Chopsticks are ubiquitous in Asia. They are so essential to everyday life that the region -- which encompasses China, Korean Peninsula, the Japanese archipelago, parts of Mongolia, and mainland Southeast Asia – is also known as the “chopsticks cultural sphere.” This is not just the impression left on most visitors to the region. Many Asian chopsticks users think that chopsticks are more important than other eating utensils. Previously, some Japanese food scholars have posited that chopsticks are an “exclusive” tool for the Japanese—when eating their meals, Japanese don’t usually employ other utensils.
But chopsticks were not always the primary eating tool in East and Southeast Asia. As both the archaeological and textual evidence reveals, the spoon was actually not only the earliest, but also the most basic eating implement for ancient people.
Why? Until the tenth century AD, millet was the staple cereal in North China, Korea, and parts of Japan. Millet was – and remains -- best cooked as a porridge or gruel. This is because its grains are smaller than that of rice. If millet were to be prepared like rice--brought to boil by applying high heat to the right amount of water and then simmered until soft and fluffy—the millet grains on the bottom of the pot would have been burned while those in the middle would remain undercooked. Because millet porridge was the most common grain-based dish in the ancient world, the spoon became the most convenient tool because it helped people eat the food elegantly. As grain has always been the most significant part of an Asian meal, the tool that transports it best becomes the most essential.
So what changed? As in the case of millet porridge, boiling was the basic cooking method in Asia, and elsewhere. In ancient times, cooks boiled not only grains but also non-grain food; of the latter, according to the Classic of Rites, a text from Han China (206 BCE - 220 CE) or before, stew (羹geng in Chinese) was most common—“geng (stew) and fan (grain) were eaten by all, from the princes down to the common people, regardless of status.” The same text also enjoins that when one eat geng (stew), one should use chopsticks because they are more efficient in picking up the foodstuff (e.g. vegetables) from a stew or any soupy dish. (This incidentally is the traditional way to savor Japanese miso soup, though many outside Japan use a spoon today.) As grain food was more important than non-grain food in a meal, chopsticks however were a supplementary implement. This role was clearly suggested by the paleographic form “zhu” 筯, or the Chinese word for chopsticks in early days.
The growing appeal of wheat in first-century China was a game changer. This was especially the case after the widespread adoption of the millstone for milling wheat into flour, which helped chopsticks make inroads and undermined the primacy of the spoon. By the tenth century, wheat succeeded in dethroning millet as the most consumed grain among the northern Chinese, followed also by the Koreans. Wheat-flour foods, such as noodles and dumplings, combined grain and non-grain ingredients in one form, and to eat noodles, chopsticks evidently was the better tool, because the spoon could not easily transport such foodstuffs. Chinese also customarily used chopsticks to eat dumplings. To this day, noodles and dumplings are arguably the favorite wheat flour foods in the region. Their popularity has turned chopsticks into a popular eating implement than the spoon. Not only do the East Asians use chopsticks to enjoy noodles, but one study suggests that medieval Turks also used chopsticks to eat “macaroni,” possibly due to Mongol influence. In modern days, the most well-known noodle dishes around the world perhaps are Japanese ramen and Vietnamese pho--both are best eaten with chopsticks.
The second “push” for the ascent of chopsticks in history was the increased consumption of rice throughout Asia, from Vietnam and South China to North China and then to Korea and Japan, from the eleventh century onward. The introduction of early ripening rice from Vietnam was a factor. Since cooked rice, which is more consistent than millet, can be transported in clumps, one could jettison the spoon. Because non-grain foods—i.e. stew and others—have traditionally been conveyed by the use of chopsticks, so gradually, a pair of chopsticks was all that was required to handle daily meals in the region (something also noticed by Japanese scholars). However, if chopsticks became an “exclusive” eating tool in Japan, then the same could be said about China and Vietnam. Korea is an exception because to this day, spoon and chopsticks are still used together as a set by Koreans to eat. However, this Korean eating etiquette reflects more a cultural decision than a culinary need, since rice’s consistency also allows Koreans to carry it with chopsticks, and many Koreans do just that in informal settings, such as a family meal.
Besides milling wheat flour, the millstone is also used by the Asians to grind rapeseeds and other vegetable seeds for cooking oil. Once cooking oil was readily available from the third century, a new cooking method was born: stir-frying. Over time, stir-frying, or sautéing, became a quintessential way of cooking Chinese food and continues to this day. In preparing stir-fried dishes, foodstuffs are precut to bite-size morsels for fast cooking. Due to this, chopsticks also become a convenient utensil to pick the cooked morsels, for they could allow their users to transport the desired amount of food to their mouths more precisely than a spoon would. In pre-modern times, this way of eating was also more hygienic because the small sizes of chopsticks minimized the chance of passing on germs to food in communal eating.
In sum, though invented in antiquity about 7,000 years ago, chopsticks were not always as essential as one tends to think. There’s a rich history behind the indispensable utensil that defines the “chopsticks cultural sphere.” That history is reflected and registered the remarkable changes in the culinary traditions and dietary practices. Moreover, the story is still unfolding today—the growing global appeal of Japanese sushi and the ubiquity of Chinese restaurants and takeout around the world have all left their indelible marks on the use, appeal, and appearance of chopsticks.
For more information on the history of chopsticks, see Q. Edward Wang, Chopsticks: A Cultural and Culinary History