‘With these two sticks, the Japanese are able to fill their mouths with marvelous swiftness and agility. They can pick up any piece of food, no matter how tiny it is, without ever soiling their hands’.
This is an observation made by Francesco Carletti, a Florentine merchant, who set out from Seville in the late sixteenth century, on what would become an eight-year journey across the world that included Japan. He was not the first European
to observe the use of chopsticks in dining practice; the Portuguese traveller Galeote Pereira was probably one of the first Westerners to mention chopsticks on his travels to South China between 1539 and 1547. (Incidentally, Marco Polo’s widely-read thirteenth-century travel account never made mention of food consumed with chopsticks.)
In sixteenth-century Europe, when men like Pereira and Carletti first noted the use of thin sticks to transport food from dish to mouth in China and Japan, eating habits involved heavy use of hands to hold pieces of food like brad and meet, and napkins to wipe hands and mouths. It was the cleanliness of eating with chopsticks that struck them most. Pereira observed that ‘[t]hey feed with two sticks, refraining from touching their meat with their hands, even as we do with forks, for the which respect, they less do need any table-cloths’.
Pereira’s text was translated by Charles Boxer (and included in South China in the Sixteenth Century), but included very recently in a fascinating book about the cultural and culinary history of chopsticks by Q. Edward Wang.
The early history of the use of chopsticks in Asia and the cultural contexts in which chopsticks feature throughout the centuries are only part of what this book is about. Much more, this is a culinary history seen through utensils. The history of food, a field with a venerable pedigree, has often focused on the ingredients used, the methods of preparing food, and the social contexts in which different foods are consumed. The focus on utensils, and the practice of eating a variety of foods with two small sticks allows for a very different kind of culinary history; one in which the material culture of food and dining comes to the fore much more.
Q. Edward Wang, professor of History at Rowan University in the US, and Peking University in China, does not set out to write a history of cultural exchange through food and culinary practice, but his final chapter, entitled ‘Bridging food cultures in the world’ does explore this aspect, starting with early observations of the cleanliness of using chopsticks, and ending with twenty-first century observations about the spread of Asian food, and the circulation of cheaply-made wooden chopsticks throughout the world.
Readable, beautifully illustrated with colour plates, and well-researched, this book opens up a fascinating insight into the social and cultural history of culinary practices throughout Asia and the wider world.