Sunday, June 10, 2012
copyright Steve Masover
Americans often take pride in their dexterity with chopsticks. It is some sort of achievement, considering how difficult to use them and how foreign and exotic they are to native-born Americans. Yet, the insistence of using chopsticks when dealing with Chinese food, therefore the inseparability between Chinese food and chopsticks, seems a bit forced and unnecessary.
Many years ago, when I brought home some take-out Chinese food to share with my American-born roommate, he automatically produced some chopsticks and packets of soy sauce, and I had to do my best to suppress my laughter. His act was a bit comical to me.
In contrary to someone's claim, I strongly believe that using chopsticks of not, would not change the flavor or texture of Chinese food, or any food. Using chopsticks to eat Chinese food was also not always true, even in China. Chopsticks doesn't ensure authenticity. As for my roommate, if authenticity was he strove for, soy sauce was a faux pas. In China, soy sauce was used for seasoning food like dumplings, or added to food while cooking, but not to alter flavor of the food cooks had carefully prepared. His attempt was endearing but misinformed.
Speaking from my own experiences in China, chopsticks had never been the main utensils I used to eat. When I was a kid, I used spoons, tiny ones as a baby, bigger ones as I grew bigger. I don't remember my time when I was in elementary school, during the time I went home for lunch daily. When I started middle-school, I always brought my packed lunch, so did most of my classmates. Because chopsticks were longer than lunchboxes, all of us put spoons in our lunchboxes instead. It was that experience formed my habit and even at home I used spoon, for my breakfast and dinner as well. That continued into my high school and college days. It was hard to find anyone who used chopsticks in my university canteens and dormitories.
This didn't mean that we didn't know how to use chopsticks. I can use chopsticks perfectly; I just didn't feel the need to use it. I suspect that most of my friends used chopsticks at home and I might be an extreme case.
Spoon or chopsticks perform equally well for Chinese food, with one exception - noodles.
My solution, as well as my sister's, was to use chopsticks as a pair of scythe and cut the noodles into smaller, more manageable pieces, then my waiting spoon would finish off the noodles (see picture below). More advantageously, I could drink the soup with my spoon.
I'm not ideologically against using chopsticks, or the attempt to try something new, or being authentic - I used my hands to eat when I dined at Ethiopian restaurants. What I find a bit unnecessary and even dogmatic is the fixation on linking chopsticks to Chinese food, and I am against using disposable chopsticks and plastic forks in restaurants, or at home.
I have learned not to be embarrassed by being the only one requesting a fork, while dining with Caucasian friends in Asian restaurants, and I have also learned to bring my own fork to neighborhood Asian restaurants, the ones I knew had only plastic fork or disposable chopsticks.
For the native-born-Americans, it is fine to test and learn to use those fancy chopsticks. It is fun and who can resist the urge to conquer them? However, if you are not inclined to do so, do feel free to ask for a fork, or a spoon.
If you are to travel in China, where almost no restaurants were equipped with forks, and if you don't want to handle the often more slippery chopsticks there, you can always try to ask for a spoon - they usually do have them for soups. Or, remember to bring your own fork to China and to the restaurants - just remember to wrap them up afterwards and bring them back to your hotel and wash it for your next meal.