Chopsticks: the Heart of Refined Dining

For a beautifully set table, it’s almost impossible to beat the elegance and simplicity of a pair of chopsticks. Their long, slender arms that, well used, form an extension of our own, give them a refinement the clunkier knife and fork can only dream of. And they have a significantly longer history too.

It is thought the chopsticks were first used in China as long as 5,000 years ago, though they were then mainly used as cooking utensils. Their adoption as formal eating instruments came at around 200CE, during the Han Dynasty, when a population explosion created a fuel scarcity that meant chefs had to get creative so they could continue creating delicious meals, without using up precious wood. The solution was to cut the food up into small bite-size pieces that needed less cooking time, and thus the wok, the stir-fry and chopsticks as table utensils were born.

This also created an elegant way of eating at the table, without any need to carve one’s way through great chunks of meat or unwieldy vegetables. Instead, the meats and vegetables are cut and shaped in such a way that they can be picked up, separated or detached with two simple instruments. As they say, simplicity really is the greatest sophistication. This would explain how these tools soon spread their way across the Asian continent from China, to Vietnam, Japan and Korea.

But, while practical, there was a philosophical element to this too. The great Chinese philosopher Confucius, a vegetarian, believed that sharp knives introduced a unwelcome element of brutalism to the dining table, arousing associations with violence between men, but also the violence of the slaughterhouse. Chopsticks on the other hand suggest a calmer, slower and gentler attitude and it was under his teachings that their use became so widespread.

It has been suggested that Chinese square-ended chopsticks are an acknowledgement of Confucius’s peaceful teachings, though it is not clear whether this is really the inspiration for that specific form. Chinese chopsticks also tend to be longer to facilitate a tradition of sharing dishes. Japanese chopsticks on the other hand are shorter because the tradition of sharing dishes is not the same. Meanwhile traditional Korean chopsticks are more commonly made from metal than wood or bamboo, perhaps a hark back to a time when it was thought that silver chopsticks would detect any poisons in the food, or a reflection of Korea’s long-standing metalworking skills.

Today more than a billion people all over the world use chopsticks as their preferred means for dining, and we think it’s easy to see why, which is why you’ll find our own beautiful branded chopsticks at Malis, perfect for enjoying a delicious bowl of Kuy Teav, or whatever your favourite dish is.

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