I seldom go out for Chinese food these days. It doesn't really work for me unless you have a decent sized group who can share a wide variety of dishes. For that reason I hadn't used chopsticks for a good while until our recent trip to Japan. No great hardship - it's like riding a bike. But I did start thinking, why?
Are you a chopstick user? If so, can you remember the early efforts to get food from plate to gob using just two thin pieces of wood? Are you one of those who has completely rejected out of hand the notion of trying? I can't entirely blame you. For many of my age it was a rite of passage in cheap Chinese places near the university, a diversion from attempts at suicide by vindaloo.
The triumph of picking up a single cube of chicken. Then, for sheer flash, holding aloft a single pea. But why?
The history of cutlery is an interesting one. We are all born with built in cutlery, called fingers. Depending which source you find more reliable, the origin of chopsticks is anywhere between 3500 and 5000 years ago, almost certainly used initially to fish hot food out of a cooking pot. Chinese, as you would expect, moving to Japan, Vietnam and Korea in about 500 AD. But cutlery in the sense we know it today goes as far back as ancient Egypt. In Europe, if you didn't rely on fingers alone, you probably had your knife to spear and hack at your food. Why didn't the Chinese move on?
Well, it appears that Confucius was responsible. Famous for his abhorrence of violence, he extended this philosophy, once writing, the honourable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives on his table.
Fair enough. What I did find fascinating is the amount of superstition which can surround today's heroes. In Korea, it is said that the closer to the tip you hold your chopsticks, the longer you will stay unmarried. Dropping one's chopsticks is apparently a sign of bad luck. Another belief, apparently, is that if you find an uneven pair of chopsticks at your table setting, you will miss the next train, boat or plane you are trying to catch. Only a hunch, but I think that may be of more recent origin.
In Japan, there are also numerous potential breaches of etiquette regarding chopsticks. If you stop to think about it the same can be said about use of cutlery here, the main difference being that we are now much more free and easy about this than were previous generations. If you plan a trip there it is worthwhile reading up on these to try to avoid causing offence. They are very different to us: blowing one's nose in public is horribly rude, whereas sniffing is perfectly fine. (Yuk!)
Back to chopsticks. Standing them upright in a bowl of food is the ultimate no-no. Too reminiscent of incense sticks at funerals. Gesticulating with them is bad, as is resting them on top of a dish of food, sucking them, or laying them down in a vertical position. (Horizontally, if you please.)
Some of the cultural differences do make their use easier. Take ramen, noodles served in broth. It's OK to hold the bowl up to your mouth, in which case eating the noodles is easier than you think. Once you've eaten everything else, just use the bowl as a cup. Likewise your rice bowl is held close to you.
All in all we managed fine; however, I'm sure I'm not the only one to wish I had a spoon for those last wee bits in the bowl.