Tremendous Twigs

A guide to the art and etiquette of chopsticks.
Story Helen Luk

Chopsticks, simple in design yet sophisticated in appearance, are associated with Asian cuisines worldwide. Although historians can’t agree on who invented them, most believe the first chopsticks were merely tree twigs used to pick up hot food so that fingers wouldn’t get burned.

Over a span of 3,000 years, chopsticks have been made from a variety of materials: animal bones, wood, jade, metal, bamboo and ivory. Today elephant hunting is illegal, so a pair of ivory chopsticks is expensive and rare.

Kuaizi, the word for chopsticks in Chinese, captures the significant use of bamboo. Kuai means “quickly” and is written with the bamboo character on top. Zi means “small.” Together they mean “quick little ones.”

To properly hold a pair of chopsticks, the first stick should be held between the middle and fourth (ring) fingers. The second stick should be held between the index and middle fingers. It is only the second or top stick that moves up and down, like a pair of tweezers, to grab morsels of food; the bottom stick never moves.

With enough practice, everyone can master these two simple sticks. Really, sushi or Chinese noodles eaten with a fork just don’t taste the same.