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Chopsticks are small tapered sticks used in pairs of equal length as the traditional eating utensils of Greater China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Generally believed to have originated in ancient China, they can also be found in some areas of Tibet and Nepal that are close to Han Chinese populations. Chopsticks are most commonly made of bamboo or plastic, but are also made of metal, bone, ivory, and various types of wood. The pair of sticks is maneuvered in one hand, between the thumb and fingers, and used to pick up pieces of food.
The English word "chopstick" seems to have been derived from Chinese Pidgin English, a pidgin in which "chop chop" meant quickly. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest published use of the word is in the 1699 book Voyages and descriptions by William Dampier, where it says "they are called by the English seamen Chopsticks".
The Mandarin Chinese word for chopsticks is kuàizi 筷子. 筷 is a semantic-phonetic (xíngshēng) compound with a phonetic part of "快", which means quick, and a semantic part, 竹, meaning bamboo.
Chopsticks being used to eat the Japanese dish nattō
In Chinese, the old word for "chopsticks", and also in some varieties of modern Chinese such as Hokkien, was zhù (MC: d̪jwo-) (箸 Pinyin:zhù, Minnan: tī). However, zhù became a taboo on ships because it sounded the same as another word meaning "to stop" (住). Consequently, it was replaced by a word of opposite meaning, kuài (fast, quick). This gradually spread until it became the word for "chopsticks" in most varieties of modern Chinese. The character for this new meaning of "chopsticks" (筷) for kuài has the semantic element of bamboo added to the character meaning "fast" kuài (快).
In Japanese, chopsticks are called hashi, written 箸. They are also known as otemoto (おてもと) or o-temoto, a phrase commonly printed on the wrappers of disposable chopsticks. "O" is honorific and "temoto" was euphemistic jargon invented by the clique of the ladies in attendance at the imperial court meaning that which is within your reach. More fundamentally, "te" means hand and "moto" is related to the "kyo" of "kyoka" (permission).
In Korean, 저(箸, jeo) is used in the compound jeokkarak (젓가락) which is composed of jeo (chopsticks) and garak (stick). Jeo cannot be used alone.
In Vietnamese, chopsticks are called "đũa", which is written as 𥮊 or 𥯖 in Chữ Nôm.
Chopsticks originated in ancient China as early as the Shang dynasty (1766-1122 BCE). The earliest evidence of a pair of chopsticks made out of bronze was excavated from the Ruins of Yin near Anyang, Henan, dated roughly 1200 BCE.
While China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam had long included chopsticks as part of their traditional eating utensils, the use of chopsticks in a limited sense spread to other Asian countries in recent centuries with the influx of Chinese immigrants in Southeast Asia.
Many countries in Southeast Asia had traditionally eaten with their hands, but through the influence of Chinese immigrants, countries such as Thailand began to use chopsticks, almost exclusively in noodle dishes. Rice and other foods are generally eaten with a western spoon and fork rather than chopsticks.
Many rules of etiquette govern the proper conduct of the use of chopsticks. Held between the thumb and fingers of one hand, chopsticks are used like tongs to pick up portions of food which are prepared and brought to the table in small and convenient pieces. They are thought of as an extension of one's fingers. Chopsticks may also be used (except in Korea) as means for sweeping rice and other nominal morsels into the mouth directly from the bowl.
Chopsticks are traditionally held in the right hand, even by some left-handed people. Although chopsticks may now be found in either hand, a few still consider left-handed chopstick use as improper etiquette. Some historians believe this rule of etiquette originated from a Chinese legend.
In chopstick-using cultures, food is generally made into small pieces; however, some chopstick designs have carved rings encircling the tips to aid in grasping larger pieces of food. Rice, which would be difficult to eat with chopsticks if prepared using Western methods, is usually prepared in East Asia with more water, which leads to "clumping" of the rice conducive to eating with chopsticks. The sticky characteristics of the rice also depend on the cultivar of rice; the cultivar used in East Asian countries is usually japonica, which is a more naturally clumping kind of rice than indica, the rice used in most Western and South Asian countries.
Wooden and plastic chopsticks.
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 (菜箸). 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 end chopsticks provide more surface area for holding food and for pushing rice into the mouth. Pointed chopsticks allow for easier manipulation of food and for picking out bones from cooked fish. Pointed ends are also helpful in spearing the food, if the proper technique cannot be mastered. Spearing is seen, however, as improper etiquette.
- Material: Chopsticks are 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. Almost all cooking and disposable chopsticks are made of bamboo or wood. Disposable unlacquered chopsticks are used especially in restaurants. These often come as a piece of wood that is partially cut and must be split into two chopsticks by the user (demonstrating that they have not been previously used). In Japanese, these are known as waribashi (割り箸). Natural wood chopsticks, like natural wood food preparation surfaces, have an innate antibacterial property absent from other materials.
- Plastic chopsticks are cheap, low in temperature conduction and are resistant to wear. Due to their composition, plastic chopsticks are not as effective as wood and bamboo chopsticks for picking up food as they tend to be slippery. Also, plastic chopsticks cannot be used for cooking since high temperatures may damage the chopsticks and produce toxic compounds.
- Metal chopsticks are durable and easy to clean but more slippery when compared to plastic or wood. They also tend to be more expensive.
- Materials such as ivory, jade, gold, and silver are typically chosen for luxury.
- 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. Higher priced metal chopstick pairs are sometimes connected by a short chain at the untapered end to prevent their separation.
Styles of chopstick used in different cultures
From top to bottom: plastic chopsticks from Taiwan, porcelain chopsticks from mainland China, bamboo chopsticks from Tibet, palmwood chopsticks from Indonesia (Vietnamese style), stainless flat chopsticks from Korea (plus a matching spoon), a Japanese couple's set (two pairs), Japanese child's chopsticks, and disposable "hashi" (in wrapper)
- 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. 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. They are sometimes used to put food on a spoon, which then brings food to the mouth.
- 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.
It is important to note that chopsticks are used in many parts of the world. 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.
- 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 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—rice in China is rarely served on a plate—up to one's mouth and use chopsticks to push rice directly into the mouth.
- 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.
- It is poor etiquette to tap chopsticks on the edge of one's bowl, as beggars are believed to make this noise to attract attention.
- It is impolite to spear food with a chopstick, unless the food is difficult to handle, such as fishballs.
- It is considered poor etiquette to point rested chopsticks towards others seated at the table.
- Chopsticks should not be left vertically stuck into a bowl of rice because it resembles the ritual of incense-burning that symbolizes "feeding" the dead and death in general.
- Holding chopsticks incorrectly will leave bad impressions for your parents, who have the responsibility of teaching their young.
Hong Kong etiquette
- The eldest (most respected) member of the family holds his/her chopsticks first.
- Serving chopsticks (公筷) are used to move food from a serving dish to one's bowl. These are often a different colour from individuals' chopsticks.
- Chopsticks are not to be used backwards.
- Resting chopsticks at the top of the bowl means "I've finished". Resting chopsticks on the chopstick stands means "I'd like to continue but am taking a break."
- Food should not be transferred between chopsticks. Food in need of transportation should be placed onto the recipient's plate or on a new plate for collection.
- Using chopsticks like a knife and fork to cut soft foods such as sashimi and omelet into smaller portions, usually for children, is widely accepted.
- Chopsticks should not be rested on the table but rather on a provided chopstick rest or lying across the rice bowl in a sideways fashion.
- Chopsticks should not be bitten on, or linger in one's mouth for too long.
- 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 with chopsticks is how bones are passed as 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. However, when a chopstick rest is not available as it is often the case in restaurants using waribashi (disposable chopsticks), a person may make a chopstick rest by folding the paper case that contained the chopsticks.
- 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, or vertically stuck in the rice, which is done during a funeral.
- 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.
- Chopsticks should be placed right-left direction; the tips should be on the left. Placing diagonal, vertical and crossing each stick are not acceptable both in home and restaurant manners.
- Unlike most other East Asian cultures, it is considered ill-mannered to use chopsticks to eat rice, and spoon is used instead. The Korean spoon, which has a thin and shallow bowl, is likely evolved for this purpose.
- It is considered uncultured and rude to pick up a dish or a bowl to bring it closer to one's mouth, and eat its content with chopsticks (except certain noodle dishes like naengmyeon). Dishes are to be left on the table at all times, and a spoon is used alongside chopsticks, if the food lifted "drips".
- 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 during the food preparation for the funeral or the memorial service for the deceased family members, known as jesa.
- 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, 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. In April 2006, the People's Republic of China imposed a five percent tax on chopsticks to discourage excessive consumption and waste. This measure was part of the first tax package in twelve years.
Reusable metal chopsticks have grown in popularity in recent years. The Taiwanese-American singer Leehom Wang has publicly advocated their use.
A 2003 study found that regular use of chopsticks by the elderly may slightly increase the risk of osteoarthritis in the hand, a condition in which cartilage is worn out, leading to pain and swelling in the hand joints. There have also been concerns regarding the use of certain disposable chopsticks made from dark wood bleached white that may pose a health risk, causing coughing or leading to asthma.
A 2006 Hong Kong Department of Health survey 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.
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