Chances are you’ve split a pair of wooden chopsticks at a Japanese restaurant before enjoying that scrumptious morsel of sushi. Have you also noticed that those big plastic ones at the Chinese restaurant require superhuman skills to pick up that Dim Sum? Or have you had Korean food and used the thin metal chopsticks to eat rice out of metal bowls?
Chopsticks were invented in China over 5000 years ago, and are made in different styles and of various materials today, depending on where you are. Chinese chopsticks are longer, rectangular with flat sides and have blunt tips; usually made of bamboo or plastic. The more exotic ones are made of ivory. Japanese chopsticks are shorter, tapered and shaped like rounded dowels with pointed tips. The most common ones are disposable wood but they can also be elaborately lacquered and handmade. Korean chopsticks are made of metal like stainless steel or silver, short like the Japanese ones, and are ornamentally engraved. The durability of metal goes well with the heat of Korean BBQ cuisine.
The common disposable wooden ones you see actually have a great deal of processing that goes into them. They start as logs of spruce, are cut down to size, and “shaved” to the thickness required for chopsticks. Stamping machines do the rest, cutting the individual sticks out into pre-split, tapered pairs. In the past, wooden chopsticks tended to be rough edged, necessitating the ritual of scraping them against each other or rubbing them together to rid them of splinters. Modern wooden chopsticks are fairly smooth and even beveled on the edges for comfort, thus making this scraping action unnecessary.
With anything that happens to be over 5000 years old, there is always folklore and superstition. Chopsticks are no exception. You are not supposed to stick them upright in your bowl of rice because they resemble incense at a person’s funeral–a bad omen. The same goes with passing food from chopsticks to chopsticks, which too closely mimics another ritual that takes place only at cremation ceremonies. When you split a pair of wooden chopsticks and they break unevenly, it is a sign of unrequited love. Still others say it means you’re going to have ugly babies–ha-ha!
Do you know any chopsticks superstitions? Which kind of chopsticks do you like best? Share your thoughts with us! And by the way, we Americans have our own style of chopsticks, too. They’re called tongs!
Video screen caps courtesy of The Making, a Japanese TV documentary