There was a time when my husband and I were living in Ontario, but our daughters had moved to B.C. and settled in Vancouver. Both got married and each had a son.
As you can imagine, visits were in order on an annual basis and each time we were treated to lunch or dinner at the Varsity, their favourite place to eat out, at least once, while we were there. The Varsity was a small, family-operated Chinese restaurant on Broadway West which, unfortunately, is there no more.
The decor was authentic and so was the food. There was a large round table that turned as well as other authentic items and there was the owner, who took a real liking to the boys.
And, there were chopsticks! You can understand how impressed we were when we saw the parents, and especially the children, handle the chopsticks with skill and ease. I had tried it a few times myself but never succeeded. And I always wondered when, where and how chopstsicks originated. So, when I heard that Klaus, my private source of information, had given a lecture on this subject, I knew that he was the man to ask. I was not disappointed and, as always, I am happy to share some information with you.
Chopsticks are part of the Chinese culture, one of the oldest cultures in our world. One of the first known Chinese historians who mentioned the practice of chopsticks was Sima Qian, who lived approximately 140 years before Christ. He wrote the encyclopedia Shiji and mentions in it the practice of chopsticks at the court of Zhou Wang, the last king of the Yin Dynasty and that they were made from ivory.
Many historians believe that chopsticks were used long before the Yin Dynasty and were not all made of ivory but rather from bones, wood or bamboo.
When it comes to the question how the name chopsticks originated, historians are not quite as clear. But they have accepted that the sign in the Chinese language meaning “fast things” is the proper one. According to English dictionaries, however, it comes from “pidgin-english” used by Chinese seafarers, meaning chop (fast) and stick. It all sounds very logical, though I myself would not consider ‘fast’ applicable when I try to use them!
Another point of interest is that, according to a Chinese expert, eating with chopsticks is training for the brain. I totally agree!
Today, most people in China still mostly use chopsticks and in Japan, where the people adopted the practice of eating with chopsticks at a much later time, chopsticks are still widely used as well. There are taboos, too, when eating with chopsticks, especially in Japan. For instance, “Namida Hashi” mearning “do not use them to fill your mouth” or “Neburt Hashi” do not lick your sticks.
While in China, as well as in Korea, porcelain spoons are being used to eat soup but in Japan one drinks the soup and eats solid pieces with the chopsticks. In Thailand and Vietnam they offer chopsticks as well as the utensils of the western world — different countries, different customs.
A Japanese historian explains that, in his opinion, one can divide the world in three parts when it comes to eating customs; in addition to fingers, knives and spoons are being used by roughly 40 per cent, 30 per cent use fingers and forks and another 30 per cent use fingers and chopsticks.
The history of knives, forks and spoons is as interesting and I will gladly share the information with you at another time.
Read Ruth Altendorf’s previous column