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Chopsticks: A Practical and Spiritual Culinary Tradition
Chopsticks aren’t just eating utensils, they’re a handheld piece of history. Look back at their cultural significance with Groupon’s examination of chopsticks.
Though retrieving food using two metal, plastic, or wooden sticks held between the thumb and index finger is often difficult for Westerners to master in one meal, chopsticks are an essential part of East and Southeast Asian culinary traditions. This is largely due to chopsticks’ convenience: aside from soup or other liquid delicacies that require a spoon, chopsticks easily grasp just about any food, from noodles and slices of meat to rice and beans. Their origins can be traced back more than 5,000 years to gnarled twigs used to retrieve food from simmering cooking pots. Chopsticks continued to serve as cooking tools rather than eating implements until around 400 BC, when Chinese chefs started chopping food into smaller pieces that would cook quickly and conserve the fuel used to maintain cooking fires. Using chopsticks instead of a knife made it easier to pick up those smaller morsels, and they also fulfilled the nonviolent teachings of Confucius. The philosopher wrote, “The honorable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives on his table.”
By 500 AD, chopsticks had spread to Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, and each culture developed their fair share of customs surrounding the utensils. Chinese aristocrats often used silver-tipped chopsticks because they believed that the silver would turn black on contact with poison, and other cultures claim that if you receive an uneven pair, you will miss a boat or plane in the future. Chopstick etiquette is extremely important in Japan, because the utensils were first used exclusively during religious ceremonies. There are dozens of ways to accidentally offend someone, from standing chopsticks up in a bowl of rice, which resembles the incense burnt at Japanese funerals, to passing pieces of food between pairs of chopsticks, which mimics a traditional Buddhist funeral ritual.