For hundreds of years, Chinese cooking has been defined by the intermingling of flavours through fine chopping. The product of a frugal peasant culture, chopping ingredients to small enough pieces that the flavours of each ingredient can meld with the others and the pieces could cook quickly in order to make the most of scarce fuel has led to the creation of a unique vocabulary for styles of cutting and the shapes it can produce. It also meant that Chinese culture never had to develop the cumbersome utensils with which Westerners hack and saw away at larger lumps of meat and vegetables. An elegant pair of chopsticks were more than adequate to the task.
The Chinese have been using chopsticks since at least 1,200BCE and possibly as far back as 3,000BCE, when they were most likely used exclusively as cooking utensils. It is thought that their use for eating was adapted in around 400BCE, the evolution coming about thanks to a population explosion putting pressure on resources and forcing cooks to develop ways of making the most of what they had. Thus they began chopping food into smaller pieces that could be cooked fast, requiring less cooking fuel and wasting nothing. It also happened to be perfect for the pincer grip of chopsticks.
But the transformation became deeper than a matter of mere convenience and economics. While the practice of fine chopping extends the amount of labour needed before sitting down at the table, it buys fast cooking time and also reduces the amount of labour required to be performed at the table.
This trend was regarded very favourably by Confuscious, a vegetarian who believed that sharp utensils at the table evoked the slaughterhouse, turning the experience of dining into a form of barbaric butchery. He also felt that the sharp points of knives evoked violence and warfare, a mood at odds with the peace and harmony that should reign during meals.
Chopsticks can be classified into according to what they are made from, including wood, metal, bone, stone and compound materials such as ceramics. Some are even made of stone, such as jade, while of course these days, one must add plastic to the mix. Bamboo and wooden chopsticks are the most popular ones used in Chinese homes, although one of the earliest records of chopsticks refer to Zhou, the last king of the Shang Dynasty (around 1100 BCE), who had his own ivory set. Some 1,300 years later, lacquer chopsticks emerged during the Western Han dynasty, while gold and silver chopsticks became popular in the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907CE).
By 500CE, the practice had spread throughout Asia, especially to Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Cambodia and Thailand adopted the chopstick too, but reserves them for noodle dishes such as kuy teav.
Of course, chopsticks do not exist in isolation. They wouldn’t be possible without the other iconic instruments of Chinese cooking, namely the wok and the tou, the single wieldy, wide-bladed knife that can substitute for the entire armoury of knives one might find in a French kitchen.
Incidentally, there is such a condition as a phobia of chopsticks. It’s called consecotaleophobia. Happily, we don’t know any sufferers.