Monday August 25, 2008
Way of the chopsticks
By JANE F. RAGAVAN
How to choose and use chopsticks.
PEOPLE often joke that the reason Koreans are so good at cosmetic surgery, which requires a steady hand, is their excellent manipulation of their chopsticks – they are made of metal, not unlike a surgical instrument.
So it was surprising to find in a recent study that 80% of primary schoolchildren in South Korea do not know how to use chopsticks.
Prof Kim Phil-soo at Daelim College in Gyeonggi province attributes this new phenomenon to the rising influence of Western cuisines and, in particular, a fast food-addicted population.
Kim’s study also found that in a survey among 252 people aged 21 to 40, only four out of 10 adults were able to use the utensils in a correct manner.
It’s the same story in Japan. While chopsticks are still a big part of the culinary culture there, it’s the poor usage of the utensil in modern society that has traditionalists up in arms.
Chopsticks company Hyozaemon, based in the northern Japanese province of Fukui, has been dispatching its employees around the country since 1998 to give 20-minute lectures and demonstrations on how to use the utensils correctly. Lately, they have also been advising people to carry their own reusable chopsticks when eating out.
Lessons include the various ways to grip chopsticks and choosing the right length for one’s hands – one-and-a-half times the distance between your outstretched thumb and index finger, say experts – as well as the correct posture when dining to avoid making a mess at the table.
The first documented evidence of chopsticks in English is said to be in 1699 in the writings of a seafarer named William Dampier. The word did not, as commonly believed, originate from chopped up pieces of wood but is a translation of kuaizi, which stands for “quick little fellows” in Chinese, “chop” being the pidgin English word for “quick”.
Using chopsticks apparently helps improve memory. Well, there are reportedly 1,400 types of chopsticks and 1,100 different ways to hold them, so an ability to remember all of them would certainly support this claim.
Using the implements is also said to increase finger dexterity and can be useful in learning and improving skills such as Chinese character-printing and brush-painting.
Kho Ling Piew, known among his friends as the Chopsticks Man due to his extensive collection, says a gift of chopsticks, a bowl and an ang pow was traditionally given to someone on their birthday.
“This signified goodwill and a long life and that the person would always have food on the table,” says Kho, 55.
The executive secretary of MCA Selayang isn’t sure about the size of his collection which he started in 2005, but roughly estimates it at 5,000 pairs. He got his most prized pair from China. It is Mongolian-made and carved from bone, and comes with a carving knife sheathed in the same material.
“I was afraid I wouldn’t get it through Customs because of the knife,” he laughs.
Kho keeps his collection – half of which were gifts from friends – at home and at his office at Wisma MCA Selayang in Rawang, Selangor, some of them on display but many in storage boxes. He wants to catalogue them all but didn’t have the time to do so before. Since the March general election, however, things have changed and it looks like Kho will be getting down to his inventory soon.
Kho’s favourite everyday pair is made of porcelain.
“You should never bite on the chopsticks,” he says. “That is the wrong way of eating.”
Picking up an imaginary morsel with his real chopsticks, Kho demonstrates how to place the food in the mouth without them touching his lips.
Many Asian superstitions revolve around chopsticks. If you’re given an uneven pair, for example, you will miss a boat or plane, while dropping chopsticks will bring bad luck, as will laying them across each other.
According to an old Korean belief, the closer to the tip one holds a pair of chopsticks, the longer one will stay unmarried.
The Chinese, too, have a marriage-related tale: the position in which a girl holds her chopsticks can show how far she will have to travel to find her betrothed. If chopsticks are held at the top, the girl’s future husband will live far away, but if she holds them very close to the bottom, the girl may marry the boy next door. She may have messy fingers at every meal because they’re so close to the food, but if the neighbour boy doesn’t mind, then who are we to stand in the way of destiny?
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