I was eating Chinese takeout the other day and I wondered, “Why are chopsticks used? Why were they ever created?” If I am hungry, fork and spoon technology is far superior to chopsticks. Go ahead, argue with that. Also, it seems that fork and spoon technology is a more natural trend than chopsticks. Are chopsticks just a novelty?
Well, I can eat with chopsticks pretty much as fast as with a fork and spoon, so I would hesitate to call those utensils superior to a fork and spoon. That said, I can think of at least one case in which chopsticks are far superior. I find that any sort of Asian noodle soup (ramen, pho, etc.) is much easier to each with chopsticks that with Western utensils. Chopsticks are better at handling the noodles than a fork or a spoon.
But, no, chopsticks are not a novelty. Considering that around two billion people use them worldwide, it’d be a bit silly to dismiss them as such.
Nothing that has been used by as many people, for as long, as chopsticks can be considered a “novelty”.
Chinese, and much other eastern Asian, cuisine tends to chop everything up small before cooking to make the most of scarce fuel. In these same areas, traditionally, people didn’t have the wood to make much furniture. A plate, fork and knife work great - assuming you have a flat surface at a comfortable height for the plate. The standard Western kitchen or dining room table, for instance, or even your knees while sitting on the sofa in front of the TV. Try eating with a plate, knife and fork while you’re sitting cross-legged on the floor with no table in front of you, and you’ll see the limitations of this system. (Picnic tables weren’t invented because they look pretty…)
But with a bowl you can hold in one hand, and an eating utensil you can operate with the other, and you’re in business. Thus was the pair of chopsticks born.
I’m not sure how a fork could be considered “more natural” than chopsticks. Chopsticks are, after all, a refinement of the stick, which is about as natural as it gets. Forks are a refinement of the spoon and the knife, and quite a leap from either of them - the idea didn’t come to Europeans until they’d been eating with spoons and knives for many centuries.
Chopsticks are very useful and easy utensils once one learns how to use them correctly. Chinese and Japanese food are generally served in bite sized portions, so chopsticks are ideal for such dining. Forks, knives and spoons are fine for western foods – it’s hard to eat a steak with chopsticks, of course – but I have no idea how one would use a fork to eat a nice piece of sushi, for example.
The concept of chopsticks is a lot simpler than you might think. The two sticks are basically extentions of your fingers. No need to stab or scoop up the food, just pick it up with these extentions of your fingers like it was an hor d’oerves.
Of course, other Asian cultures have adapted their utensils over time. Koreans usually use a spoon and chopsticks. Thais have spoons and forks, but no knives.
The criticism can also go the other way, of course: what is with the Western obsession with food that the eater has to cut up themselves? Why are chefs so lazy that they can’t cut the food into edible sizes? I point out that many Americans do the dinner-table shuffle: hold the food with the fork in the left hand, cut it with the knife in the right, then pull out the fork, switch it to the right , pick up the morsel, and put it in your mouth, then repeat as necessary. Talk about inefficient. At least most Europeans (and a number of Americans, of course) learn how to cut and eat their food without switching hands constantly.
There’s no arguing with it, because it’s a statement about yourself. If you are hungry a fork and spoon is easier for you to use because that’s what you are used to. There are many people in Asia who feel the opposite is true.
Chopsticks are easy when you’re used to them, and clumsy when you’re not. Not long after I moved to Japan I went to an after-work party at a nearby restaurant and observed with some awe the way my coworkers could eat salad with chopsticks. And not the shredded cabbage that’s usually all a salad is over here, but a Western-style salad with big pieces of lettuce and assorted other vegetables. I had to ask for a fork.
Six months later we had another party at the same restaurant, and I was halfway through my salad before I realized that I’d been eating it with chopsticks without giving the matter a second thought.
I’d like to second pulykamell’s remarks about Asian-style noodles, too. In ramen shops I’ve sometimes been given (without asking) a fork or spoon by well-meaning waitresses who figured that would make things easier for the foreigner. It doesn’t! It makes things much more difficult!
Nobody has mentioned soup. Much simpler to simply pick up the bowl and drink than to use a spoon.
Plus the fact that chopsticks can be created cheaply out of native resources it little effort. You don’t have to use vital water supplies to wash them…you just throw them away and make a new set. Bamboo is everywhere in China and Japan…no shortage of materials. They are fast, easy, and cheap. This is a good thing, whether you are talking about eating utensils or a date for Friday night!
Whenever I eat Chinese or Japanese food, I use chopsticks. Not because it’s a novelty, or because I’m trying to fit into the culture, but simply because those foods are easier to eat with chopsticks, if you know how to use them properly. Long noodles are a pain with a fork. The little bite-sized pieces of chicken and pork are also well suited to chopsticks.
As for why they were invented - in areas where bamboo is plentiful, chopsticks are trivially easy to make, cost pretty much nothing, and work just fine. I think they are an ingenious solution.
I’m a white American and I took to chopsticks much faster than to Western utensils - I remember using them pretty easily in a Chinese restaurant when I was 4 or 5, whereas I didn’t really control knife and fork well until I was 6 or 7.
English started using the word chopsticks probably in the 17th century, considering the first appearance of the word in print was 1699.
Evidently comes from "a free translation of Chinese K’wai tse meaning "quick ones’ or “nimble ones.” But the English took chop from Chinese Pidgin English=fast and the English stick=wood.
Ditto, more or less. I lived in Japan when I was three to four, so I leanred to use chopsticks at an early age. I was at a Vietnamese restaurant several years ago, and my Vietnamese co-worker commented that I used chopsticks very well. I had to laugh, because I had been using chopsticks before she was born!
To me, it seems unnatural to eat Asian food with a fork. It just doesn’t “feel” right.
I have also heard that when using chop stichs, the food tastes better. That the bamboo, wood or ceramic doesn’t leave a metallic taste like a metal spoon or fork. I don’t necessarily see it, but thought I would throw that out.
dewizeowl: I typed that I found that Asian food tastes different when I eat it with a fork. I deleted it though, because I didn’t think anyone would believe me. Since you mentioned it, Asian food does taste better (at least, to me) when eaten with chopsticks.
Cutting the food up before it arrives at the table (or before it is cooked) makes a difference to the flavour and texture of some items - steak, for example, would be very difficult to cook to medium rare if cut up first and if cut up afterwards, wouold go cold quicker.
I’ve never had any problem with the dinner table shuffle.
Here is how I cut steak:
Stick fork in meat, using right I hold my knife and cut the steak into an edible size. Pull the knife back, the fork is still in my now bite-sized portion of meet, I pull the meat to mouth, eat.
I’m left handed though, so maybe that gives me some advantage… I doubt it though. I’d figure since I’m left handed and can cut meat with a knife in my right hand, a right handed person could cut meat with their left hand…
Wow! I’m going to have to look for this next time I’m in a steak place – maybe I’ll go tomorrow. It’s something I’ve definitely not noticed (not saying it’s not true, I’ve really not paid attention). It does seem absurb! I’m a lefty, so, fork in left, knife in right. Cut with knife. Maintain knife in hand. Eat with left. Nothing simpler. And depending on what else is on the plate, this posture is entirely necessary unless you want to scoop kernels of maize onto your fork with your fingers!
Oh, and kudos to Martin Hyde.
You’d be wrong. They(we) can’t, anymore than a right-handed Brit who eats his steak the way you do can eat his dessert with a spoon in his left hand.
And I can’t cut things out left-handed with scissors, either. I’m right handed.
IIRC, this is closer to the way that was considered “proper” in Europe in the past. Remember that quite a few American table manners are a result of not having changed while European manners did.
This is not to contradict your indictment. Even though I’m a right-hander, I always naturally adopted a no-switch style. I’d like to point out that there is a certain smaller shuffle going on, though: the position of the fork in the left hand. To cut, one places the index finger of the left hand on the back of the fork and points it into whatever is being cut. Then either the morsel is placed into the mouth with the “bowl” of the fork towards the ground or the fork is flipped within the left hand. When using the fork as a scoop, the bowl must be facing upwards. Either the fork must at some point be flipped within the left hand or transferred to the right. If you aren’t comfortable scooping with the left hand, you’ll spend most of your time while learning to use the utensils (when food is pretty well cut up for you) transferring back and forth from stabbing to scooping. If you never get the practice flipping your fork, it would feel very awkward to learn later in life. Heck, it feels weird when I pay attention to what I’m doing.
So is this true right handers? You guys cannot cut meat with a knife in your left hand very well??
I find it strange because I can easily cut meat with my right hand despite being a lefty.
And what about the desert? The “primary” utensil always goes in my left hand. When I’m eating a dessert with a spoon I have the spoon in my left hand. I think this phrase may have something to do with a cultural misunderstanding of what type of dessert we are talking about.