estimated reading time: 3 minutes
Chopsticks are indispensable utensils in Asian households. These amazing sticks don’t just represent a time-honored tradition, but also serve as super-flexible cooking and eating tools.
But have you ever noticed that there are different types of chopsticks? If you didn’t know, once you’ll be done with this article you will, because – as an “authentic” Asian with over 18 years of experience using chopsticks – I’ll show you the differences.
First off, most of the content in this article owes credits to a book I have recently read: Chopsticks: A Cultural and Culinary History by Q.Edward Wang.
But, why? Why should simple chopsticks be so problematic? Why do China, Japan, Korea or Vietnam each need their own style of chopsticks anyway? Isn’t it all just about the aesthetics? The answer is yes, and also no. Aesthetic purposes may be of some significance but it’s the historical and cultural circumstances that explain it all.
First comes China, where chopsticks were born roughly 4,000-5,000 years ago. Chinese chopsticks are mostly made of unfinished wood and come in a rectangular shape with a blunt end. Chinese chopsticks are long because of the culture of sharing food, which possibly originated in the 10th century during the Song Dynasty. When eating hot-pot, this feature is particularly helpful because long chopsticks help guests reach into the boiling broth without getting burnt. By the 11th century, chopsticks had migrated to other Asian countries – namely Japan, Korea, and Vietnam – and this primary utensil of choice was modified to satisfy the needs of each.
Japanese chopsticks, for instance, are shorter, since the Japanese tend not to share food from the same pot. They believe that once a person’s lips has touched the head of the chopsticks, their saliva would ruin the taste of the food for everybody else. Another feature of Japanese chopsticks worth noticing is that they are pointy, because Japanese people love fish and pointy chopsticks make it easier to separate the tiny bones from the meat. Also, the Japanese use their chopsticks differently – since the food is always put right in front of each person, the chopsticks are held horizontally, so as to make eating easier.
While Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese chopsticks are made of natural materials, Korean chopsticks are often made of stainless steel. This can be explained by the fact that, around the 7th century, the royal family was scared of being poisoned by enemies, so they would use only silver chopsticks to detect arsenic chemicals. To this day, even households that cannot afford silver chopsticks still buy those that are at least made of metal. Did you also notice that Korean chopsticks are often flat? This is not simply because they want to save on materials, but for a more alluring reason: Korean BBQ. Metals are unquestionably far more durable when exposed to high temperatures.
Last but not least, Vietnamese chopsticks. They are often mistaken for Chinese ones, to the point that even Vietnamese people themselves do not know such a thing as “Vietnamese style” chopsticks exist. There actually are differences between the two, yet they’re so minor that people generally overlook them. Vietnamese chopsticks are, most of the time, longer than Korean or Japanese ones. The most traditional kind is preferably made of bamboo or old coconut wood. They can also be distinguished from the Chinese ones by their thinner shape.
So, although they originated in China, chopsticks developed specific characteristics in most Asian countries due to different historical and cultural reasons. Chopsticks are more than just utensils, they’re a source of pride for people from East Asia. So, next time you go to an Asian restaurant, don’t use pointy chopsticks to eat phở nor flat ones for sushi! Amaze friends with your sophisticated chopstick choice.