Chopsticks have been used in China from at least 1200 B.C., and by the year 500 A.D., they had spread throughout Asia, from Vietnam to Japan. There is more to chopsticks than meets the eye, from their humble beginnings as cooking tools to the paper-wrapped bamboo sets at the sushi counter.
First Known Sets of Chopsticks
Along with the earliest known instances of Chinese writing, the famed ruins of Yin in Henan province also housed the first known sets of chopsticks—bronze sets discovered in tombs. The primary function of early chopsticks, which could reach deep into hot pans of water or oil, was cooking. People didn’t start using utensils for dining until the A.D 400. This occurred as a result of the population increase in China, which depleted resources and compelled cooks to adopt frugal practices. They started slicing food into smaller bits that used less cooking energy and were also ideal for the chopsticks’ tweezers-like grip.
Confucius Hated Knives
Knives essentially became obsolete when food became more bite-sized. Confucius was also responsible for their demise as well as the rise of chopsticks. He was a vegetarian and thought that using sharp objects at the dinner table would make people think of the butcher. Additionally, he believed that the sharp edges of blades invoked bloodshed and battle, eliminating the convivial, competitive atmosphere that should rule during meals. Chopstick use spread rapidly throughout Asia in part because of his teachings.
Different chopstick designs were adopted by many cultures. The blunt end of Chinese chopsticks, as opposed to the pointed end, may have been a nod to Confucius. Men’s chopsticks in Japan were 8 inches long, while women’s chopsticks were 7 inches long. The first manufacturer of the now-ubiquitous disposable set, often constructed of bamboo or wood, was Japan in 1878. Rich diners had their choice of ivory, jade, coral, brass, agate, or ivory-and-jade sets, while the most privileged used silver. It was thought that if silver came into touch with poisoned food, it would corrode and turn black.
Chopstick & Asian Rice
Throughout centuries, rice, another Asian food staple, and chopsticks have coexisted together. Naturally, some types of food work better with chopsticks than others. At first sight, you might not think rice would qualify, yet throughout Asia, short- or medium-grain rice makes up the majority of the crop. In contrast to the fluffy and distinct grains of Western long-grain rice, the starches in these rice produce a cooked product that is delicate and chewy. It’s a match made in heaven as chopsticks join forces to lift steamed bundles of sticky rice.
The Name Chopsticks
Although there are numerous various names for chopsticks in Asia, like “kuai-zi” in China and “hashi” in Japan, the English word “chopsticks” is probably derived from the Chinese pidgin English “chop chop,” which means rapidly. Consequently, chopsticks are “quick sticks,” which was probably a fitting description provided by the earliest western travelers when they first saw people eating nimbly with chopsticks.
Chopsticks Were Used to Avoid Food Poisoning
Early chopsticks were often made of some cheap material, such as bamboo, but later silver chopsticks were occasionally used during the Chinese dynastic time to avoid food poisoning. How?
It was thought that if silver objects were exposed to any potentially fatal chemicals, they would become black. Unfortunately for individuals who do this, silver does not turn black when it comes into contact with toxins like cyanide or arsenic, among others. However, it can most definitely change color if it comes into contact with rotten eggs, garlic, or onions, all of which release hydrogen sulfide that reacts with the silver to change its color.