How To Use Chopsticks
You may pick up a pair of chopsticks to slurp up some noodles or enjoy a plate of sushi. But far from being just a useful eating tool, chopsticks are also a cultural symbol that reflects the unique traditions of people across Asia. Read on to find out how to hold and use chopsticks, their origin, and their environmental impact.
When I first moved to a new country, I yearned for a pair of chopsticks. It was a form of homesickness; a longing for the simple pleasure of sharing a meal with my family around the table. What I’ve come to realise is that chopsticks themselves are more than just a dining tool — they are a manifestation of the cultures that have used them for centuries.
Chopsticks vary across cultures
Though chopsticks are common across many Asian countries, each culture has its own take on them. The earliest chopsticks were made of materials such as bronze or bone and ivory, though such expensive materials are rarely used these days.
For the Chinese, chopsticks tend to have round edges — like a thin cylinder with a consistent diameter and blunt ends — and they are most commonly made from bamboo or plastic.1 They have to be long because Chinese people prefer to eat communally while sharing multiple dishes at a round table.2 In contrast, the Japanese mainly use wooden chopsticks that are tapered and shorter in length—all the better for handling foods that require more delicate movements, such as bony fish.3
Koreans, on the other hand, prefer to make their eating utensils out of metal. Their chopsticks are flatter in shape to reduce the amount of metal needed, and to keep the sticks light enough to handle deftly. In addition, Korean chopsticks come as a set with a metal spoon, since Koreans usually eat their rice with a spoon rather than chopsticks.4
Chopstick table manners
Each culture also has their own set of table manners, though there are some general rules that will usually apply for whenever you’re eating with chopsticks. For example, it’s considered rude to point your chopsticks at fellow diners, and spearing food onto your chopsticks is generally frowned upon.5 Also, you should never stick chopsticks upright into a bowl of food: doing so is disrespectful, as it recalls the image of burning incense in a pot—a practice meant for paying respect to deceased ancestors, and decidedly not for the dining table.6
HOW TO HOLD YOUR CHOPSTICKS
Infographic by Paulina Cerna-Fraga
How chopsticks made it to the table
Many of us might think of chopsticks as predating cutlery, but historically speaking, eating with chopsticks is a relatively new addition to Chinese and Asian cuisine. At first, chopsticks were instead primarily used for stirring food during cooking, whereas spoons were the chief utensil when eating.7, 8
This was largely because, for hundreds of years, millet was the most widely consumed grain in China - eaten as porridge using a spoon. Chopsticks did not gain a place at the table until the 10th century, when the advent of wheat and milled flour opened up exciting new avenues for Chinese cuisine. This gave birth to foods like dumplings and noodles, which are more conveniently eaten with chopsticks than spoons. 10
Manipulating chopsticks to pick up food requires fine motor skills and brain-hand coordination, arguably more so than the use of forks and knives. Asian children learn to eat with chopsticks around the ages of 3-5 years, and there is evidence that using chopsticks improves children’s dexterity—possibly helping in brain development as well.12 ,13
Around this time, rice also took its place as a staple in Chinese dining. Cooked rice was sticky and clumpy enough to be transported from bowl to mouth by chopsticks, and spoons quickly lost their title as the most popular eating utensil, since chopsticks were more versatile. Later, the use of chopsticks spread to other neighbouring countries in Asia alongside the political influence of China and the travels of Buddhist monks.11
It seems that during the Sui (581–618 CE) and Tang (618–690 CE) dynasties in China, elaborately decorated silver chopsticks came into fashion amongst the rich and powerful. Many believed that the silver would change to black if there were arsenic and other poisons in their food - but in fact, silver can actually change turn colour if it comes into contact with a wide range of foods, including onions, and garlic! 9
Considering their long legacy, it’s no surprise that around 1.5 billion people still use chopsticks to eat on a daily basis. Most of these people are concentrated in the “chopsticks cultural sphere” of Asia, but it’s becoming increasingly common for people outside the continent to take up chopsticks to enjoy all kinds of Asian cuisine in their own countries.
5 other useful ways to use chopsticks
Infographic by Paulina Cerna-Fraga
Disposable chopsticks and their environmental impact
For many people outside Asia, their first encounter with chopsticks will probably be the disposable, break-apart kind you’ll find at your local sushi bar. Disposable wooden chopsticks, or waribashi, were invented in Japan in 1878 as a cheap and convenient alternative to reusable chopsticks, and have become increasingly common in Asian eateries:2 China now produces an estimated 80 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks a year, half of which are consumed in China while the rest are exported to Japan, Korea and other international markets.14
Environmental impact of single-use chopsticks
The sad reality of single-use utensils is that they have a huge impact on the natural environment, and disposable chopsticks are no exception. Close to 20 million slow-growing trees such as cotton wood, birch, and spruce are cut down annually to make disposable chopsticks, leaving behind emptied forestland that will take decades to regrow. Deforestation on such a large scale robs wild animals of their homes and erodes the soil of surrounding areas.15 Disposable chopsticks that are made from wood are treated with paraffin, hydrogen peroxide or sulphur dioxide during manufacturing. This process bleaches the wood and inhibits the growth of mould, but it also makes them non-biodegradable, ensuring they will languish in landfills for years.16
There isn’t much reason to use disposable chopsticks when reusable ones are affordable, widely available, and come in a plentiful array of colours, materials, and sizes. I make sure to keep a pair with me wherever I go—it’s better for the environment, as well as a handy reminder of the heritage I hold dear.
Do you use chopsticks for cooking or eating? Tell us in the comments below!