Subtle cultural differences have influenced designs we observe to this day.

No prizes for guessing where this pair is from. W noburestaurants.com

As Asians, we use them almost on a daily basis – but few give a second thought to the chopsticks they’re using, when there’s food on the table calling for attention.

Well, this brief guide is going to change that once and for all.

Behind this ancient cutlery lies the contexts and customs of cultures spanning across Asia – particularly, the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. To think it all began because Chinese forefathers needed utensils to retrieve their food from fire…

Chinese (kuàizi 筷子)

Chinese chopsticks can be made of everything from bamboo and bone to wood and jade. They are long, rectangular, and blunt at the ends. Logically, the type of material would depend on the type of food being eaten – you’d be wise to stay away from metal chopsticks at a hot pot dinner, for example. Regardless of material, all Chinese chopsticks are built in a way that makes it easier to pick up small, rounded foods like rice or beans.

This elongated structure traces back to as far as the 10th century, when tables that first arrived in China from West or Central Asia appeared raised to smaller people. Long chopsticks allowed larger groups to reach out and share food placed in the middle.

Korean (jeotgarak 젓가락)

As chopsticks became widespread in Korea, they also became slightly shorter than the Chinese pioneer – but most notably, exclusively metal. While gold, silver, or brass were reserved for the upper class, metal became widespread as far as back as 7 A.D. Apparently, the royal family then started off using silver chopsticks to detect arsenic (enemy poison!) in their food, which changes the colour of silver upon contact. Using metal utensils is also as hygienic as it gets.

Today, stainless steel Korean chopsticks are flat, too, although they are noticably heavier. Not only does this save resources, it’s also a more sensible, durable build for their cuisine (Korean BBQ, anyone?) Besides that, Koreans always use a large metal spoon with their chopsticks, so enjoying rice or soup is no issue.

Japanese (hashi 箸 or otemoto おてもと)

Royal Selangor Year of the Dog chopstick rest. W royalselangor.com

Compared to Chinese and Korean counterparts, Japanese chopsticks are the shortest. They also differ in placing – while chopsticks are commonly placed by the side, the Japanese position theirs horizontal to their food (but never across the bowl/plate!) to accommodate their eating style from platters and bento boxes. These sticks taper off to a rounded tip, which makes them easier to grip and control. Sharp points on the opposite end also hold a practical purpose in the fish-rich Japanese diet: picking out tiny bones.

Japanese people are even respectable to their cutlery. Chopsticks are highly personal items as it is believed that once a pair touches your lips, it becomes attached to your spirit. The Japanese held this belief so strongly that during meal times, they would bring out the chopsticks of a family member who was away so they could be ‘there in spirit’.

 

Images courtesy of respective manufacturers.

Source: Edward Wang/ Quartz

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