You Can’t Go Wrong With Chopsticks (Despite What Some Might Say)

Around this time of year, there’s an article that reappears in a certain type of British tabloid newspaper with a regularity you could set your watch by. 

It is, of course, a ridiculously sensationalist headline, riddled with what journalists call ‘FOMO’ (Fear Of Missing Out) – the anxious, shame-inducing fear of being so out-of-touch with the basics of normal life that you might never knew this very simple thing unless you immediately read this story. (And then presumably you’d never talk about your shocking ignorance to anyone ever again.) In other words: another day of tabloids tabloiding merrily away.

It’s always some variation of this headline, too: “PEOPLE SAYING THEIR LIVES ARE A LIE AFTER DISCOVERING THEY’VE BEEN USING CHOPSTICKS WRONG.”

This always happens around February 6th, which since around 2010 has been celebrated as National Chopsticks Day. (There’s no sign of who created this alleged day of celebration, and I’ll try not to be too suspicious, but – consider my eyebrow raised.) And it’s always about the bit at the end of some popular types of disposable chopsticks – the tiny thumb-sized piece of bamboo that often gets thrown away. But “don’t throw it away!” shrieks the article breathlessly. It’s allegedly there for a purpose: to give you a little platform to rest the tips of your chopsticks on, if you want to put them down before the end of your meal.

Is there a standard way to use chopsticks?
Is there a standard way to use chopsticks?

What British people with Asian backgrounds make of this is unknown to me. Baffled weariness, probably, because it’s sort of correct to a point, and sort of nonsense beyond it. Sure, some countries have a semi-tradition of sometimes doing this under certain circumstances – but it’s definitely not “the right way to use chopsticks”. 

Alas, this headline keeps getting attention because a lot of Brits are like me: regrettably limited in their experience of using chopsticks except as a novelty, nowhere near worldly enough to know how staggeringly popular chopsticks are across a huge expanse of the other side of the world – and more than a bit hopeless at actually using them without dropping food all over ourselves.

In fact, chopsticks are the eating utensils of choice for well over a fifth of the world’s population. Experienced travellers will usually be adept at using them – go here and scroll to the second page to see Gordon demonstrating excellent chopstick-using form on his own nose. And if you’re going to Japan with Wheel & Anchor in September, you’ll learn that yes, they do use a chopstick rest, in the style of that broken-off piece at the end of disposables: it’s called hashi-makura, which broadly translates as “chopstick pillow” – and it’s as Japanese as sushi.

The hashi-makura
The hashi-makura

But chopsticks go back a lot further than modern Japan. They’re mentioned in accounts from China’s Shang dynasty (1600 – 1045 BCE), although back then, they were mainly used not for eating but for preparing food in the kitchen, a bit like the difference between dessert spoons and wooden spoons today. (This seems to have been mainly down to the common diet of that time being based on fine millet, which was much easier to eat with a spoon.) 

Even today, Japanese chefs still use unusually long chopsticks for cooking – except they’re designed according to the abuse they’ll have to endure, with metal sticks with bamboo handles being the tool of choice for dishes using hot oil.

Every chopstick-loving country you’ll visit will do things a little differently. In Japan, you might find fine grooves on your chopsticks, helping you grip the food like the treads on a tire (or like the wrinkles on your fingers after having a hot bath, which seem to be an evolutionary throwback to when early humans lived in a wetter climate). They also tend to be more pointed at their ends than elsewhere – because Japan formally recognizes the good sense of being able to spear your food with them.

However, one thing that isn’t acceptable behaviour is leaving chopsticks sticking vertically out of a bowl of rice. This is something you’ll see at Japanese funerals, so if you’re after that relaxed dinner-party vibe, that ain’t it. Similarly dire-looking is crossing your chopsticks to form an “x” – which is a symbol for Death. Best avoided (well, depending on the message you want to send to the people you’re eating out with, of course).

Chopsticks are essential tools for savoring delicious cuisine
Chopsticks are essential tools for savoring delicious cuisine

Then there’s the art of wielding them – which, in the hands of someone who has been using them since birth, can look like something from a jaw-droppingly beautiful Wuxia film. In the words of Tsung-Dao Lee,  Nobel Prize Laureate in Physics:

“Although simple, the two sticks perfectly use the physics of leverage. Chopsticks are an extension of human fingers. Whatever fingers can do, chopsticks can do, too.”  

Then there’s the environmental side of things. Yes, disposable chopsticks go through a lot of wood, chiefly bamboo – including 24 billion pairs in Japan every year. Everyone can help offset this by buying the reusable-almost-forever variety, in the same way a good-quality cutlery set can get passed down through generations of a family – but that won’t help you with street food as you travel the world (unless you’re really well-prepared in advance)….

So it’s nice to know that there are people smart enough to see used chopsticks for what they are – a terrific resource ripe for upcycling into something else. Some of those people work at Vancouver’s Chopvalue, which has so far recycled over 142 million chopsticks, combining them with resin and pressing them into tiles that can be used to make many other products, including kitchen equipment (like cheese boards and worktops), furniture and wall furnishings. With Chopvalue’s help, one Vancouver restaurant has even clad its walls in decor created from the chopsticks it originally threw away!

So, chopsticks are a big part of world travel, and it’d be wise for us Western folk to get a bit more comfortable with using them – even though, yes, it can be a little frustrating to learn if you didn’t grow up with them. Much trial and much error is the path to mastery here. But once they’re second nature to you, you may find they’re far more useful and versatile than cutlery’s ever been – and, as a nice bonus, you’ll never be tempted by any lazy tabloid headline on the subject ever again.

Sticks at the ready! Get out there and pick up some amazing food in the most fun way possible. You won’t regret it.

Japan boasts a culture worth exploring.
Japan boasts a culture worth exploring.

Explore the history, culture, and cuisine of the paradoxically profound nation of Japan. We’ll stay in a traditional Japanese Ryokan, ride bullet trains, and learn about the legend of the Samurai on what promises to be an unforgettable trip. All the details here.

 

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