All about chopsticks

Regarding this page

In most Asian countries meals are eaten with chopsticks. But there are differences, just as in the western world Americans wield knives and forks in a different way as Europeans. I have a small collection of chopsticks and chopstick rests (nothing special, but I enjoy it nonetheless), and thought it would be nice to add a page on these eating utensils.

Chopsticks are simple but brilliant utensils to pick up food and bring it to the mouth, but you can not cut with them. That is why most ingredients in 'chopstick cuisines' are cut up into bite-sized chunks. There is no need to use a knife. In the Chinese cuisine a porcelain spoon is provided for eating soups and other food that is difficult to eat with sticks, but the Japanese eat even their soups with chopsticks! The solid ingrediŽnts are taken out of the soup with the sticks, the soup itself is drunk straight from the bowl.

Several Japanese and Chinese chopsticks.

Differences between Chinese and Japanese chopsticks

Chopsticks were probably already used for eating as long as two thousand years ago. The Chinese were the first to use chopsticks, Japanese followed some centuries later. But Chinese and Japanese chopsticks are not the same.
Chinese chopsticks are made of unfinished wood (bamboo). They are straight with a blunt end. Other materials are: bone (ivory), metal or stone (jade). Chinese chopsticks are relatively long. Diners take their food from common bowls which are set in the middle of the (round) table. Long sticks are quite handy to be able to reach everything. When laying the table the chopsticks are placed on the right side of the bowl or plate (like our knife). The chopsticks are the same for all diners.(On the history of Chinese chopsticks).
Japanese chopsticks are made of wood (mostly bamboo), often lacquered, and have tapered ends. Sometimes the tapered ends are ribbed or roughened, to get a firmer hold on the food. The chopsticks vary in length. Children have short sticks, men use the longest sticks. Women sometimes have slightly shorter sticks. Because the food is served in individual bowls and dishes, the chopsticks are not as long as Chinese ones. When laying the table, the chopsticks are placed horizontally in front of the bowl(s), with the tapered end to the left. Everyone has his or her own individual chopsticks, no two pairs need to be the same (except of course in restaurants).
Korean chopsticks are made from metal, and the most difficult to eat with.

Explanation of the chopsticks in the picture above
1 - Chopsticks for cooking; 2- Japanese wooden sticks for men and women with a beautiful woodgrain; 3 - Three pairs of decorated Japanese chopsticks; 4 - Chinese chopsticks: the eight immortals; 5 - Long Chinese chopsticks with a saying wishing happiness; 6 - Two pairs of rookie sticks.

Holding chopsticks

How to use chopsticks

First you pick up your sticks. Take them at the holding end with your right hand. Then take them over at the eating end with your left hand. Now you can take them with your right hand in the eating position. The eating position is: lower chopstick fixed with the ringfinger, the upper chopstick is moved and controlled by the index finger. You might think you will never learn it, but be patient: practice makes perfect.
Here is an exercise: Take two small bowls. Fill one with peanuts or peas. Then move them one by one from one bowl to the other, using chopsticks. Young children and people with arthritis may prefer the so called rookie sticks. These sticks are joined together, so that you can use them as a pincher.

Chopstick Tablemanners

When you eat with chopsticks you have to mind your manners, just as when you eat with knife and fork. It is not polite to pierce your food with sticks to pick it up. You may not gesticulate or point at something with sticks in your hand. You may not bite on or lick off your chopsticks. You may not cut food with them. You may not hover with your sticks above foodbowls. You must not pick up a bowl with the hand that is holding your chopsticks.
When not in use, deposit your chopsticks on the table with the tips on the chopstick rest. Chopstick rests date from the second half of the twentieth century. Before then the chopsticks rested on the edge of a plate or bowl.

Chopstick rests (hashioki)

A part of my collection of hashiokiThese didn't become popular in Japan until the sixties of the twentieth century, especially in restaurants and on formally laid tables. Until then, chopsticks were placed on the table in long, narrow boxes. The eater would take them out of the box, and at the end of the meal replace them. During the meal the chopsticks rested on the rim of a plate or bowl, but never with the ends in the food.
Once you start buying chopstick rests you won't be able to stop: there are always new ones (and generally they are not very expensive!). Most chopstick rests are made of porselain, some of wood or other materials, or even paper. They are often figurative: lots of fish, other animals, but also tree leaves, vegetables and objects.

The eight immortals

In the picture at the top of this page you see a Chinese serie of chopsticks called The Eight Immortals. They are comparable to Western apostle spoons. From each immortal there is one pair of chopsticks. The eight immortals are Taoist deities. Below you find a very short description of the iconography of each of them (from left to right). The names are spelled according to pinyin. The legend I found in a book my grandfather owned, De tuin der goden (The garden of the gods), from 1947.

Detail van de eetstokjes met de acht onsterfelijken.

  1. Zhang Guo Lau - Seated backwards on a mule, holds a feather of a phoenix, or bamboo tube-drum, or again the peach of immortality. A hermit, patron of old men.
  2. Lan Caihe - With a basket filled with flowers or peaches of immortality. Hermafrodite, wandering musician. Patron of florists.
  3. Li Tieguai  - Lame, with an iron leg and a gourd filled with magic herbs. Patron of the sick.
  4. LŁ Dongbin - With a magic sword and a fly-whisker. A scholar (lived 755-855 AD). Patron of barbers.
  5. Han Xiang Zi - Plays a flute or castanets. Nephew of the famous author Han Yu (768-824 AD), clairvoyant. Corpulent, with a naked belly. Patron of musicians.
  6. Han Zhongli - Has a fan or the peach of immortality. A military man.
  7. He Hiangu - The only woman. With magical lotus blossom, peach or basket with flowers, sometimes with reed-organ. Drinks wine. Said to have lived in the 7th century.
  8. Cao Guojiu - Keeps his hands reverentially crossed before the breast, holding a small jade tablet of admission to court, or has castanets. Eldest brother of empress Jen-chung (1023-1064 AD), hermit, patron of actors.

The historic background runs from the 7th to the 11th century. The legend got its definitive form around 1200 AD. You can find more on the eight immortals on this site on Taoism. And there is a Chinese film about the Eight Immortals (region-1 dvd)

All descriptions of ingredients

The editions below are in my possession. Links refer to available editions.
All books mentioned on this site (with short reviews)

  • A.G. van Hamel (red.), De tuin der goden. Deel II, Mythen der Chinezen, Japanners, Volken van IndonesiŽ en OceaniŽ, Volken van Zuid-Amerika, Volken van Midden- en Noord-Amerika en de Voken van Afrika met illustraties van Anton Pieck. Uitgeversmij W. De Haan n.v., Utrecht, 1947
  • Naomichi Ishige, The History and Culture of Japanese Food. Kegan Paul, London etc, 2001