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Chopsticks


Al Dente
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A discussion about chopsticks came up during dinner with my folks this past weekend. My father, as with many of his political persuasion, believes there is a certain superiority inherent in western culture-- especially American culture. He asked me if I thought Asian countries would ever adopt forks and knives as the world becomes more homogenous. After all, he contended, our method of eating is clearly more logical and utilitarian than using a couple of wooden sticks like cavemen probably did.

I wanted so badly to crush him with a liberal dose of facts about chopsticks that would make him back off his opinionated tirade, but I had little to say. So, I'm asking you all to educate me about the history of chopsticks, the use of western eating utensils in Eastern Asia, why chopsticks are used, and anything you would have used in an argument with someone with views like this.

I'll be sure to pass it on. Thanks!

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I can't give you a history of the chopstick. But...

I can eat ice cream with chopsticks, and I can beat an egg quite nicely. It develops dexterity. It's multipurpose - not just for eating, but FANTASTIC for cooking as the bamboo/wooden ones are less likely to conduct heat. You also don't poke holes in the food when you're flipping it. It encourages more communal eating - longer reach - which I like. It's also fairly suitable for the cuisine - small cut up food items, not ginormous hunks of meat. Makes noodle eating easier, in my opinion. There's also something much more pleasing about picking a bowl up and scooping the food into your mouth.

I've used chopsticks to pick out things I've dropped in the toilet, and not felt guilty about disposing of the pair afterward.

It's not that we don't use spoons. We have soup spoons, etc. In Thailand, they use forks and spoons for rice dishes. Vietnamese put their noodles in their spoon and scoop up the broth.

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Not necessarily reflective of my views, but here's Jerry Seinfeld's take:

I think the thing I admire most about the Chinese is that they're hanging in there with the chopsticks. Because, if you think about it, you know, they've seen the fork... by now. I'm sure they've seen the spoon. They're going, "yeah, yeah, they're okay... We're going to stay with the sticks." I mean, I don't know how they've missed it: thousands of years ago, Chinese farmer gets up, has his breakfast with the chopsticks, goes out and works all day in the field with a shovel. Hello? Shovel! Not going out there plowing 40 acres with a couple of pool cues.

I've never really thought of chopsticks as a divisive political issue. :lol:

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Oh I forgot to mention. You can use chopsticks as a sort of oil thermometer. The cells in the wooden ones trap moisture, so when you put one into oil, it will produce bubbles. Depending on the volume/rapidity of the bubbles you can judge if the oil is hot enough. Though I picked that one up from Saveur.

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The chief purpose of chopsticks is for food sophistos like us demonstrate our cultural and culinary superiority to our less multiculti peers. The truth is that we'd all be better off if one night we looked across the table at Joe's or Nam Viet and said to our dining companion, "I don't care how uncultured -- how downright Babbit-ish -- it looks, I'm using a fork."

You first. :lol:

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The chief purpose of chopsticks is for food sophistos like us demonstrate our cultural and culinary superiority to our less multiculti peers. The truth is that we'd all be better off if one night we looked across the table at Joe's or Nam Viet and said to our dining companion, "I don't care how unclutured -- how downright Babbit-ish -- it looks, I'm using a fork."

You first. :lol:

Depending on what I've ordered, I'll go ahead, admit defeat, and ask for a freakin' fork. I mean, come on, can you really pick up a heavy slippery-ass dumpling with chopsticks? The only way I can is if I stab it with one, and I'm not bad with the sticks given I only use them once in a while.

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Depending on what I've ordered, I'll go ahead, admit defeat, and ask for a freakin' fork. I mean, come on, can you really pick up a heavy slippery-ass dumpling with chopsticks? The only way I can is if I stab it with one, and I'm not bad with the sticks given I only use them once in a while.

I've noticed that a lot of people who seem to know what they're doing use sticks and spoons in conjunction with one another when attacking a dumpling- or noodle-laden soup-type thing.

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I think Al's dad's conclusions are generally right, but his premises are all wrong. The history of Western cusine is dominated by joints of meat and chops. You need a knife to cut them and a fork (which came later) to spear them. Puddings, bread, cakes and preserved meats also require these tools, along with the spoon. Asian cuisine tends to do this work in the kitchen beforehand so that bite-size morsels arrive on the table. Chopsticks are useful for picking such morsels out of the (often fiery) sauce they are bathed in. Or am I putting the chicken before the egg?

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Years ago, when I was a graduate student at Columbia, I entered a local Chinese restaurant for lunch. The waitress asked me if I wanted chopsticks or a knife and fork. Because I was feeling like a wise guy (a tendency I'm still struggling with), I said, "Knife and fork, please -- they're more technologically advanced." I should have known that the waitress in that environment would be a Ph.D. candidate. She said, "The knife and fork may be more technologically advanced, but the chopsticks are more anthropologically advanced, since they require an opposable thumb."

I'm still reeling.

The other point that it's important to understand is that the use of chopsticks differs markedly from culture to culture. Are they made of wood, ivory or metal? Where do they weigh more and what is the function of length? What does the writing on them mean? What's the best way to hold them? When is it rude to separate the two sticks? In what countries is it forbidden to use the left hand? Under what circumstances can you dip into the "family" pot and then raise the food to your mouth?

Japan, Korea, Vietnam and China all have different chopsticks traditions. There is no such thing as a catchall chopsticks philosophy or technique.

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I think Al's dad's conclusions are generally right, but his premises are all wrong. The history of Western cusine is dominated by joints of meat and chops. You need a knife to cut them and a fork (which came later) to spear them. Puddings, bread, cakes and preserved meats also require these tools, along with the spoon. Asian cuisine tends to do this work in the kitchen beforehand so that bite-size morsels arrive on the table. Chopsticks are useful for picking such morsels out of the (often fiery) sauce they are bathed in. Or am I putting the chicken before the egg?
In ancient Rome, the food was meant to be presented in bite-sized morsels. Diners would pick up the food with their fingertips*. Using utensils to cut your own food was a sign of poverty. A good kitchen put out food that was just the right size. There were specialized utensils like hooks for escargot, but on the whole food pieces were much the size you'd see them in a modern Chinese stir fry.

It's actually very interesting how similar certain aspects of Asian cuisine are to ancient Roman, from the use of fermented fish sauce, to the size of the morsels, to the spices that were used (Chinese five spice powder would not have been out of place in the imperial kitchen, but is a rare sight in Italy).

*That's fingerTIPS. Using your whole hand to scarf up mounds of food was uncivilized.

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Side note, I actually hate it when a restaurant has the really nice, non-throwaway polished chopsticks. They have no grip!! I am pretty handy with chopsticks but I just feel like the polished ones make it damn near impossible to grab noodles. On the other end though I hate the really cheap ones that give you splinters.

Anyways, when eating noodles, I have always copied the move I saw some old chinese woman doing at a restaurant one time. Scoop up some broth with the spoon, then use the chopsticks to pick up a bite of noodles and kind of set them on the spoon, into the broth. Then bring the spoon to your mouth, using the chopsticks to hold the noodles in place if need be, and slurp the whole thing down. I like this two handed method better than picking the whole bowl up because 1) it allows for a nice mix of broth and noodle on every bite and 2) it doesn't induce the Western-breed, Pavlovian cringe I get from picking a bowl up and bringing it directly to my mouth. The only food where I find chopsticks clearly superior is sushi (or just using fingers). A fork really does a number on a well constructed piece of sushi and if it is a roll the seaweed wrapper is next to impossible to cut.

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Tell your dad that it takes skill to only require two sticks. Those without the necessary skills depend on more cumbersome gadgets to make up for their deficiencies :lol: Sometimes the superior method is the one that is simplest.

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Tell your dad that it takes skill to only require two sticks. Those without the necessary skills depend on more cumbersome gadgets to make up for their deficiencies :lol: Sometimes the superior method is the one that is simplest.

But some would say the fork is the simplest. Seems like some sort of mouthshovel would work better than non-attached foodtweezers, no?

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Oh and for the record, I was mostly kidding with the tone of that last message. Forks and knives are wonderful things. But I have actually started using chopsticks for eating my lunch at work -- they are SO much easier to thoroughly hand-wash! I keep a pair at my desk rather than picking out the appropriate utensil from home each morning and bringing it home to wash at night. Not that that's a big deal, but chopsticks are easier :lol:

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In ancient Rome, the food was meant to be presented in bite-sized morsels.

You're absolutely right, and the same could be said for Greek eating habits as well. I should have said the history of Western cuisine post-Rome, when eating with a knife (usually one's own) began to devlelop, along with the fork later on in the 11th century and other nasty habits of the Middle Ages.

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Why not suggest purée and a hose, or would that be too French?

Or just go Ethiopian, with fingers and injira.

Purée and a horse would be too French. But my suspicion is that, as with the subjunctive, the French cultivate complicated relationships with dining utensils purely for the purpose of confusing foreigners. A hose would be far too simple for this task.

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Or just go Ethiopian, with fingers and injira.

Purée and a horse would be too French. But my suspicion is that, as with the subjunctive, the French cultivate complicated relationships with dining utensils purely for the purpose of confusing foreigners. A hose would be far too simple for this task.

Is it easy to tell the difference between the regular hose and the salad hose?

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In Japan, people do use Western utensils . . . for Western-style foods. Spaghetti = fork; cold soba or udon with dipping sauce = chopsticks. Curry rice = fork and spoon; donburi = chopsticks. I did go to a party once where both Western and Japanese food were served and people ate my banana pudding with chopsticks -- maybe your father has it backwards? :lol:

On morsel size: it's true that most bits of meat or vegetable in Japanese cooking are small enough that all one needs to do is pick them up and eat them. In the instances where this isn't the case, I've generally found that the meat is tender enough that it can be easily "cut" with the chopsticks.

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