Samui Wining & Dining
Chop Chop Chop

The use of chopsticks is something of a puzzle – just exactly why do so many Asian people use them?

The use of chopsticks is something of a puzzle – just exactly why do so many Asian people use them?Stone-age men used pointed sticks to eat their food. It wasn’t until the time of the early Egyptians that spoons began to appear; made of wood, bone, ivory or gold, as utensils made of ordinary metals tarnished or rusted. And, by the time of the Roman Empire – say about 3,000 years ago, eating-utensils consisted of a metal knife to cut your food and to spear the lumps up into your mouth, and a spoon for smaller bits and liquids like soup. And as the Romans expanded their empire, so other nations benefitted from their culture and habits.

Meanwhile, in the mountains of northern China and in the rest of Asia, people were still sticking pointed sticks into their food. For some strange reason, this part of the world had never given spoons or forks the thumbs up. The cultural subtlety of tableware, knives and forks and spoons, never spread out of the Western world into Asia.

Well, not until the 17th century that is, and The Age of Discovery, when all of Europe hopped into little sailing ships and realised they wouldn’t drop off the edge of the world, after all. But by the time they got to China and Japan, Korea, too, they discovered that those pointed sticks had already evolved into a long-established culinary art form. They were now being made out of slender, tapered wood or ivory and being called chopsticks – well, that was the common name given to them by explorers.

This is a very hard thing to understand, if you ponder on it for a while. What is more naturally instinctive, using a little bowl with a handle (i.e. a spoon) to scoop up small pieces of food, or having to spend years training yourself to do the same thing with two small, thin, pieces of wood? I mean, the Chinese farmers are out in the fields all day using shovels. Shovels – spoons. Do you ever see them trying to scoop up compost or plough a couple of acres using pool cues?

For a hint of an explanation for this bizarre cultural meme, we have to look to the venerable Chinese philosopher and politician, Confucius. “. . . the honourable man keepeth well away from the kitchen, and he alloweth no knives upon his table.” And for over 300 years, Confucianism was the official ideology of China. Which meant that as no knives were allowed at the table, and the idea of spoons or forks had yet to arrive from the West, using sticks to eat their food became a firmly established way of life for the Chinese.

Most certainly it wasn’t just the Chinese who adopted such behaviour. Over time, due to either migration or colonisation, the use of chopsticks spread southwards into India, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines and parts of Indonesia – the Chinese of that time were inveterate traders and not infrequently plain, simple pirates. And their influence, and aspects of their culture, is still seen in the countries that they visited and often settled in.

But the rampant colonialism of the 18th and 19th centuries stamped out a lot of this influence. The British, for example, were in India for almost 200 years, and invaded and colonised Burma and Malaya, too. The Spanish swallowed up the Philippines. And the French got their hooks into Vietnam and Cambodia. And in these nations, over time, the ease of use of a knife, fork and spoon came to replace fiddling about with little sticks when you were hungry. But as for China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan, well, they were never invaded by Europeans. And so, to this day, each of these nations still use the traditional chopsticks that their ancestors have favoured for the last 2,000 years or more – it’s that strongly culturally ingrained.

Except that, today, there’s now quite a lot of international concern about this. Quite simply, it’s a huge waste of resources. With 1.4 billion people ploughing through 80 billion pairs of throwaway chopsticks yearly, China has been cutting down 20 million mature trees every year to fuel its disposable chopstick habit – only 4,000 chopsticks can be made from one tree. And now China has run out of suitable wood, and has gone on to become the world's largest importer of wood, and even imports chopsticks in bulk from America.

But, to finish, let’s put some of you straight about Thailand and chopsticks. Many first-time visitors to this country are puzzled when they notice that there are no chopsticks on the tables over here. In their Thai restaurants, back home where they come from, chopsticks are used. Why not over here?

The answer is simple. In the words of one New York restaurateur, "It’s what people expect. Thai people normally use a spoon and a fork; they only use chopsticks when eating noodles, due to their Chinese origins. But if we don’t lay out chopsticks for our diners, they think we’re somehow not authentic and go elsewhere."

So putting chopsticks on the tables of Thai restaurants abroad has now become normal. If you can’t beat them, join them, particularly when it comes to chopsticks!


Rob De Wet


Copyright 2017 Samui Wining & Dining. All rights reserved Siam Map Company Ltd.