For people who didn’t grow up using them, chopsticks can be both fun and frustrating to use. When eating sushi, using chopsticks creates a more immersive, cultural dining experience. It can make a dinner out feel just a bit more special. On the other hand, if as a novice, you tackle a bowl of noodle soup with chopsticks, you may test your patience and end up resorting to using your soup spoon in creative ways. Nonetheless, chopsticks are used on daily basis by over a billion people worldwide. In this post we'll take a brief look at the origins and different varieties of chopsticks.
Chopsticks are arguably the world’s oldest dining utensils. The basic idea of using two sticks to grasp hot food during cooking must go back to prehistoric times. The ancient Chinese improved on this by working bamboo and wood to create long thin sticks with tapered ends to use while cooking. Over time these simple cooking tools evolved into dining utensils. Written records that trace themselves as back as far as the Zhou Dynasty mention chopsticks, and it is believed that by the time of the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) they were in widespread use.
Chinese territorial expansion and trade soon brought chopsticks to what is now Korea and northern Vietnam, whereas their introduction to Japan occurred later. The first written record of chopsticks in Japan dates back to 712 AD, but it is believed that they were introduced during the previous two centuries when there was an increase in Japanese contact with China (viz. Sui and Tang Dynasties) and Korea (viz Baekje kingdom). To this day, chopsticks continue to dominate tabletops throughout the Far East.
While chopsticks started out as rudimentary tools, with developments in technology and fashion, variations in materials, decorations and styles emerged. Bronze, porcelain, ivory, steel, silver and plastics have all been used to make chopsticks. Nowadays reusable wooden and bamboo chopsticks are most common for everyday use in homes in China and Japan, whereas disposable wooden/bamboo chopsticks or reusable melamine ones are common in restaurants. In contrast, in South Korea there is a strong preference for stainless steel chopsticks. While more hygienic, steel chopsticks' slippery surface can pose a greater challenge for novice chopsticks users. Of course, just as there is fine silverware in the West, there are also high-end chopsticks in the East. Chopsticks can be embellished with lacquers, engravings, paintings, printed designs and inlaid pieces. Porcelain, ivory, jade and silver have been used to make chopsticks that were not just utensils, but also status symbols.
Chopsticks can differ in shape and tapering. Tips are generally rounded, but are occasionally pointy. Chinese and Japanese chopsticks are for the most part rounded throughout, although some may be rectangular towards the top. In contrast, steel Korean chopsticks are typically rectangular and flattened with one broad dimension. These steel chopsticks also tend to be less tapered.
That’s just a quick introduction to chopsticks. In a later blog post we'll look at some cultural aspects related to chopsticks, as well as a few basic rules of etiquette for using them.