Join High Touch High Tech in celebrating
National Chopsticks Day
February 6, 2021!
It is said that you can neatly divide the world population by choice of eating utensil. About one third of the world population eats with knife and fork. Another third of the world eats with their hands. The other third uses chopsticks at mealtime. For those of us in the knife and fork part of the world, eating with chopsticks may be especially challenging, even counterintuitive. Why even bother with the delicate, tweezer-like balance required to eat with chopsticks? Don’t be afraid of a cramped hand or dropped rice everywhere — learning to eat with chopsticks means you are joining in one of the oldest continuous culinary, cultural, and even technological legacies in the world. Plus, folks on the chopstick side of the world say that East Asian food eaten with knife and fork just does not taste as good!
Some of the oldest chopsticks ever found are around 3300 years old. Chopsticks’ origins in Ancient China represent an innovative technological solution to environmental challenges. They have proven to be such an innovative solution that their simple design has endured without modification for millennia, much unlike the fork, which is relatively recent, and in its oldest form was two long prongs rather than the multiple prongs commonly in use today. One thing most cultures seem to agree on is the spoon, and it is known that spoons were in use in very ancient China even before chopsticks were invented.
Five thousand years ago, the small population of Ancient China depended on millet, not rice, and millet was often served as a gruel meant for a spoon. But, as the population grew, people’s relationship to the environment and the food it provided also began to change. More people were able to grow and harvest more types of food, but also began deforesting already sparse parts of the Ancient Chinese heartland. In response to a lack of fuel, Chinese food evolved to focus on small, chopped-up pieces that could be cooked quickly, with a minimum of fuel waste. Most of the Chinese food enjoyed today, such as stir-fry, still follows this “bite-size” pattern, as opposed to the more “lumpen” style of knife and fork food, such as steak and a baked potato.
Chopsticks, originally employed as cooking tools and plucked straight off a tree, became the perfect fit for Chinese food as it evolved. Easily made of wood, bone, or even metal, chopsticks were in wide use among the people of East Asia before most people in the knife and fork world could afford the luxury of a fork. Seen in the context of history, chopsticks are not counterintuitive at all. In fact, they are a perfect example of a cultural adaptation to a difficult environmental challenge, as are so many of humanity’s best inventions. The tweezer-like action of chopsticks makes them perfect for picking up even very small, precise amounts of food. To understand the simple, enduring, form-follows-function perfection of this technology, all you have to do is look at the name: in the world outside of East Asia, they are known as chopsticks, but in Chinese they are called
“筷子“ which means, roughly “little piece picker-uppers!”
In the Western World, using chopsticks on a good day is challenging
enough! Imagine trying to use chopsticks without your thumbs! If you want to
test your skills managing chopsticks or completing other daily tasks without
your thumbs, try our at-home experiment, All Thumbs! Find lesson plan,
supplies, and tutorial video here:
How to eat with Chopsticks:
How NOT to use Chopsticks:
An awesome two-part documentary on the deep cultural meaning of chopsticks in the East Asian world: