How many eating utensils do people go through in a lifetime?
It’s not a question many people can answer, much less think to ask. The Japanese tradition of family members each owning designated pairs of ohashi (chopsticks), links different years of my life with various pairs I’ve used. It was only when I took its ubiquitous presence out of this quotidian context, that I came to appreciate the true ingenuity of ohashi.
The history of chopsticks goes back to China 5000 years ago, where people started using twigs and branches to serve food. By 500 A.D., its use had spread to other Asian countries. In Japan, its initial form was that of tweezer-like pincers made of bamboo, which later became two separate pieces. Over the years, its design has developed into an art form. The colors, textures, shapes, and materials used are of a limitless variety. There are lacquered wooden pairs embedded with mother-of-pearl cranes. Some are made of bamboo, come painted with polka-dots and stripes, and are sold in little transparent bags at 100-yen stores for the equivalent of $1.20. Others are adorned with the smiles and logos of beloved anime characters and Sanrio creatures. Sold with matching plastic cases, they accompany children’s lunch boxes to school. There are even tiny instructional chopsticks with hooks and grooves attached, specially designed for correct grip and finger placement so youngsters can acquire their much-needed ohashi-using skills at an early age. (Unfortunately, I was never spoiled with a pair of these, so I can’t vouch for their efficacy.)
Until western eating habits started infiltrating Japanese homes around the end of WWII, the Japanese diet mostly consisted of fish, rice, and boiled or pickled vegetables. This and the fact that soups were directly sipped out of a bowl meant that chopsticks were really all a person ever needed to consume a meal — form beautifully followed all necessary functions. On the other hand, it’s interesting to see how the form affects the function as well. There is something precise and remarkably elegant about picking up grains of rice and morsels of fish with tapered ends of ohashi (once you get the hang of it). For me, the act implements a calmer rhythm when eating my meals – good for digestion since you avoid scarfing your food down.
Such utility never comes without a certain amount of do’s and don’ts. Here are a few I grew up with:
Don’t stick your ohashi in your rice: It’s reminiscent of offerings for the dead – usually inappropriate for dining room tables.
Don’t shishkabob your food: It’s unsightly. If you have to split something, work from the outside in, not the other way around.
Don’t pass food from one pair of ohashi to another: Not just because of the potential mess you’ll make but because it’s reminiscent of Japanese funereal customs involving bones.
Do set pairs of ohashi at the front, next to the table’s edge, with the pointed ends towards the left: If you have ohashi-oki’s (chopstick holders), place them under the tapered ends.
Do turn your ohashi around when using them to pick up food from a shared dish (family-style eating): It’s polite. Your saliva doesn’t get all over the food other people will be eating. From experience, I know this simple gesture can earn you major points at the table.
Not quite as complicated as western table manners, if you ask me… Now, which fork is the salad fork?