Thursday, May 1, 2014

Chopstick History and Etiquette

"You do not sew with a fork , and I see no reason why you should eat with knitting needles." — Miss Piggy

Chopstick History and Etiquette

"The ultimately restricted, and therefore it may be thought, the ultimately delicate, manner of eating with one's hands is to use the thumb and two fingers of the right hand, only the tips of these ideally being allowed to touch the food. This gesture, we find even more by artificially elongating the fingers and further reducing their number, is of course the origin of chopsticks. Once people became accustomed to fingers remaining clean throughout the meal, napkins used for serious cleansing seemed not only redundant but downright nasty."
Chopsticks have been used in Japan for thousands of years. Also known as "hashi," or "otemoto" in fancier restaurants, Japanese chopsticks reflect the highly artistic culture of the islands. Originally, they were used strictly for religious ceremonies, but soon they were used for casual eating as well. Because of this history, the Japanese tend to be a little more strict about the proper use of chopsticks than the Chinese. At first they were fashioned like tweezers - a single piece of bamboo connected at one end. This connection is how they got the name "hashi" meaning "bridge." By the 10th century AD, they were being made regularly as two separate pieces and used in pairs, as they are today. In the 17th centrury AD, they began to lacquer the wooden chopsticks to make them more durable. This allowed them to become the beautiful Japanese icons that they are today. The ornate designs make them some of the most attractive and unique chopsticks in the world. The hard lacquer finish is not only attractive, but highly functional. It waterproofs them and makes them easier to clean. Japanese chopsticks are shorter than most chopsticks. Adult chopsticks in Japan are typically 7-9 inches long (20-23cm), are typically rounded, and tapered to a point.
Information from www.thechopstickstore.com 
"Father João Rodrigues observed in the 17th century that the Japanese were "much amazed at our eating with the hands and wiping them on napkins, which then remain covered with food stains, and this causes them both nausea and disgust." Napkins laid on knees are still an " ethnic," western affectation  in China and Japan. There is, however, a tradition of supplying diners several times during the meal with small rough towels wrung out in boiling water, for hand and face wiping.

Chopsticks seem to have evolved in the East specifically for use with rice: The staple grain in China was originally millet, which the Li Chi insists must be eaten with a spoon, not with chopsticks like rice. Chinese rice is not loose and dry like that chosen by Indians, Arabs, and Africans, who prefer eating it with their hands, but sticky and slightly moist even without sauce; it is easily handled with chopsticks. The earliest word for chopsticks seems to have been Zi, related to the root meaning, "help". This is pronounced, however, like the word for "stop", or "becalm" used of boats. Chinese boatman are said to have renamed them kuai – zi, which sounds like "fast fellows", because Chinese think of chopsticks as swift and agile, the very opposite of halting and being becalmed. This is now their Chinese name; "chopsticks" is of course a western  barbarism. In Japanese, chopsticks are called hashi, "bridge", because they effect the transition from bowl to mouth.

Chopsticks are thought of as fast, then, and helpful. Meals in China often surprise visitors by the speed with which they are eaten; chopsticks enable the Chinese and Japanese to eat food which is sizzling hot, but because is often served in small pieces it gets cold if people dawdle.  Chopstick users remain more likely than we are to use their hands as aids in eating but it is not at all advisable to get them greasy: chopsticks, and especially the lacquered chopsticks common in Japan and Korea, are extremely difficult to manage with slippery fingers. Porcelain spoons are used for soups and the more liquid dishes; children are allowed to use spoons for everything until they are about three or four years old, when chopstick training begins."

Chinese chopsticks are the longest of all chopsticks. This is probably because they were originally used for cooking, and adapted for eating as the food began to be cooked in bite size pieces. Chinese chopsticks are not tapered. They are square at the base and round at the tip, symbolizing the infinite God in heaven feeding the man, bound by four seasons, on earth. Because they are thicker at the tip, chinese chopsticks are great for tearing meat and pushing rice from a bowl into the mouth. Contrary to popular belief, the Chinese do not use chopsticks to pick up pieces of rice in a conventional manner. They lift the bowl to their mouths and use the chopsticks to push the rice in, and the wider chopsticks are well suited to this method. Information from www.thechopstickstore.com 
"Chinese tables are round or square rather than oval or oblong: diners sit equidistant from the dishes of cài (meat, fish, and vegetables), all set out in one "course", in the middle. Each diner  gets a small bowl for fán, literally, "food", meaning rice. The rice is the substance of the meal; the cài is merely relish, unless the occasion is a banquet. The host, or the mother, doles out the rice into the bowls. Each guest must take the filled bowl in two hands: receiving in one hand shows disrespectful indifference. You never eat cài  before being served rice, because that looks as though you are so greedy and selfish that you would be prepared to eat nothing but meat and vegetables, which are the expensive part of the meal, centrally placed in order to be shared with others.

When the host gives the sign, you may begin to take the cài with your chopsticks. The gestures used by Chinese, Japanese, and others to do this are fascinating for Westerners. They look accomplished. Delicate, precise, and gentle-- much more polished that our own behavior at meals. Roland Barthes  in "The Empire of Signs" speaks of eulogies on the Japanese manipulation of chopsticks: "There is something maternal, the same precisely measured care taken in moving a child... the instrument never pierces, cuts, or slips, never wounds but only selects, turns, shifts.  For the chopsticks... In order to divide, must separate, part, peck, instead of cutting and piercing, in the manner of our implements; they never violate the food stuff; either they gradually unravel it (in the case of vegetables) or else prod it into separate pieces (in the case of fish, eels) thereby rediscovering the natural fissures of the substance." A Westerner feels like a brute butcher before this Oriental delicacy. Barthe says that we are "armed with pikes and knives "like predators rather than gentle mothers, our food, " a prey to which one does violence."
“Man who catch fly with chopstick, capable of anything.” ― Mr. Miyagi, in The Karate Kid 
B.Y. Chao  tells us that the Chinese are aware in themselves of a sequence of commands: "Await, avoid, attack!" You must pause, think of others, consider which piece you want, then zero in on it. You may have to stretch across the path of another's chopsticks – though Chinese, too, try to restrict themselves to taking from the side of the dish more or less facing them; fellow diners cooperate with each other and are not greatly offended by another's "attack." You should never looked too intent on obtaining a particular morsel, however. Chinese children are taught that "the best mannered person does not allow co-diners to be aware of what his or her favorite dishes are by his or her eating pattern."
“Marriage is like twirling a baton, turning hand springs or eating with chopsticks. It looks easy until you try it.” — Helen Rowland
"It is politer to transfer food first to your rice bowl, and eat it from there, then to take it directly from the cài dish to your mouth. Chopsticks must never be licked or bitten. Japanese bad manners include neburi-bashi: licking chopsticks with the tongue; mogi-kui: using your mouth to remove rice sticking to your chopsticks; komi-bashi: forcing several things in your mouth with your chopsticks; utsuri-bashi: one must not break the rule that a mouthful of rice is to be taken between every two bites of meat, fish, or vegetables; saguri-bashi: searching with chopsticks to see if anything you want remains in the dish; hashi-namari: hesitation whether to take one thing rather than another; and sora-hashi: putting back with the chopsticks food you intended to eat.

Mannerly diners with chopsticks never "fish about" for morsels; they must take the bit they touch first. This means that one begins by eyeing one's target carefully: if you prod it, you must take and eat it. Using chopsticks need in no way mean that people eat food touched by implements which have been in other people's mouths. Yet a very western distaste for even the thought of touching the food of all with utensils of each has spread. In 1984, Hu Yaobang, the former Communist Party Secretary, criticized the traditional Chinese way of eating and urged change on sanitary grounds. A good deal of such concern must in fact be a desire to participate in Western  prestige as being somehow more in ineffably "modern." The admiration of people like Roland Barthe 's for superior Oriental wisdom seems to be less satisfying than the allure of technological hygiene and "modern "mental instruments. A compromise with "modernity" is the Japanese pre-wrapped disposable set of wooden chopsticks.
Korean chopsticks are traditionally flat and made of metal, though the Koreans are beginning to use round chopsticks as well. In Korea, chopsticks are called jeokkarak (젓가락). In length, Chinese chopsticks tend to be the longest, and Japanese chopsticks are often the shortest, with Korean chopsticks falling somewhere in-between. So why are Korean chopsticks made of metal? One explanation is that in ancient times pure silver chopsticks were used by the king because the silver would change color if the king’s food had been poisoned. Then the commoners, wanting to emulate royalty, began to use metal chopsticks as well. One may argue that metal chopsticks are more practical and sanitary since they can be easily washed and used again. Another could maintain that since Koreans mostly use a spoon to eat their rice, they can use the more slippery chopsticks to eat their other dishes. It is true that it is significantly harder to eat rice and noodles with metal chopsticks. Whatever the explanation, metal chopsticks are uniquely Korean.
Information from www.thechopstickstore.com 
"Chopstick users remain more likely than we are to use their hands as aids in eating but it is not at all advisable to get them greasy: chopsticks, and especially the lacquered chopsticks common in Japan and Korea, are extremely difficult to manage with slippery fingers. Porcelain spoons are used for soups and the more liquid dishes; children are allowed to use spoons for everything until they are about three or four years old, when chopstick training begins.

The problem that Westerners experience is often the result of attempts to eat rice with chopsticks from flat plates: the small bowl raised towards a face is far easier to manage with the proper zest. Chinese themselves, given food on a  flat plate, prefer to use a porcelain spoon (to stand in for its sister, the bowl). This spoon, like a bowl, has a flat bottom, so they can be laid down without spilling the contents.

 The kind of food we ourselves eat, together with the way we cook and serve it, predisposes us to use knives, forks, and spoons, and our idea of what constitutes "place setting "also influences our food choices. Oriental food is cut up in the kitchen so they can be eaten with chopsticks – but also, as Barthe points out, chopsticks came into being because each mouthful is regarded as comestable partly because it is small; being confronted with a large slab meet on the dish can be a disgusting experience for people from rice – and – chopstick cultures. In addition, rice – growing is a land use which reduces the amount of fuel available, so that meat and vegetables must usually be cooked quickly to save wood. Cutting them up small facilitates stir-frying and other quick-cooking methods.

But unfortunately there is an ecological price to pay for this, as hundreds of millions of trees are chopped down every year to supply throwaway chopstick wood– in 1987, 20 billion chopsticks were used and discarded in Japan alone.  It has never been acceptable to return bitten morsels of meat, vegetables, or fish to the common dish; but because the bowl of rice is "private territory, "a piece of meat or vegetable maybe held in chopsticks and bitten, and the rest put down on the rice in the bowl, to be finished later. One must never, in Japan, stick the chopsticks up right in the rice. This is done only when offerings are made by Buddhist mourners for their dead: standing chopsticks are rather like our own taboos about an empty chair at the table.
The kind of food we ourselves eat, together with the way we cook and serve it, predisposes us to use knives, forks, and spoons, and our idea of what constitutes "place setting "also influences our food choices.
With perfect propriety one lifts the small china bowl in the left-hand and sweeps the contents into the mouth with precise, busy movements of the two sticks together, held in the right. Barthe's delicate gestures suddenly become swift and purely efficient; the bowl held under the chopsticks is moved dexterously about so as to prevent food spills. We ourselves are surprised to see this done because we are never allowed to lift dishes containing solid food – and we count soup, unless it is in a cup, as "solid food"-- to our lips; we gave up doing this and when we agreed that formal politeness involves using our cutlery.

The Chinese may be thought of as treating the little bowl like a cross between a teacup any large spoon, with the chopsticks as "helpers. "Table manners always impose difficult restraints: "if you rattle your chopsticks against the bowl," says the Chinese proverb, "you and your descendants will always be poor." Whatever happens, however, at an ordinary meal every single grain of rice in one's bowl must be eaten before dinner is over. Leaving rice is a disgusting behavior, because it shows a lack of knowledge of one's own appetite in the first place, together with greed for meat and vegetables, and no respect for rice – its culture, its history, and the hard work that has been involved in getting it to the table.

Rice is never to be gripped, lifted, and eaten grain by grain, as Western novices in the art of chopstick-handling find themselves doing with so much frustration and so many complaints. "Picking "at one's food is very rude, in fact, for Oriental manners, more than our own, demand demonstrations of delight and pleasure in eating, and inept fiddling with one's chopsticks is apt to be interpreted not merely as a want of competence but as a depressing unwillingness as well." – Margaret Visser, The Rituals of Dinner






Compiled and submitted by Demita Usher of Social Graces and Savoir Faire