Japanese American Traditions

Hashi! The Culture of Chopsticks

“Some foods just taste better when you use chopsticks.”

If you’ve heard this saying before, you’re not alone. Many Asian Americans have been using chopsticks (also known as hashi in Japanese/Japanese American culture) ever since they’ve been able to eat. And for them, eating food with a fork is a distinctly different experience from eating the same food with chopsticks.

The phenomenon of chopstick usage has evolved over time to adhere to changing peoples, but the utensil’s original purpose has remained essentially the same.

In ancient China, where chopstick use originated more than 3,500 years ago, people used tree twigs to retrieve food from large pots. Later, it is said that food was cut into smaller pieces so that they could be cooked faster. This way, people could save fuel—an idea that remains just as relevant today—and these small pieces could easily be picked up with chopsticks.

Today, instead of needing a tree to break a twig off of, the average chopstick user uses disposable chopsticks. Some of the more consistent chopstick users have a few permanent pairs sitting in their utensil drawer in their kitchens, right alongside the forks and knives—a telling symbol of the evolution and fusion of cultures and societies from ancient China to the present-day U.S.

That evolution is continuing. For rookies who appreciate the option of switching from chopsticks to the more familiar fork and knife without having to embarrass themselves, the Forkchop is a perfect tool. These are plastic, with pointed ends on one side, to be used as regular chopsticks, and with a fork and knife on the other end.

There are also “traveler’s chopsticks”—typically metal and foldable, with a pocket-sized carrying case. Beware of this variety; it may cause your friends to poke fun at you. However, they can be useful, and make fun gifts for those who like gadgets.

Chopsticks have also been transformed from eating utensils into hair accessories, with colorful varieties sold at boutique retail stores like Claire’s and Icing.

The perfect pair of chopsticks does not exist, and never will. The styles and the designs will continue to change with the times. The evolution of chopstick design and usage is a fascinating example of the dynamics between society and culture.

Enjoy this food for thought the next time you’re enjoying Asian cuisine.

September 2008

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