Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Tonquinese Sticks.

The explorer and privateer William Dampier (1651-1715) visited Tonquin and China in 1688 during his first circum-navigation of the world, and later wrote of his experiences in A New Voyage Round the World, which was published in 1697. The work contains the first known description in the West of the use of chopsticks. Here are his words:

In their entertainments, and at their ordinary eating, instead of Forks and Spoons, they use two small round sticks about the length and bigness of a Tobacco-pipe. They hold them both in the right hand, one between the fore-finger and thum ; the other between the middle-finger and the fore-finger, as our Boys do their Snappers. They use them very dextrously, taking up the smallest grain of Rice with them; nor is it accounted mannerly to touch the food, after it is drest, with their hands: and tho it be difficult for strangers to use them, being unaccustom'd to them, yet a little use will overcome that difficulty; and persons that reside here ought to learn this, as well as other customs of the Country, that are innocent, that so their Company maybe more acceptable. All the Tonquineses keep many of these Sticks in their Houses, as well for their own use, as to entertain Strangers at meals: they are as ordinarily placed at the Table here, as Knives, Forks, and Spoons are in England: and a man that cannot dextrously handle these instruments, makes but an odd figure at their Tables. The richer sort of people, especially the Mandarins, have them tipt with Silver. In China also these things are constantly used: they are called by the English Seamen Chopsticks.

Now, how did English seamen derive the name ‘chopsticks, I asked myself? These were, by and large, uneducated men - many having been press-ganged into the life – and not likely to have studied any of the Chinese dialects and attempted an actual translation of the native word. 

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the answer: the Chinese eating utensils reminded the mariners of something very familiar to the seafaring life. A chopstick is ‘the cross-stick (of iron wire, whale-bone, etc.) attached to a deep-sea fishing-line a short distance from the sinker, from which the short lines bearing the hooks are hung.’ One of the other references quoted by the OED demonstrates the similarity to the eating implements quite clearly.

Chop-stick, a small bit of whalebone attached to a sea fishing line to keep the snood and hook clear of the sinker (1682)

Chinese food was considered very odd by many early European visitors. They were variously intrigued, exited, and horrified by what they perceived as some very strange ingredients. I think it is fair to say that Chinese food was not taken up with enthusiasm in the West, until  chop-suey was ‘discovered’. The irony of course is, as we discussed in a previous post, that chop-suey is a decidedly American dish.

It is always interesting to see how one culture interprets the cuisine of another, and I do like finding examples of the process. 

The Recipe for the Day is from the Chinese-Japanese Cook-Book (1914), by Onoto Watanna [pseud]and Sara Bosse – the first Asian cookbook published in America.

Fried Rice with Herbs.
Two cupfuls of boiled rice; one and one half teaspoonfuls of pork fat; three stalks of celery; one large onion; five water chestnuts; one teaspoonful of salt; dash cayenne pepper; two tablespoonfuls of syou [soy].
Fry one large onion a light brown in one and one half tablespoonfuls of pork fat; chop up three stalks of celery very fine, and add five water chestnuts, sliced thin. Fry all a light brown, then take two cups of rice that has boiled for twenty-five minutes, or use cold rice if you have any on hand. Mix all together with salt and cayenne and syou, and fry for ten minutes, shaking and stirring constantly. Serve hot, garnished with any meat or fish, or alone. This is very tasty.

 Quotations for the Day.

When I'm at a Chinese restaurant having a hard time with chopsticks, I always hope that there's a Chinese kid at an American restaurant somewhere who's struggling mightily with a fork.
Rick Budinich


Les said...

Here's a creative use of Tonquinese sticks:

I can't imagine pickpockets using forks for something like this.

Liz + Louka said...

I like Dampier's comment "persons that reside here ought to learn this, as well as other customs of the Country, that are innocent". I wonder if that would be the usual attitude at the time.

The Old Foodie said...

I think experienced travellers like Dampier were more likely to have thi attitude, but those " back home" were more scathingly judgemental - my impressions, anyway!