Chopsticks are an important part of Asian culture. Their popularity and widespread use across Asia have a long and rich history. They come in all shapes and forms, from golden chopsticks engraved with calligraphy to disposable bamboo wari-bashi. Regardless of the form they take, chopsticks have evolved into an important icon of Asian culture and an important part of history.
It is believed the first chopsticks were developed over 5000 years ago in China. Early Asian man would retrieve his food from the fire using sticks or branches broken from trees. Later, as the population grew and resources became scarce, people would cut food into smaller pieces to save fuel because the smaller portions cooked faster. This eliminated the need for knives, and chopsticks became the utensil of choice.
The onset of Confucianism is believed to have further cemented the use of chopsticks as the primary Asian eating utensil. Confucius taught, “The honorable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives on his table.” Confucius’ disdain for the presence of knives at the kitchen table, coupled with the popularity of his teachings no doubt contributed to the expanding use of chopsticks among the population.
By 500 A.D., chopsticks had spread from China to other countries such as Korea, Vietnam and Japan. While initially only used for religious ceremonies in Japan, chopsticks quickly gained popularity there as well, and their use became as widespread as the rest of Asia in no time.
Chopsticks come in many different forms. Bamboo tends to be the most popular material to make them from. There is lots of it in Asia, it is easy to split and it is especially resistant to heat. Other popular materials were wood and bone, and chopsticks made of precious metals were not uncommon among the wealthy. It was believed that silver chopsticks would turn black upon contact with poisoned food, although this has since been disproved.
Chinese chopsticks are called Kuai-Zi, which means “quick little fellows”. They are typically 9 to 10 inches long, rectangular in shape, with blunt ends. Japanese chopsticks originally resembled tweezers made from bamboo, with the two pieces joined together at one end. By the 10th century they became two separate pieces. They are slightly shorter than their Chinese counterparts (7 to 8 inches long), are typically rounded and taper to a point.
It has been said by using chopsticks it improves memory, increases finger dexterity and can be useful in learning and improving skills such as Chinese character printing and brush painting. Many Asian superstitions revolve around chopsticks as well. For example, if you find an uneven pair at your table seating, it is believed that you will miss the next train, boat or plane you are trying to catch. Also, dropping your chopsticks is a sign of bad luck to come.