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Chopsticks and Woks

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Equipment and Techniques

Summer Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(2) page(s): 11, 12, and 14


CHOPSTICKS are an extension of the fingers. A pair of them is a very versatile set of eating implements. Using them, one can pick up, prod, stir, squeeze, even tear foods apart. These eating implements have had a long evolution from twigs to their current state, and they were not always the implements of choice for the Chinese. When they did come into use, they were used for serving and getting foods out of pots, they were not intended for eating. That makes sense because their original name, zhu, is a cousin or cognate for one that relates to the word for boil.

Use of early implements in China included fingers and spoons. Ladles, which are really enlarged spoons, were used more for liquids that for solid foods. It was during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE) that chopsticks began lifting solid foods and taking them to the mouth. Spoons were more often used to eat noodles and fingers more often used for rice and other foods. It was not until into the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE) that chopsticks became the main eating implement for virtually all solid foods. It was then that the name kuai zi became the word for this pair of sticks.

Exactly when chopsticks were used the very first time is still a mystery. Historians believe that occurred before the Shang Dynasty, circa the 16th century BCE. We know they were available around 1200 BCE because some were found then southeast of Tali in Yunnan. This and other tomb discoveries from that period include bronze and iron artifacts that included many pairs of chopsticks made out of both of these metals. While we know they had chopsticks during that time period, we do not know if they used them daily and certainly do not know all of their purposes.

One might ask, were chopsticks only used for ritual purposes? Were they used only by those ruling the country? Where they used only for specific holidays and special events? Were they used only to lift food out of one or another kind of cooking pot? And if so, was their use limited to a particular kind of food?

What is known is that diners used them to take meats, vegetables, and other solids out of soup and stew pots. Also known is that eating with fancy chopsticks became a desirable thing to do soon after the first chopsticks were invented. A king of Zhou is said to have used ivory chopsticks. His uncle chided him and said that next he would want to drink out of jade goblets and eat rare animals and other exotica on special dishes. He probably did.

During their early use, chopsticks were not to transport rice or other grains to the mouth. Fingers remained the utensil of choice for those tasks, and did so for hundreds more years. In the Li Ji, a pre-Qin publication called The Monthly Ordinances, there was farming advice and calendric information; this was a specific almanac that stated: 'Do not use chopsticks to eat millet.' There were other admonitions along with recipes and agricultural information.

Today, we call chopsticks kuai zi, which translates to ‘hasten,’ ‘hurry,’ even ‘quick boys.’ Do you know that this new name is not used in the province of Fujian? There, they still use the ancient word zhu for what began in Neolithic times as the use of twig-or-tong-like tools. They became an item that defines many Asian cultures, certainly the Chinese. Seeing chopsticks, does every person know which cultures are associated with them and which with other Asian cultures? Probably not.

Chinese chopsticks are long and usually square on the top with rounded bottoms. They did range from six to ten inches in length, but now are reasonably standard at ten-and-a-quarter inches long, their rounded lower halves slightly tapered. Japanese chopsticks are close to two inches shorter and round from top to bottom. The length of Korean chopsticks ranges from ten to twelve inches long, most made of stainless steel. Vietnamese chopsticks are more similar to Chinese ones than Japanese ones. Like both of them, most are made of bamboo.

The elite, starting in the Zhou Dynasty (1046 to 256 BCE), delighted in using chopsticks made of expensive materials. Over the years, they ate with those made of ivory, the preferred material in the Guangdong province. Also popular all over China, were chopsticks made of rosewood and sandalwood, polished bone, lacquer, and others made of amber, jade, silver, gold, even rhinoceros horn. Some of the more expensive non-metal ones were tipped in silver. Why? Because people thought silver turned black at the touch of a poison. That does detect hydrogen sulfide released from rotten eggs, but it does not detect arsenic, cyanide, and quite a few other poisons.

In earlier times, long chopsticks did remove meats and vegetables from cooking pots. That was the task of long ones that ranged from fifteen inches to two feet. Since the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE), shorter ones take foods from plate or bowl to mouth. Now, everyone uses them for rice, noodles, and all foods, and using fingers is not too polite. Nor is using one’s chopsticks to take food from a common plate. Restaurants provide service utensils for that. In homes, family member can use their own chopsticks to take a piece of food from a common plate, but they should not touch any other food. To do so, is considered thoughtless behavior.

How one eats rice correctly is an important social skill. It is correct to lift the rice bowl and place it close to the lips. Also correct is to shovel rice into the mouth with one’s own chopsticks. That requires holding the rice bowl with the left hand and the chopsticks in the right. The Chinese definitely discourage left-handedness. Just think how many would knock the chopsticks out of the hands of others when sitting around a table. In ancient times, that would not be a problem because noodles were eaten with fingers or spoons, and rice was a finger food. Today, both of these are consumed with chopsticks. Imagine how difficult that task is for left-handed people who know that the correct way to eat their noodles is to put the chopsticks in one hand and the spoon in the other. Their chopstick ends do battle with those of the rightie next to them. Everyone uses the spoon to gather noodle ends that lag behind, it hardly gets in anyone’s way.

Chopsticks are never used as knife and fork, that is one in each hand. And, they never are used to stab a food. That is an acceptable in Japanese style, but considered rude by Chinese standards. There are other do’s and don’ts of chopstick use. Some of these include: Never stick your chopsticks upright in a bowl because upright sticks resemble incense used to honor the dead. Never take food from someone else’s chopsticks, you get their germs with the food. And, never use chopsticks for decor such as in one’s hair because these may look pretty, but this dishonors the food they are intended for. Also, do not cross your chopsticks because that can mean death or ‘the end.’ In some restaurants, chopsticks crossed at a table tell the waiter your meal has ended.

Using chopsticks correctly is a sign of good breeding. The further towards the top they are held, the more gracious and glamorous your eating style. Grasping them too tightly reduces leverage and makes eating less pretty. And, if the bottoms of both sticks are not exactly even, food can slip away and make the eater look sloppy. That is why at a Chinese table, there is lots of tapping as people even the ends of their chopsticks.

People tell fortunes with chopsticks. Those who handle theirs with three fingers are considered easy going. For young women, particularly those in Taiwan, the higher up they are held, the farther away such a woman settles when married. Holding them low on the sticks means the person is conservative; holding them higher up means a more active nature, and higher up also means such a person likes many kinds of food. If they are held with all five fingers means that person is destined for greatness; only four fingers and good omens are ahead. Hold them at the tippy-top and that person is a big risk taker. Young children who use them correctly show and tell theirs is a good brain.

There are phrases about chopsticks that also speak. Borrowing chopsticks speaks of standing in for someone else. Give expensive chopsticks and the message is that the receiver is straight and upright. And there are rules for them, that speak, too. To be proper, never lick your chopsticks. Turn yours around and use the square end to serve food to someone else if no serving chopsticks appear on your table.

Proper chopstick use is a sign of good breeding. Eating has always been serious business to the Chinese. Make sure you never fool around with your chopsticks. Not even with disposable ones. And, should you ever acquire any made of deer antlers which are considered contributors to good health, enjoy these status symbols and never reach across anyone with them. If you do, you will not be liked because you break their fine wishes. Should you want to read earlier items written about chopsticks, go to Flavor and Fortune in Volume 2(1) on page 11 and Volume 3(1) on page 10.

WOKS are missing in many new Asian restaurants, we learn from Rick Federico, chief executive officer of P.F. Chang’s Bistro, Inc. This baffles him and us and anyone who knows that steel cookware withstands flames and heat up to seven hundred degrees Fahrenheit while other pots and pans melt at that temperature.

Traditionalists, and thankfully he is one, and the staff of this magazine are appalled, even horrified. They wonder how places such as 'The Big Bowl' chain of restaurants out of Chicago can get decent taste, good caramelization, and fine looking Asian food now that they have scrapped their woks.

Martin Yan, who plans to open a couple of hundred sit-down restaurants tentatively called 'Yan Can Fresh Asian Cooking,' says he never plans to scrap using woks in his upcoming restaurants. Yeah Martin! His upcoming eateries are to be in association with Yum Brands Inc., the parent corporation of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell. Hope he holds his course on that issue because that small feature can help their restaurants gain some market success.

Woks, known in Chinese as guo, usually come with two handles, both made of metal. A few are made with one long wooden handle, these are called tiao. Both pans are curved at the bottom, somewhat akin to an upside down coolie hat. And, no matter their handle design, they are the most versatile cooking implement known to man.

Woks have been known for at least two thousand years. Some have been found made of pottery, these were buried in tombs even before that. The purpose for putting them in a tomb is to help the deceased cope in their spiritual afterlife. Metal woks were introduced just about when the Han Dynasty began in 202 BCE. Interestingly enough, their early use was to dry grains. The drying of tea leaves came much later than that. An early record of tea drying can be found in Chien Chun Nien’s Cha Phu which was said to be written in 1539.

Stir-frying, something thought ubiquitous with the wok, did not start and become popular until the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE). Only one or two sources say there probably was a very small amount of this type of cooking in use in the Han Dynasty (202 BCE - 220 CE). We recently learned that in the sixteenth century, when cookery books were searched, they found only five of every hundred dishes were made using a stir-fry technique while in the eighteenth century, that number increased to sixteen out of a hundred.

Woks do have many different names. These include tsao, kuo, ting, tiang, and of course kuo and guo. What is special and wonderful about them, no matter what they are called, is that a very small amount of oil goes a long way, and foods can be pushed up and out of the liquid to drain away oil or another cooking liquid; and that one can steam, boil, grill, simmer, saute, deep-fry, and stir-fry in them. Most woks are made of iron, their food mixtures often slightly acidic. That makes them a good sources of that nutrient. Other Asian countries have used or adapted woks to their own culinary needs. Some make them smaller, others deeper, and many replace the two handles with others of different shape and materials.

Some people think woks are indestructible. Not so. Just ask any restaurant owner and he or she will tell you differently. Many have to replace one or more each month because they get dented, cracked, or something else happens to them.

Wok cooking is best done with a specially designed spatula made just for that purpose. It’s shape is such that it can get foods parked at the sides of the wok, or toss them to the bottom and up again with ease. Other items that work well with woks are bamboo-handled wire baskets, great for taking small amounts of ingredients out of one, or large and more flat metal strainers that look akin to a flattened colander; their sizes vary.

Woks used for steaming can accommodate any number of steamer baskets topped with a bamboo steamer cover. These are better than metal steamer baskets because they do not sweat, allow steam to escape, and do not need any oil before putting food on them as foods do not stick to them. Should you not have a steamer basket, two pairs of chopsticks making a box shape, that is two in each direction, will hold a bowl or plate of food that needs steaming. Any ordinary pot cover can become a cover for that makeshift steamer basket holder and its contents. No chopsticks in your house? That is OK. Grab a can the size made for tuna fish, remove the contents and remove both top and bottom ends. Then set your bowl or plate on top of that, and your cover on that. This substitute works even in large straight-sided pots.

What cooks best in a wok? Everything! Because of its large surface area, foods cook faster and liquids in them reduce faster when used on a exceptionally hot flame. The texture and taste of any food cooked in a hot wok are sealed in. For those who have no access to gas, and therefore have no flame, hot or otherwise, try a flat-bottomed wok. However, keep in mind that cooking techniques need to change to use them. Because gas temperatures can be reduced with the turn of a handle or knob, flat-bottomed woks on electric burners need to be removed from their electric burner to quickly reduce the heat. Only use a curved wok on an electric stove IF there is a ring set outside the burner for the wok to sit on. And one other thing for safety, when tossing foods in a wok that is sitting on one of those wok rings, be sure to hold the wok handle with a pot holder in one hand to assure that the wok stays put and does not get jostled off the ring.

Wok cooking is by no means limited to stir-frying. This article has already shown that it can be used for steaming. Woks can also be used for stir-frying and deep frying. They can be used for braising and boiling and just about everything else except broiling. Do not purchase one with a Teflon or with another coating. Why not? Because most of the items used to coat pots and pans cannot withstand the heat a wok is exposed to; and many of them might and some do vaporize at those temperatures. A wok made of plain ordinary hammered steel is best. This item of cooking really is best when purchased at the low economic end.

After you buy a new wok, you need to prepare it for use. Wash it well, scrub it with steel wool, dry it well, oil it well, and heat it on a low flame for half an hour or more. Then wash it and repeat this process several times. You will have ‘seasoned’ your wok, as that is called. The better seasoned it is, the better your cooking will be. Unseasoned woks are such that foods stick to their sides. Season yours well, and read other wok information in Flavor and Fortune’s Volume 2(4) on page 19.

                                                                                                                                                       
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