MARCH 8, 2013
We’ve discussed the story of the knife and fork, but there’s another set of utensils used by billions of people around the world—and it has a truly ancient past. The Chinese have been wielding chopsticks since at least 1200 B.C., and by A.D. 500 the slender batons had swept the Asian continent from Vietnam to Japan. From their humble beginnings as cooking utensils to paper-wrapped bamboo sets at the sushi counter, there’s more to chopsticks than meets the eye.
The fabled ruins of Yin, in Henan province, provided not only the earliest examples of Chinese writing but also the first known chopsticks—bronze sets found in tombs at the site. Capable of reaching deep into boiling pots of water or oil, early chopsticks were used mainly for cooking. It wasn’t until A.D. 400 that people began eating with the utensils. This happened when a population boom across China sapped resources and forced cooks to develop cost-saving habits. They began chopping food into smaller pieces that required less cooking fuel—and happened to be perfect for the tweezers-like grip of chopsticks.
As food became bite-sized, knives became more or less obsolete. Their decline—and chopsticks’ ascent—also came courtesy of Confucius. As a vegetarian, he believed that sharp utensils at the dinner table would remind eaters of the slaughterhouse. He also thought that knives’ sharp points evoked violence and warfare, killing the happy, contended mood that should reign during meals. Thanks in part to his teachings, chopstick use quickly became widespread throughout Asia.
Different cultures adopted different chopstick styles. Perhaps in a nod to Confucius, Chinese chopsticks featured a blunt rather than pointed end. In Japan, chopsticks were 8 inches long for men and 7 inches long for women. In 1878 the Japanese became the first to create the now-ubiquitous disposable set, typically made of bamboo or wood. Wealthy diners could eat with ivory, jade, coral, brass or agate versions, while the most privileged used silver sets. It was believed that the silver would corrode and turn black if it came into contact with poisoned food.
Throughout history, chopsticks have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with another staple of Asian cuisine: rice. Naturally, eating with chopsticks lends itself to some types of food more than others. At first glance, you’d think that rice wouldn’t make the cut, but in Asia most rice is of the short- or medium-grain variety. The starches in these rices create a cooked product that is gummy and clumpy, unlike the fluffy and distinct grains of Western long-grain rice. As chopsticks come together to lift steaming bundles of sticky rice, it’s a match made in heaven.