Chopsticks are a pair of small even-length tapered sticks, which originated in China, and are the traditional eating utensils of China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam.
Chopsticks are commonly used in the first four countries and their associated cuisine. Chopsticks can also now be found in some areas of Tibet and Nepal that are close to Han Chinese populations, due to cross-cultural influences. In South East Asia chopsticks are usually used when eating noodles . Chopsticks are commonly made of wood, bamboo, metal, bone, ivory, and in modern times, plastic as well. The pair of sticks is maneuvered in one hand – between the thumb and fingers – and used to pick up pieces of food.
Chopsticks originated in ancient China and were widely used throughout East Asia. Tools resembling chopsticks were also unearthed in the archaeological site Meggido in Israel, belonging to Scythian invaders of Canaan. This discovery may reveal the existence of a trade relationship between the Middle East and Asia in early antiquity or may be an independent parallel development. Chopsticks were also common household items of civilized Uyghurs on the Mongolian steppes during the 6th–8th centuries.
The English word "chopstick" seems to have been derived from Chinese Pidgin English, a pidgin where "chop chop" meant quickly.
Held between the thumb and fingers of one hand, they are used as tongs to pick up portions of food, which is prepared or is cut up and brought to the table in small and convenient pieces, and (except in Korea) as means for sweeping rice and small pieces of food into the mouth from the bowl. Many rules of etiquette govern the proper conduct of the use of chopsticks.
Chopsticks are traditionally held in the right hand only, even by left-handed people. Although chopsticks may now be found in either hand, a few still consider left-handed chopstick use as improper etiquette. Some people believe this belief came from a Chinese legend.
Chopsticks are simple in design: merely two thin rods (top and bottom area smaller than one square centimeter, length varies), each slightly tapered. The smaller ends come in contact with the food. Some designs have rings carved around the tips, which aid in grabbing food. In chopstick-using cultures, food is generally made into small pieces. Rice in East Asia is usually prepared to be sticky, which leads to "clumping" of the rice conducive to eating with chopsticks (while rice prepared using Western methods tend to be "dry" and is particularly difficult to eat with chopsticks). The stickiness also depends on the cultivar of rice; the cultivar used in East Asian countries tends to be japonica, which is stickier than indica, a rice used in most Western and South Asian countries.
Chefs and cooks also use chopsticks as a cooking tool. There are longer cooking chopsticks for preparing food.
There are several styles of chopsticks that vary in respect to:
* Length: Very long chopsticks, usually about 30 or 40 centimeters, tend to be used for cooking, especially for deep frying foods. In Japan they are called saibashi. Shorter chopsticks are generally used as eating utensils but are also used for cooking.
* Tapering: The end of the chopsticks for picking up food are tapered to a blunt or a pointed end. Blunt tapered chopsticks provide more surface area for holding food and for pushing rice into the mouth. Pointed tapered chopsticks allow for easier manipulation of food and for picking out bones from whole cooked fish.
* Material: Chopsticks can be made from a variety of materials: bamboo, plastic, wood, bone, metal, jade, and ivory.
* Bamboo and wood chopsticks are cheap, low in temperature conduction and provide good grip for holding food due to their matte surfaces. They can warp and deteriorate with continued use and can harbor bacteria if not properly cleaned. Almost all cooking and disposable chopsticks are made of either bamboo or wood. Disposable unlacquered chopsticks are used especially in restaurants. These often come as a piece of wood which is partially cut and must be broken into two chopsticks by the user. In Japanese, these are known as waribashi (割り箸).
* Plastic chopsticks are cheap and low in temperature conduction. Furthermore they do not harbor bacteria or deteriorate much with continued use. However, due to their composition, plastic chopstics are not as good as wood and bamboo chopsticks for picking up food. Also, plastic chopsticks cannot be used for cooking since high temperatures may damage the chopsticks and produce toxic compounds.
* Metal chopsticks are durable and are easy to clean. Like plastic chopsticks, metal chopsticks do not hold food as well as wood, or bone chopsticks. They also tend to be more expensive. Their higher heat conduction also means that they are not as comfortable to use in cooking.
* Materials such as ivory, jade, gold, and silver are typically chosen for luxury reasons.
* Embellishments: Wooden or bamboo chopsticks can be painted or lacquered to decorate them and make them waterproof. Metal chopsticks are sometimes roughened or scribed on the tapered end to make them less slippery when picking up foods. High-end metal chopstick pairs are sometimes connected by a short chain at the untapered end to prevent their separation.
* Chinese: longer sticks that are square in cross section at one end (where they are held) and round in cross section at the other (where they contact the food), ending in a blunt tip.
* Japanese: short to medium length sticks that taper to a pointed end. This may be attributed to the fact that the Japanese diet consists of large amounts of whole bony fish. Japanese chopsticks are traditionally made of wood and are lacquered. Some chopstick sets include two lengths of chopsticks: shorter ones for women and longer ones for men. Child-sized chopsticks are widely sold.
* Korean: medium-length stainless-steel tapered rods, with a flat rectangular cross section. (Traditionally, they were made of brass or silver.) Many Korean metal chopsticks are ornately decorated at the grip.
* Vietnamese: long sticks that taper to a blunt point; traditionally wooden, but now made of plastic as well. A đũa cả is a large pair of flat chopsticks that is used to serve rice from a pot.
How to hold chopsticks
1. Put one chopstick between the palm and the base of the thumb, using the ring finger (the fourth finger) to support the lower part of the stick. With the thumb, squeeze the stick down while the ring finger pushes it up. The stick should be stationary and very stable.
2. Use the tips of the thumb, index and middle fingers to hold the other stick like a pen. Make sure the tips of the two sticks line up.
3. Pivot the upper stick up and down towards the stationary lower stick. With this motion one can pick up food of surprising size.
4. With enough practice, the two sticks function like a pair of pincers.
Tip: Chopsticks generally should be held at the thicker end about a third along their length for balance and efficiency. For greater reach to pick up food further away, hold the chopsticks at the upper ends.
If the tips fail to line up, it will be difficult to hold things. Hold the chopsticks upright with one of the tips lightly touching the table, and gently push the chopsticks down or gently loosen your grip for a moment to let both tips become equal in length. You can also adjust your grip or holding position this way.
With practice, it is possible to perform step one and two simultaneously, on picking up the chopsticks with one hand, with a single fluid and seamless motion. Adjust your grip if necessary.
It is important to note that the chopsticks are used in a large geographic area. While principles of etiquette are similar, the finer points may differ from region to region, and there is no single standard for the use of chopsticks. Generally, chopsticks etiquette is similar to general Western etiquette regarding eating utensils.
In cultures that make use of chopsticks, the following practices are followed:
* Chopsticks are not used to make noise, to draw attention, or to gesticulate. Playing with chopsticks is considered bad mannered and vulgar (just as playing with cutlery in a Western environment would be deemed crass).
* Chopsticks are not used to move bowls or plates.
* Chopsticks are not used to toy with one's food or with dishes in common.
* Chopsticks are not used to pierce food, save in rare instances. Exceptions include tearing larger items apart such as vegetables and kimchi. In informal use, small, difficult-to-pick-up items such as cherry tomatoes or fishballs may be stabbed, but this use is frowned upon by traditionalists.
* Chopsticks can be rested horizontally (except in Korea where they should be rested vertically) on one's plate or bowl to keep them off the table entirely. A chopstick rest can be used to keep the points off the table.
* Chopsticks should not be left standing vertically in a bowl of rice or other food. Any stick-like object pointed upward resembles the incense sticks that some Asians use as offerings to deceased family members; certain funerary rites designate offerings of food to the dead using standing chopsticks.
* In Chinese culture, it is normal to hold the rice bowl up to one's mouth and use chopsticks to push rice directly into the mouth.
* Chinese traditionally eat rice from a small bowl held in the left hand. The rice bowl is raised to the mouth and the rice pushed into the mouth using the chopsticks. Some Chinese find it offensive to scoop rice from the bowl using a spoon. If rice is served on a plate, as is more common in the West, it is acceptable and more practical to eat it with a fork or spoon.
* The blunt end is sometimes used to transfer food from a common dish to a diner's plate or bowl.
* It is acceptable to transfer food to closely related people (e.g. grandparents, parents, spouse, children, or significant others) if they are having difficulty picking up the food. Also it is a sign of respect to pass food to the elderly first before the dinner starts (part of the Confucian tradition of respecting seniors).
* When communal chopsticks are supplied with shared plates of food, it is considered impolite and unhygienic to use eating chopsticks to pick up the food from the shared plate or eat using the communal chopsticks.
* Food should not be transferred from one's own chopsticks to someone else's chopsticks. Japanese people will always offer their plate to transfer it directly, or pass a person's plate along if the distance is great. Transferring directly is how bones are passed as part of Japanese funeral rites.
* The chopsticks should never be stuck into the rice, as this custom is part of Japanese funeral rites.
* The pointed ends of the chopsticks should be placed on a chopstick rest when the chopsticks are not being used.
* Reversing chopsticks to use the opposite clean end is commonly used to move food from a communal plate, although it is not considered to be proper manners. Rather, the group should ask for extra chopsticks to transfer food from a communal plate.
* Chopsticks should not be crossed on a table, as this symbolizes death.
* It is rude to rub wooden chopsticks together after breaking them apart, as this communicates to the host that the user thinks the chopsticks are cheap.
* Koreans consider it rude to pick up the rice bowl from the table to eat from it.
* Unlike other chopstick cultures, Koreans use a spoon for their rice and soup, and chopsticks for most other things at the table. (Traditionally, Korean spoons have a relatively flat, circular head with a straight handle, unlike Chinese or Japanese soup spoons.)
* Unlike the rice eaten in many parts of China, cooked Korean rice can be easily picked up with chopsticks, although eating rice with a spoon is more acceptable.
* The blunt handle ends of chopsticks are not used to transfer food from common dishes.
* When laying chopsticks down on the table next to a spoon, one must never put the chopsticks to the left of the spoon. Chopsticks are only laid to the left for deceased family members.
* It is perfectly acceptable to pick up banchan and eat it without putting it down on one's bowl first.
* As with Chinese etiquette, the rice bowl is raised to the mouth and the rice is pushed into the mouth using the chopsticks.
* Unlike with Chinese dishes, it is also practical to use chopsticks to pick up rice in plates, such as fried rice, because Vietnamese rice is typically sticky.
* It is proper to always use two chopsticks at once, even when using them for stirring.
* One should not pick up food from the table and place it directly in the mouth. Food must be placed in your own bowl first.
* Chopsticks should not be placed in the mouth while choosing food.
* Chopsticks should never be placed in a "V" shape when done eating; it is interpreted as a bad omen.
In China alone, an estimated 45 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks are used and thrown away annually. This adds up to 1.7 million cubic metres of timber or 25 million fully grown trees every year. To encourage that people use and throw away less, as of April 2006 a five percent tax is added to the price of chopsticks. This measure is part of the first tax package in 12 years.
A 2003 study found that regular use of chopsticks may slightly increase the risk of osteoarthritis in the hand, a condition where cartilage gets worn off, leading to pain in the hand joints, particularly among the elderly. There have also been concerns regarding the use of certain white disposable chopsticks that may pose a health risk, causing coughing or even leading to asthma.
A 2006 Hong Kong Department of Health survey has found that the proportion of people using serving chopsticks, spoons or other serving utensils has increased from 46% to 65% since the SARS outbreak in 2003.
* In many Asian integrated circuits and liquid crystal display factories, being capable of picking up small beads quickly with a pair of chopsticks is a requirement of employment. This is a very simple test of eye-hand coordination.