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Try a Pair of the “Quick Ones”!

Try a Pair of the “Quick Ones”!

 Try a Pair of the “Quick Ones”!


FROM the look of sheer delight on her face, it is obvious that the little girl is enjoying her meal. In her left hand is a bowl piled to the brim with rice, small pieces of vegetables, and fish. In her right hand is a pair of thin bamboo sticks. Working the sticks with her tiny fingers, the girl picks out her favorite morsels and places them neatly in her mouth. Sometimes she takes the bowl up to her lips and, with a few quick strokes of the sticks, scoops the rice right into her mouth. It all looks so natural, easy, and neat.

What the little girl has in her hand are, of course, the fabled chopsticks. In Chinese they are called k’uai tzu (Pinyin, kuaizi), which means “quick ones.” The English word “chopsticks” is said to have come from the pidgin term chop, meaning “quick.” At any rate, they are found in just about every household in Southeast Asia. Perhaps you have tried to use them while dining in a Chinese restaurant. But do you know where the idea of chopsticks came from? Or how and when they were first used? And would you like to know how to use them correctly?

The “Quick Ones”

Chopsticks are slender sticks about eight to ten inches [20-25 cm] long. The upper half of the stick is often squared. This makes it easier to grasp and prevents it from rolling around on the table. The lower half is usually rounded. Often, Japanese chopsticks are shorter and end in more of a point than Chinese ones.

In these days of mass production, many restaurants provide prepackaged chopsticks that are still joined at the upper end. The diner must pull them apart before they can be used. Because they are for one-time use only, such chopsticks are made of plain wood or bamboo. Chopsticks used at more expensive establishments or in the home are often quite beautiful, made of polished bamboo, lacquered wood, plastic, stainless steel, or perhaps even silver or ivory. They may also be inscribed with poetry or decorated with a painting.

How to Use Chopsticks

Many visitors to Oriental countries such as China and Japan are fascinated when they see a small child of perhaps just two years of age eating with a pair of seemingly oversized chopsticks. In no time at all, the contents of the bowl are transferred piece by piece to the child’s mouth. It really looks easy.

Would you like to try using a pair of the “quick ones”? At first you may find it awkward to get the chopsticks to move in the way you want them to, but with a little practice, it becomes easy and the chopsticks become like an extension of your hand.

Chopsticks are held in one hand only, usually the right hand. (See the illustrations on page 15.) First, cup your hand, with your thumb apart from your fingers. Place one  chopstick in between your thumb and fingers, resting it against the base of your index finger and the tip of your ring finger. Then place the second chopstick parallel with the first, and hold it with your thumb and index and middle fingers, as you would a pencil. Get the ends even by tapping them on the table. Now, keeping the bottom chopstick stationary, move the top one by flexing your index and middle fingers up and down. Practice until you can bring the tips of the chopsticks together easily. You are now ready to use these versatile implements to pick up any of the delicious morsels served in a Chinese meal—from a single grain of rice to a quail’s egg! Chopsticks and Chinese food go well together because the food is usually cut into bite-size pieces.

What about dishes in which a chicken, a duck, or a pork rump is served whole, without being cut up into small pieces? Usually the meat is cooked to such a degree that chopsticks can easily be used to separate a bite-size portion. Chopsticks are ideal for fish, which is often served whole; you can avoid bones with a facility not so easily achieved with a knife and fork.

What about eating rice? If the occasion is informal, you may pick up the rice bowl with your left hand, take it up to your mouth, and scoop the rice into your mouth with the chopsticks. At a more formal meal, however, you would pick up the rice with the chopsticks, a small amount at a time.

What about soup, which is always a component of a Chinese meal? A porcelain spoon is usually provided. But if the soup contains noodles or dumplings or pieces of vegetable, meat, or fish, try using your chopsticks in your right hand to pick up the food and the spoon in your left hand to help transport it to your mouth.

Etiquette and Chopsticks

When you are invited to a Chinese home for a meal, it is helpful to be aware of Chinese table manners, or etiquette. First, several dishes are placed in the center of the table. Wait until the host or the head of the family picks up his chopsticks and motions for all to start. That is the proper moment  for the guests to acknowledge the invitation, pick up their chopsticks, and proceed.

Unlike some Western-style meals, the dishes are not passed around the table. Rather, all at the table help themselves. In a family meal, it is customary for each member to use his or her own pair of chopsticks to take pieces from the common dishes and put them right into the mouth. Even so, it is considered bad manners to slurp your food, lick the ends of your chopsticks, or pick through the dishes for your favorite piece. Mothers in the Orient instruct their children not to bite the ends of their chopsticks, not only because they are concerned about hygiene but also because it spoils the appearance of the chopsticks.

Out of consideration for guests, sometimes serving spoons or additional chopsticks are provided. These are used to take pieces from the center dishes to another dish or to your rice bowl. Still, do not be offended if your host uses his chopsticks to pick out a choice morsel and place it right into your bowl. After all, he wants to make sure that his honored guest gets the best piece!

It is considered bad manners to point with chopsticks, just as it is with knives and forks. It is equally bad manners to pick up something else while you still have your chopsticks in your hand. So when you need to use the serving spoon or to pick up a napkin or a teacup, first put down your chopsticks. Small, attractive chopstick stands are often provided for this purpose.

When you finish eating, put your chopsticks down neatly, sit back, and wait. It is bad manners to leave the table before everyone finishes. Once again, it is the host or the head of the family who brings the meal to a close by rising and inviting all to leave the table.

Now that you know how to use them, all you need to do is get some chopsticks and practice with them. The next time someone invites you to a Chinese restaurant or to their home for a Chinese meal, why not try a pair of the “quick ones”? It may even make the food taste better!

[Box/Picture on page 14]

A Little Chopstick History

Some Chinese scholars believe that the first chopsticks were used, not for eating, but for cooking. Small pieces of raw food were wrapped in leaves, and sticks were used to transfer heated pebbles into the wrapping. In this way food could be cooked without the cook getting burned! Later in history, chopsticks were used to remove pieces of food from the cooking pot.

Early chopsticks were likely made of perishable wood or bamboo. * That is one reason why it is nearly impossible to state with accuracy just when they were first used. Some believe that chopsticks were used in China as early as the Shang dynasty (about the 16th to the 11th century B.C.E.). A historical document from just after Confucius’ time (551-479 B.C.E.) spoke of ‘pinching’ food from soup, indicating that chopsticks of some sort were used.

Apparently by the early Han dynasty (206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E.), eating with chopsticks had become a common practice. A grave of that period was excavated in Changsha, Hunan Province, in which was found a set of lacquered eating utensils, including chopsticks.

The Japanese, the Koreans, the Vietnamese, and others in the Orient also use chopsticks, and this is largely because of the influence of Chinese culture.


^ par. 25 In ancient Chinese both characters for k’uai tzu (quick ones) were written with the bamboo radical, suggesting the material with which chopsticks were initially made.

[Pictures on page 15]

Practice makes perfect