For those learning to use chopsticks, it’s like being a toddler again.
Although many Asian cultures have used them for thousands of years, new users may struggle to learn how to hold them and pick up food. Learn about the history of these perplexing eating utensils and how to use them in different cultures.
What Are Chopsticks?
Chopsticks are eating utensils used in Asia, especially China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand. They consist of two sticks made of wood, metal, bone, ivory or jade, with the material depending on the owner’s wealth and preferences. Today, chopsticks can be found in the hands of billions of hungry eaters, and they most likely originated in the Shang Dynasty, circa 1766-1122 years B.C.E.
This makes chopsticks about 5,000 years old. Scholars believe they originated in China during a fuel shortage. Meat was cut into small pieces so it would cook faster and preserve fuel. Chopsticks were the perfect solution for picking up the tiny pieces of meat and vegetables.
Different Kinds of Chopsticks
There are many types of chopsticks, which vary by nation. All countries that use chopsticks make them in different styles for different hand sizes. Chopsticks used at mealtimes are sometimes quite beautiful and some owners personalize theirs.
In China, the first chopsticks were box-shaped and blunt and most still are today. Japanese chopsticks are pointed at the end that comes in contact with food, whereas Korean ones follow the shape of the Chinese utensils.
Some chopsticks are used as hair ornaments. You can find hair chopsticks in any store with hair accessories or make your own from real chopsticks.
How to Use Chopsticks
Chopsticks are easy to use — once you get the hang of it. The English name derives from the pidgin word, chop, meaning quick. In Chinese, the word for chopsticks is Kuai-tzu, meaning quick ones.
To use them, hold the chopsticks between the left thumb and forefingers of the right hand — use the left hand if you are left-handed. Typically, the bottom stick remains stationary and you use the top one like a pincer to trap the food. Open them up and practice grabbing small portions of food between the sticks. Eventually, you get enough into your mouth to fill an empty belly.
There are plenty of rules to follow when using chopsticks, such as:
- Eaters shouldn’t use them to play with their food.
- Users should refrain from moving plates with chopsticks
- Only communal utensils should be used to take communal food, not chopsticks
- It’s rude to beat a plate with a chopstick
- Crossing chopsticks results in a pattern that looks like the Chinese word for death.
In Japan, you should never stick chopsticks into food. This looks like a funeral incense offering. In China, it’s perfectly fine to pick up a rice bowl and shovel rice in your mouth with chopsticks. In Korea, this shows poor manners.
Korean chopsticks are usually stainless steel, whereas those in Japan and China are created from natural materials. Metal can be slippery, so Korean chopsticks are rough at the ends to make them easier to use. They also are smaller than the Chinese and Japanese versions.
As legend has it, the preference for metal stemmed from a habit of an ancient Korean king. He only used pure silver chopsticks since it was believed that silver would change color if anyone tried to poison the king.
The next time you order Chinese take out, ask them to bring chopsticks so you can try them in the privacy of your own home. Then, you can wow your family with your new skill and a cool story about their origins.