Tools: 6 Things to Know About Chopsticks

Here in the U.S., we love our sushi rolls, ramen, and carryout Chinese. This means, of course, that we’re pretty familiar with chopsticks—if not totally adept at using them. But beyond the knack they have for grasping just the right bite of tofu, or the satisfying “snap” a fresh wooden pair makes when pulled apart, how much can any of us really say about these ancient Asian implements? Read on, and you’ll have plenty to tell your friends over your next plate of dumplings.

Spoons came first in Japan.

According to Rowan University professor Q. Edward Wang, a Chinese historian and author of the book Chopsticks: A Cultural and Culinary History, spoons once played a bigger role than chopsticks at the Japanese table. “In ancient times, chopsticks were made to assist the eating by picking up only vegetables in soup or a soupy dish,” he says. “The primary eating tool was the spoon.” And for soup dishes, it still is.

Thais don’t typically use them.

Don’t expect to see chopsticks offered with your meal in Thailand, unless noodle preparations (which often have their roots in China) are on the menu. Traditional Thai dishes, like the tongue-searing papaya salad som tam, are served with forks and spoons.

Made in … Georgia?

While most of the world’s disposable chopstick supply comes from China (even though they were actually invented in Japan), in 2011 a factory in the small town of Americus, Georgia, was “cranking out ten million sets a week for export to China, Japan, and South Korea,” as reported in the December 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine. The factory has since closed for financial reasons, but business once boomed thanks to the area’s abundance of poplar and sweet gum tree scraps left over from lumberyards and paper mills.

Chopsticks = Love

In China, it’s popular among lovers and newlyweds to give each other chopsticks as a gift. Says Q. Edward Wang: “The two sticks need to be the same length and used together, symbolizing the couple’s collaboration and love.”

Etiquette exists.

The way you handle your chopsticks can say a lot about you, depending on what country you’re in. For example:

  • In many Asian cultures, it’s considered rude to allow your chopsticks to stand upright in a mound of rice.
  • Chopsticks should not be used to root around in the bottom of your bowl for food. Let it go.
  • Don’t ask for chopsticks in the Philippines. Filipinos eat with forks and spoons.

One size doesn’t fit all.

Depending on whether or not people eat communally, says Q. Edward Wang, chopstick length can range from region to region. “In China, Vietnam, and Korea,” he says, “communal eating was adopted from the 12th century, so chopsticks are longer than the ones used in Japan, as the Japanese tend to eat food separately, having their own bento [box], for example.” Generally, he adds, Chinese chopsticks tend to be roughly 25 centimeters (9.8 inches) long, and Japanese ones measure about 18 to 20 centimeters (7.1 to 7.9 inches).

Catherine Zuckerman is a staff writer at National Geographic and a home cook with high hopes for making her own baby food this year. You can follow her on Twitter.

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This is the second post in a series called #foodtools, about everyday and extraordinary kitchen items that live in our drawers, on our shelves, and next to our sinks. We reach for them over and over, but how much do we actually know about these trusty implements, other than the tasks they perform? We’re on a quest to find out.

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