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All About Chopsticks

Updated on November 20, 2014

Chopsticks: Their History, Use & Types Available

Chopsticks are a simple concept... a pair of short tapered sticks used as eating utensils in many Asian countries, including China, Japan and Korea. In fact, more than a quarter of the world's population uses them.

They are usually made of bamboo, wood or plastic, but stainless steel, bone, ivory, jade, gold and silver are also available. Silver-tipped chopsticks are a luxury, but have also been used as a safety measure for the wealthy, as people believed that any poison in the food would blacken the silver.

The word "chopstick" is believed to come from Chinese Pidgin English, where the words "chop chop" meant "quickly". The Oxford English Dictionary, gives the earliest published reference as William Dampier's 1699 book Voyages and descriptions : "They are called by the English seamen Chopsticks". The Chinese term is kuaizi, meaning quick little bamboo fellow, while in Japanese, they are usually called hashi.

Traditionally used in the right hand, they may now be used in either hand, but left-handed use is still considered improper, as it can lead to accidental elbowing of a right-handed table companion. I know this problem to be true... It is also considered a breach of etiquette to impale your food. Guilty again...

The photo shows a carved centrepiece at our banquet table. I took it on a recent trip to Beijing. Please note that this, and the other photos on this page, and copyright to me, and should not be used without my written consent.

Peking Duck

My interpretation of Peking Duck...

History

The earliest pair were made of bronze. They were excavated from Yinxu, (literally the "Yin Ruins") one of the major, ancient historical capitals of China, near Anyang, Henan. They have been dated to about 1200 BC, in the Shang Dynasty.

These early chopsticks were most probably used for stirring the fire, and for cooking and serving bits of food, rather than as eating utensils. It was much later, during the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) that they began to be used as eating utensils. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), chopsticks came into normal everyday use for both serving and eating. At this time, they acquired the name kuaizi and their present shape.

Chopsticks With Case

If you like to take your own utensils to restaurants, or away on a trip, it's nice to have a travel case. Here are some really nice sets.

Happy Sales HSKS5/B, Chopstick Box and Chopstick set BLK
Happy Sales HSKS5/B, Chopstick Box and Chopstick set BLK

This set has a very nice Japanese style with lacquer coating for easy cleaning. Finely decorated with dragonflies, these have a matching travel case.

 
JapanBargain S-3643, Japanese Travel Plastic Chopsticks and Chopstick Case Sets, Cherry Blossom
JapanBargain S-3643, Japanese Travel Plastic Chopsticks and Chopstick Case Sets, Cherry Blossom

A hand-crafted set, decorated with cherry blossom, with a matching case. They are approximately 9" in length.

 

A Chinese Banquet : Art on a Plate

Chop Chop

Can you use chopsticks?

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Another Beautiful Banquet Dish

What You Never Knew... - by Patricia Lauber, and illustrated by John Manders

A humorous, illustrated look at the history of eating and the dinner table, from primitive people, just beginning to use fire, through to modern times. Did you know that Stone Age people invented knives and spoons? Or that during the feasts of the Middles Ages, it was considered polite to wipe your greasy fingers on the tablecloth. And for lovers of French culture, that King Louis 14th, fed up dinner table stabbings, ordered that knives should have rounded ends.

What You Never Knew About Fingers, Forks, & Chopsticks (Around-The-House History)
What You Never Knew About Fingers, Forks, & Chopsticks (Around-The-House History)

In What You Never Knew About Fingers, Forks, & Chopsticks, you will experience a fun and fascinating tour of the ways eating and manners have changed through history.

 

Different Types of Chopsticks You May Come Across

Chopsticks are often made of bamboo or wood, as these materials are inexpensive, have a low temperature conduction, and give a good grip for holding food. Painting or lacquering can be used for decoration and waterproofing.

Disposable unlacquered pairs are used in many restaurants, and often come wrapped and as one piece that must be split into two chopsticks by the user, so demonstrating that they are clean and unused.

Plastic utensils are also inexpensive, resistant to wear and are low in temperature conduction, but they are not as effective as wood or bamboo for picking up food as they tend to be slippery. Plastic chopsticks should not be used for cooking as high temperatures may release toxic compounds.

Metal versions, such as stainless steel, are durable and easy to clean. They are sometimes roughened or scribed to make them less slippery to use.

Wealthy families may use silver, silver-tipped wooden or bone chopsticks. The most luxurious are made from jade, porcelain, ivory, or gold. Expensive metal chopstick pairs can be connected by a short chain at the untapered end to prevent separation.

Chinese style utensils are about 10 inches long and bluntly tapered, while Japanese style are shorter at 7 to 8 inches, and more pointed. Very long chopsticks, of about 30 or 40 centimetres, are used for cooking, and particularly for frying.

Lacquer Designs

Lacquered chopsticks are easy to wipe clean, they can also be quite beautifully decorated. The lacquered set for children has the added advantage that the different colors help everyone to remember which ones they are using.

Japanese Style Lacquered Wood Chopstick for Children 8 Pair Set
Japanese Style Lacquered Wood Chopstick for Children 8 Pair Set

A fun set of 8 colorful pairs for children. Just 6 1/2 inches long, so manageable in a small hand, they are made in lacquered wood, and decorated with authentic patterns.

 
Snow Peak Carry-On Chopsticks
Snow Peak Carry-On Chopsticks

If you don't like the cheapies found in a lot of restaurants, these are a great option. Well-balanced in the hand, and coming with their own carrycase, they are a pleasure to use.

 

Using Chopsticks

The key is to success is having the correct hold:

- the lower chopstick rests at the base of the thumb, and between the ring finger and middle finger, and is stationary.

- the second chopstick is held with the tips of the thumb, index finger, and middle finger, and is moved while eating, to pick up food.

Incorrect use reflects badly on a child's parents, who have the responsibility of teaching their children proper table manners.

It is normal to hold a rice bowl up to one's mouth and use chopsticks to push the rice directly into the mouth. However, it is considered impolite to spear food. Something that is too difficult to be handled correctly should be eaten with a spoon.

Traditionally, each person at the table would use their chopsticks to take food from the communal dishes to their own bowl, or to pass food from the dishes to the elders' or guests' bowls. Now, special serving utensils are often used to take food directly from serving dishes, which are then returned to the dishes after use. If there are no serving chopsticks, it is "acceptable" to use your chopsticks 'backwards' to stir or transfer the food.

It is considered acceptable to use your chopsticks to transfer food to your grandparents, parents, spouse or children, if they are having difficulty picking up the food. Don't "dive in" until the elders have had a chance to take up their chopsticks. Passing food to the elderly before the dinner starts is a sign of respect.

Between uses, chopsticks should be laid parallel on the edge of the plate or on a special chopstick rest, if one is available. However, resting chopsticks at the top of the bowl shows that you have finished eating. It is poor etiquette to rest chopsticks pointing towards others seated at the table.

Wood

Wooden chopsticks range in price, depending on the type of wood, and whether they are designed to be disposable or to be kept.

Happy Sales HSCH24/S, 5 pairs Japanese chopsticks gift sets Twist
Happy Sales HSCH24/S, 5 pairs Japanese chopsticks gift sets Twist

Burnished bamboo, very nice quality, with a stylish twist at the end. They have a durable protective finish which will be preserved better by hand washing.

 
Oriental Furniture 10 Pair Wood Chopsticks Set - Red
Oriental Furniture 10 Pair Wood Chopsticks Set - Red

10 lacquered hardwood pairs, decorated with shou symbols, for good fortune and longevity, presented in a colored hard paper cyclinder

 

Stainless Steel

Stainless steel can be quite hygienic, as it is easy to keep clean. I particularly like the YamaKazi chopsticks that come with their own travel case. I show the individual set below. A Set of 4 Pairs of Yamazaki Chopsticks is also available.

Yamazaki 32200 My Chopsticks Stainless-Steel Chopsticks with Carrying Case, Silver
Yamazaki 32200 My Chopsticks Stainless-Steel Chopsticks with Carrying Case, Silver

These stainless steel chopsticks, with textured tips, screw apart for storage in a lacquered travel case, making them both stylish and travel-friendly. They are dishwasher-safe.

 

Etiquette Faults

Tapping chopsticks on the edge of your bowl or plate is a bad idea, as beggars make this sort of noise to attract attention.

Pointing or waving with chopsticks, playing with chopsticks, crossing chopsticks on the table, dropping chopsticks, using chopsticks to stab food, licking the tips of your chopsticks, and "fishing around" for the best pieces of food on a serving dish are also breaches of etiquette.

Holding both chopsticks together in one hand like a spear may cause alarm as it may appear to be an action of attack.

Searching through one's food for something in particular is very bad form, and is sometimes referred to as "digging one's grave" or "grave-digging".

Buddhist funeral rituals of passing bone fragments from chopsticks to chopsticks, incense burning, and offering bowls of uncooked rice at the altar also reflect on chopstick etiquette, so do not use your chopsticks to pass food directly to another person's chopsticks or stick your chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice.

Disposables

Disposables can be useful for parties or large gatherings, as their use can reduce the amount of washing up after.

70 pairs Disposable BAMBOO Chopsticks
70 pairs Disposable BAMBOO Chopsticks

Very economical and great for parties. 70 pairs of disposables. Made of bamboo, and wrapped.

 

Environmental Impact

The average use of disposable chopsticks in Japan is 200 pairs per person, this equates to 24 billion pairs per year. In China, approximately 45 billion disposable pairs are produced each year - that's 25 million fully grown trees. The People's Republic of China introduced a tax on disposables, in 2006, to reduce waste of natural resources by over-consumption.

Yes, this is a sea cucumber. No, it is not a plant. And, no, I couldn't eat all of it...

Utility Of Utensils

Are chopsticks more versatile than knives and forks?

Chopsticks are great tools for delicately selecting and manipulating food

Chopsticks are great tools for delicately selecting and manipulating food

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    • Echo Phoenix 4 years ago

      love the 'Sticks!

    • SteveKaye 4 years ago

      They are also easy to clean.

    • savateuse 4 years ago

      @geosum: I guess I was lucky to take my visit to Beijing when I did!

    • geosum 4 years ago

      Great lens! Was considering starting a lens about chopsticks. I guess I move on to another subject...

    • May Matthew 4 years ago

      Yes, definitely! One hand for the rice bowl, the other for chopsticks. That's the way I like it best.

    • anonymous 4 years ago

      I just wish I was better at using them :p

    • poppy mercer 4 years ago from London

      oh I'm apparently guilty of 'grave digging': ooops!

    The knife and fork pairing is simple and useable

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      • anonymous 4 years ago

        The keyword is "simple"; useable by simpletons like me. Chopstix R 4 intellectual types like my best friend who also happens to be Chinese and like my daughter, who we think was switched with an Asian baby, before we left the hospital. She likes all things Asian. :)

      • savateuse 4 years ago

        @anonymous: keep trying, it does take a while

      • anonymous 4 years ago

        I have tried a few times with chop sticks, but haven't mastered them

      For Kids - Training beginners

      As these chopsticks are joined at the end, it takes less coordination to use them, so they are very suitable for children and for adults who are beginning their chopstick adventure.

      Thomas Edison Helper Chopsticks for Children
      Thomas Edison Helper Chopsticks for Children

      Thomas design for training right-handed children. Soft, washable and food-safe.

       
      1 X New Pororo Edison Training Chopsticks for Left Hand
      1 X New Pororo Edison Training Chopsticks for Left Hand

      Of course, some of us are left-handed, so these are specially designed for left-handers.

       

      Chopstick Rests

      Keep your chopsticks hygienic and your tablecloth clean with these cute Chopstick rests.

      Bamboo Design Chopstick Rest Set
      Bamboo Design Chopstick Rest Set

      Set of 4 smooth and sleek Bamboo design chopstick rests.

       

      Do You Use Chopsticks?

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          Echo Phoenix 4 years ago

          one of my fondest memories with my granddaughter will remain the evening I took her to dinner at a Chinese restaurant and taught her how to use chopsticks. Fun lens, love the rubber ducky!

        • profile image

          anonymous 4 years ago

          Great gift idea!

        • anne mohanraj profile image

          anne mohanraj 4 years ago

          Thank you for all that information on chopsticks!

        • profile image

          toronto-catering 4 years ago

          Eating with chop sticks is also an art ... what do you say ?

        • Richard-H profile image

          Richard 4 years ago from Surrey, United Kingdom

          I haven't used chopsticks in some time, so my skills will be lacking :)

        • annieangel1 profile image

          Ann 4 years ago from Yorkshire, England

          I loved the Peking duck! I learned to use chopsticks when I lived in Japan but I don't I could use them now. Thanks for sharing all those gorgeous photos.

        • savateuse profile image
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          savateuse 4 years ago

          @anonymous: amazing that chopsticks could be helpful in other ways!

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          anonymous 4 years ago

          I trained myself to use the sticks by eating indiviual kernals of popcorn in the dark. I'd carry my sticks in my belt and use them for eating popcorn at the "Midnight Movies" on Kadena AFB on Okinawa, back when I was in the Air Force. The techniques I learned greatly helped me when using a soldering pencil while working on small and delicate electronic circuit boards..

        • savateuse profile image
          Author

          savateuse 4 years ago

          @pumpum: Thanks for visiting, and for your support!

        • pumpum profile image

          pumpum 4 years ago

          I really enjoyed in this lens. I have a great wish to learn to use chopsticks but I don't have a chance. Thanks for sharing this, pinned and shared on g+.