucius (yes, that Confucius), who hated the thought of the knife. Forever the pacifist and vegetarian, Confucius supposedly banned knives from his table, a practice that soon spread throughout China.
Because of its elongated nature, the daily use of the humble chopstick began in the kitchen. The two sticks proved very effective in reaching food through pots of boiling water or oil. And because meat and vegetables were cut up into pieces to cook faster (rendering table knives all but useless), chopsticks soon became the de facto utensil to eat with in the Sinosphere.
Let’s Talk About Styles
By now you should all know that chopsticks come in many different materials like bamboo, steel, fiberglass, and even ivory (note that I don’t support the ivory trade in any shape or form). But speaking of shape and form, did you know that chopsticks come in many different styles as well?
Chinese chopsticks, or kuàizi in Pinyin, are about 25 cm in length and rectangular in shape. The length makes it easier to eat food on a communal table, which is how Chinese traditionally eat with family. Because they’re made quite flat and with blunt ends, I feel like they are relatively easier to use than your average chopstick.
During the dynastic period, Chinese chopsticks were made out of materials such as bamboo and silver. Silver was used because of the mistaken belief that it turns black when it comes into contact with poison. Newsflash: silver does not, in fact, turn black when it touches poison, but it does turn dark when it comes into contact with garlic, onions, rotten eggs, or anything that releases hydrogen sulfide. Oops.
In Japan, chopsticks are often shorter and pointier than their Chinese counterparts. The length is especially highlighted when it comes to dining as a woman or a child, because it’s common for females and children to get even shorter chopsticks than the average.
Japanese chopsticks are often made out of bamboo or other types of wood, which are then lacquered. These highly decorative and lacquered wooden chopsticks, known as nuribashi, are tapered to a fine point and almost always contain grooves at the eating end to prevent food from slipping.
The style of these chopsticks, which are the second shortest in Asia (with the exception of Nepalese chopsticks, which are only ever used for eating noodles), is often attributed to the fact that the Japanese diet largely consists of bony fish. The shorter length and the finer point makes it easier to pick out small bones from the food.
Korean chopsticks are personally the most distinguishable, since they’re oftentimes made out of metal and come accompanied with a spoon in a set known as sujeo. This chopstick and spoon combination, a setting that was phased out in China long ago, makes it way easier to consume rice and soups—something that I, a person who doesn’t have a lot of practice with chopsticks, greatly appreciate.
Traditionally, Korean chopsticks were made from materials such as bronze, silver (again for its supposed detecting properties), and bamboo, although nowadays metal chopsticks made out of stainless steel are primarily used.
Because the Korean chopstick is made out of stainless steel, they’re heavier than their East Asian counterparts. They’re also made with a rougher grip around the eating ends, which helps when dealing with the slip of a metal chopstick. As a plus, they’re considered more hygienic than most other chopsticks, since stainless steel is a non-porous material.
In Vietnam, chopsticks (or đũa) are made similarly to those in China, except sometimes even longer. Vietnamese chopsticks are primarily made out of lacquered wood or bamboo, with blunt ends to assist in picking up food.
Although wooden chopsticks are popular all throughout the country, many people still eat with the western fork, knife, and spoon. This is due to the decades of colonization and western influence prevalent in the region.
So what kind of chopsticks catch your eye? Personally, I love the heavily decorated and lacquered Japanese wooden chopsticks and I’m dying to add a few to my collection. How about you?