I’ve always been interested in understanding and experiencing food from other cultures in an as authentic a way as possible (albeit no doubt through the heavily filtered/hampered(?) lens of a British set of tastebuds). So when, a few years ago, I was given a nice set of Chinese chopsticks, I decided to learn how to use them and attempt make the action as intuitive to me as using a knife and fork. Why not make it second nature to eat eastern dishes with eastern cutlery?
Five reasons as to why I decided to take on the chopstickery way of life:
1. Pragmatics and practicalities: It’s a good skill to have
From a Chinese friend’s New Year party to a pre-cinema pit stop at Wagamama, from time to time we’re issued with chopsticks, or at least the choice of sticks or forks. Facing this question and swaying by natural tendency toward the knife and fork, can generate within me a feeling of slight embarrassment or even apology. Maybe it shouldn’t and I ought to confidently and unashamedly opt for the western approach to eating. Rightly or wrongly, not choosing chopsticks conjures unease and forces me to sheepishly justify my selection of cutlery to the (probably totally ambivalent) waiter. Maybe the positive way of phrasing it is that choosing chopsticks (if only to myself) shows that I’m making the effort to join in with the culture, the cuisine of which I’m consuming.
2. Authentics: Eating with chopsticks provides undeniably a more bona fide experience
Okay, arguably at some less than authentic oriental eateries, I’m not really taking part in a faithful cultural experience, rather flavour that is tampered with and diluted for a British audience, so here I’m really talking about your more bespoke, less mainstream establishments. Wouldn’t it be a great, and would not my experience be enriched, when eating at a small family run Japanese restaurant, if I were to learn a few Japanese phrases, ask to eat something a little more unusual and eat with chopsticks? Taking a positive engaged approach to eating like this, leaves me feeling pretty good and the chopsticks played their part.
3. Speed of Eating: Very practically, chopsticks mean eating fractionally slower
Again there’s a caveat: lifting the bowl to the mouth and shovelling probably speeds up the process and although rather ungainly, is not a culturally illegitimate way of using chopsticks. However, I’m assuming that most of us would at least start with bowl fixed to the table, politely using chopsticks delicately and independently as ‘pincers’ rather than a ‘shovel’. When adopting this technique, the capacity (in comparison to that of a fork) is small and so I find myself eating at a slightly slower rate, particularly if I’m eating something like noodles or rice. There are a number of reasons pro eating slowly but from a purely experiential perspective, eating more deliberately in this way means I actually tend to enjoy the food more.
4. Taste: Using chopsticks makes food taste better
Does it really? Yes. Eat the same Chinese dish twice, once with chopsticks and once with knife and fork, and I’m convinced that the former approach tastes better. Everything else may remain consistent; ingredients, method of preparation, your tastebuds etc. but as the experience is different, at the very least chopsticks provide an enhanced taste experience. Part of it is a confidence/mindset thing, ie if you haven’t bought into using chopsticks regularly and stick to using knives and forks, then you might not be able to gain the experiential benefit and feel only the unfortunate sense of inconvenience when using sticks. Make using them habitual and I’m convinced you’re taste experience will be enhanced.
5. The bigger picture: Chopsticks are not merely cutlery, it’s what they represent
An enhanced experience doesn’t necessarily mean a better taste you might argue. This is where I want to touch on a philosophy or theory which I’m convinced of by virtue of experience (if not via biological fact or by chemical formulaic reasoning):
Taste provides experience and experience affects taste
Few would argue with the first half; if something tastes good it follows that the experience of eating it is enjoyable. However the second part of the sentence is perhaps not so easy to accept, surely unless I’ve burnt my tongue or have the ‘flu taste is fairly absolute so how can it vary depending on what is essentially a feeling or state of mind? I see the reverse engineering behind this equation: I propose that my experience of or associated to a meal will feedback to the tastebuds almost physically affecting the taste.
Picture the scene; you’re at a dinner party, good conversation with friends, it’s Friday after a long week at work, your host cooked a range of tapas dishes to dig in and share. It tastes good right? Unless they’re a shocking cook or I’m being ultra critical. Conversely, I’ve had a rotten Monday, it’s raining and I’m by myself; the food is pretty tasteless, I certainly wouldn’t remember how good it tasted a week later. Surely that’s just an extension of what we already know about taste: it looks and smells great, so it tastes great. It’s coloured blue and usually it’s reddy orange; it tastes weird.
Good experience leads to better taste. Or at the very least the perception of taste is enhanced if I enjoy the experience more.
It’s quack medicine and at best and based on the musings of an experimentalist but embrace the chopsticks and eastern culture as you eat; enjoy learning how to use this form of cutlery, eat slow, enjoy the authenticity of the experience, ditch the knife and fork and you will tangibly taste the difference.
I have now got to a point where I am possibly using chopsticks as often as I would a knife a fork, or there abouts and although it has become a distinctly utilitarian part of my life, I genuinely believe that through the medium of chopsticks and what they represent, my food exploration has become much more varied, enriched and hopefully more authentic experience.