Created roughly 4,000-5,000 years ago in China, the earliest versions of something like chopsticks were used for cooking (they’re perfect for reaching into pots full of hot water or oil) and were most likely made from twigs. While it’s difficult to nail down a firm date, it would seem it wasn’t until around 500-400 AD that they began being used as table utensils.
One factor that contributed to this switch was a population boom across the country. Consequently, resources, particularly for cooking, became incredibly scarce. As a result, people began cutting their food into tiny pieces so it would cook faster.
The bite sized morsels rendered table knives obsolete, as there was very little left to cut. However, they were now perfect for eating with chopsticks, which were also made from cheap materials and easily made. Thus, a trend was born.
The table knife’s decline in popularity in these regions at this time can also be attributed to the teachings of Confucius, who was a vegetarian. He believed that knives weren’t appropriate to eat with. As Confucius supposedly said,
The honourable and upright man keeps well away from both the slaughterhouse and the kitchen. And he allows no knives on his table.
It was due to this that it’s believed that Chinese chopsticks are traditionally blunt at the tip and thus somewhat poor choices to try to spear food as you would with a fork.
Within about a century of this, chopsticks had migrated to other Asian countries, such as Japan, Korea and Vietnam. One distinct difference between Japanese and Chinese chopsticks was that the former were made from a single piece of bamboo that were joined at the base. In addition, Japanese chopsticks were originally used solely for religious ceremonies. Regardless of their differences, chopsticks remained popular in both countries and are still the primary utensil of choice.
While the early chopsticks were more often than not made of some cheap material, such as bamboo, later silver chopsticks were sometimes used during Chinese dynastic times in order to prevent food poisoning. How? It was believed that silver utensils would turn black if they came into contact with any life threatening toxins. Unfortunately for those engaging in this practise, silver doesn’t turn black when it touches the likes of cyanide or arsenic, among other poisons. However, it most definitely can change colour if touched by garlic, onion or rotten eggs – all of which release hydrogen sulfide which reacts with the silver causing it to change colour.
For anyone that has ever had difficulty eating rice with chopsticks, you may have wondered why anyone would choose this particular utensil for consuming such food with. Perhaps one of the earliest of table utensils, such as the spoon, would work better here. But you see, in Asia, the majority of rice is either a short or medium grain variety often with starches that are particularly gummy or clumpy. As such, it sticks together and is quite easily picked up by chopsticks. In comparison, many Westerners eat long grain rice (often highly processed) with is much fluffier and the individual grains are more distinct and for the unpracticed hand, difficult to eat with chopsticks.