What do you reach for when you’re having a meal? Fork? Spoon? Or do you use your nimble fingers to grip a pair of wands to bring food up to your mouth?
The use of chopsticks dates back to the 4th century B.C. It is very common amongst Southern Asians to use chopsticks, or 筷子(faai zi). However, many people who use chopsticks are unaware of their history. There are actually many styles of chopsticks. The three main styles, blunt, pointed, and metal, are used in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean culture, respectively.
The chopsticks used by the Chinese are wooden and blunt-ended. They are also long because Chinese people share their food and must often reach across the table for the dishes that are farther away. Long chopsticks also make eating hot pot (a dinner where you boil everything in a broth) a little easier, but everyone knows that no matter how skilled you are, you will get burned a little.
I live in a Chinese immigrant family. Every night we have a home cooked dinner: five to six dishes on the table, and so many chopsticks moving at once.
“Nobody taught me how to use them,” my grandmama said. “Using chopsticks was natural. I had to shave bamboo shoots to make my own.” Like my grandmother, I don’t remember learning how to use chopsticks; it was just part of my upbringing. We didn’t have forks until I was in middle school. However, I could always reach for chopsticks and didn’t worry about making my own.
According to Japanese website Naver Matome, the Japanese do not share their food because it reminds them of a funeral tradition where the family would remove the last bones from their loved ones’ ashes. Their chopsticks are therefore shorter. Within a Japanese household, everyone has their own pair of chopsticks. Japanese chopsticks are also different from Chinese ones because of how dainty they are. They feel very light in one’s hand and very smooth to use. Their chopsticks are pointed because Japan is an island filled with fish, and this makes it easier to pick around the bones.
Korean chopsticks, in contrast, are mostly made of metal. Historian Edward Wang says the ruling class during the 7th century was worried about their food being poisoned by their enemies, so they used silver chopsticks, because they would supposedly turn black if they came into contact with arsenic. My experience with Korean chopsticks is that they are very heavy; eating with them makes me feel clumsy because my fingers aren’t used to the weight.
Asian food culture has entered the global mainstream. However, it’s pretty typical for non-Asian consumers to unknowingly use the wrong kind of chopsticks for their meal. This brings up the question—is it rude to eat a Chinese meal with Korean chopsticks?
“I don’t think it is rude to use the different types of chopsticks interchangeably,” said Wang. “I anticipate the trend to continue and even expand, for after Chinese food, Japanese and Vietnamese foods are increasingly more popular around the world.” As I see people of all different backgrounds using chopsticks, I have found that I have become less of a snob about chopsticks; I am just happy to see people participating in the culture.
“They are the perfect utensil,” said Karen Akunowicz, executive chef of the South End’s Myers + Chang. “They allow you to create the perfect sized bite, and you can pay more attention to the food that you are eating.” I don’t have the experience of using a pair of chopsticks for the first time, so hearing this from someone else is refreshing—especially from the perspective of someone who isn’t Asian.
I’ve been using chopsticks since the day I was born and I find it fascinating when I’m eating out with friends and they’re learning how to use them, just like a toddler learning to walk. Learning a new set of skills requires time and practice, and using chopsticks is a prime example of that. So, if you want to venture into Asian cuisine, come in with respect and an open mind.