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Tools of the Cooking

A jade bowl in the shape of lotus leaf, made in the Ming Dynasty (1368—1644) with a height of 5.3 cm and a diameter at the opening of 9.4 cmHumans evolved from the primitives, who plucked the hairs and feathers from animals and drank blood, into intelligent and skillful beings that can make today’s gourmet foods. Gone were the days of seizing food with bare hands, people now dine with chopsticks, knives, forks and spoons. Apparently, changes in the ways of eating and dining utensils can reflect the path of human evolution, from a primitive state to modern men. The cooking and dining utensils of the Chinese have an inseparable connection with their culinary techniques and dietary habits. Today, people can learn about history through artifacts and a written language that were passed down through the generations. Chinese dining ware has gone through changes in material, from stone and pottery to bronze, iron and other metals. The one form of “made in China” product that is well known throughout the world is porcelain, or fine china. As productivity levels heightened, dining utensils not only This bronze yan was made at around 13th century B.C. – 11th century B.C. with a height of 45.4 cm and a diameter at the opening of 25.5 cmunderwent changes in material and craftsmanship, but also a typical change from large to small, rough to delicate, and thick to thin.

The earliest cooking utensils included earthenware ding, li, huo, zeng, yan and more. Later came more elegant and larger successors to these utensils with the same names, but made from bronze and iron. Some of these cooking utensils doubled as vessels for food, such as the ding that was used to both cook and hold meat. Usually large in size, the ding is usually round in shape and has three pedestals for support; certain ones are square with four pedestals. Between the pedestals, firewood and fuel can be placed for direct burning and heating. On either side of the upper exterior of the ding is a handle for easy carrying. In the Bronze Age, the function of the ding changed as some were used as important tools in sacrificial rites. Li is used for cooking porridge (congee). It is similar in shape to the ding but smaller in size. Its three pedestals are hollowed and connect to the belly. The food in the hollowed legs therefore can be heated and cooked more quickly. Huo is specially used for cooking meats, and is more advanced than the ding. It has a round belly but no feet, more akin to the “wok,” which came at a later time. The zeng is used for steaming food. Its mouth folds outward and has handles. The bottom is flat with many apertures for the passage of steam. Some zengs have no bottom, but instead has a grating underneath. When in use, the zeng is placed over the li, a cooking tripod filled with water. What merged the zeng and li together is the yan. The Chinese have had earthenware zeng since the late Neolithic Age. After the Shang Dynasty (around 17th to 11th century B.C.), there appeared zengs made of bronze.

Food containers had their divisions of responsibilities as well. Among Gui is a kind of ancient vessel for millets and riceremaining artifacts, besides the plates and bowls, which differ little in function from today’s versions, there are also the gui, fu, dou, dan, bei and more. The gui is very much like a large bowl, with a round mouth and large belly. On the underside is a round or square base. Some has two or four handles at the upper outer rim. This kind of vessel was initially used to store grain, and was later used as a dining utensil, as well as a ritualistic tool. The ancient Chinese usually first fill rice from the zeng into the gui before eating. Fu’s function is similar to that of the gui and its form is close to that of the later high-legged plate. But most fus have a lid. The difference between dou and fu is that a dou has handles at their bottoms. Earthenware dou surfaced during the late Neolithic Age. After the Shang Dynasty, there were wooden painted dou and bronze dou. The dou is not just a dining utensil, but a tool for measurement as well (in ancient times, 4 sheng make up one dou). Dan is a container for rice, made of bamboo or straw. The bei, or cup, is not so different from today’s cup in form or function, mainly for carrying soup. Regardless of having meat or rice, the bi is used. The bi that is used to get pieces of meat from the huo is larger in size than the smaller bi used to obtain rice from the zeng. The bi’s function is the same as the modern-day spoon which succeeded it.

China has a long history of winemaking. Countless numbers of wine vessels from the Shang Dynasty were uncovered. From these, it can be determined that drinking alcohol was high fashion at the time. The zun (full round belly, protruding extended mouth, long neck, and spiral pedestals at the bottom, comes in many different designs and types of production process and material. The most popular during the Shang Dynasty was the “bird and beast” design), hu, (long-necked and small opening, deep-bellied with round base, some with overhanging handle), you (elliptic opening, deep-bellied with round base, has a lid and overhanging handle), lei (some round and some square, openings vary in size, short neck with square shoulders, deep bellied, with curling feet or round base, and has a lid), fou (earthenware) and the like are wine vessels, jue (deep-bellied, tri-pedestal, can be heated on top of fire, protruding grooves at the top for easy pouring), gu (the most common wine-drinking utensil, more often used in combination with jue, which is bigger, opening is shaped like a bugle, long neck, thin waist, tall curling feet), zhi (similar to the zun in shape but smaller, some with lids), jia (round mouth and belly, three pedestals with short handles, used to warm up alcohol), gong (oval belly, has an outer edge for flow of wine, short handles, bottom has curling feet, lid is in the shape of the head of a beast, some has an entire body like a wild animal, with small spoon as accessory), bei (cup), zhen (shallow and small cup) is to drink from. Wine is stored in large containers such as the lei. When serving, wine is poured into hu or zun, and placed at the side of the seat and table, then poured into jue, gu, or zhi for drinking.

Great inventions such as gunpowder, compass, movable-type printing and many more appeared, bearing witness to the advancement of Chinese science and technology. At the same time, Chinese porcelain-making crafts reached unprecedented heights in the Song Dynasty, as the making of celadon porcelain, white porcelain, black porcelain, over glaze or under glaze enameling all experienced great improvements. There emerged much more creativity in modeling, patterns and decorative illustrations, and enameling. Many fine and rare porcelain pieces that are famed today in both China and the West were created during this time period. Exquisite porcelain vessels for food and wine, together with the Chinese tradition in “pursuit of pottery dings have been used as primary cooking utensilsrefinement” in food, became the very much-treasured heritage of Chinese food culture that makes the Chinese so proud.

Speaking of the prominent characteristics of Chinese food culture, the chopsticks that the Chinese use for dining come to mind. The three main types of human dining tools are the fingers, fork and chopsticks. Seizing food with the fingers is a custom mainly practiced in Africa, the Middle East, Indonesia and the Indian subcontinent. The Europeans and North Americans use forks for dining. Other peoples, like the Chinese, who use chopsticks for dining, include Japanese, Vietnamese, and the North and South Koreans. Due to the influence of overseas Chinese, using chopsticks is also rapidly becoming a prevailing trend for people in Malaysia, Singapore and Southeast Asia.

There is a legend about the origin of the chopstick. In ages past, during the time of legendary sage kings, Yao and Shun, floods overrun the land causing catastrophes. Dayu received orders to prevent floods by water control. One day, Dayu set up a cauldron boiling meat inside. Meat after being cooked from boiling waters usually must be cooled before picking up by hand, but Dayu did not want to waste any time. He chopped off two twigs from a tree and used them to clip pieces of meat from inside the boiling soup. His men saw that with the twigs he was able to eat the meat without burning his hands and kept free of grease. So they imitated his doing one by one. Gradually, the rudimental form of the chopstick was established. The legendary story of Dayu inventing the chopsticks was a way the ancients honored the hero. The real inspiration behind the invention of the chopsticks should be the fact that fully cooked foods could burn hands.

Historical materials clearly record that in the Shang Dynasty, some 3,000 years past from today, the Chinese have already begun the use of chopsticks when dining. The oldest pair of chopsticks preserved today is made of bronze, uncovered at the Yin ruins (ruins of late-Shang Dynasty capital, located in present-day Anyang of Henan Province. It is the earliest capital city in Chinese history with a confirmed location. Oracle bone inscription used for divination was discovered there in 1899. Large-scale archeological excavations at the site began in 1928). Upon reaching the Han Dynasty, chopsticks were already widely used by the Chinese.

The chopsticks, great invention of the Chinese, is probably very much associated with mass consumption of the roots, stems, and leaves of vegetables in the Chinese diet. Long before invention of the chopstick, the main utensils for eating meat were bi (spoon), dao (knife) and zu (chopping block). Meat would be cut with the knife and served by hand. So even the ancient Chinese had the habit of washing hands before meals. Chopsticks have yet more importance as it influenced the course of development of Chinese dishes and dietary habits. For example, having foods such as lamb hotpot, long noodles, and bean-starch noodles just becomes that much more fun and convenient when the chopstick joined in.

Compared to knives and forks, chopsticks seem more difficult to handle. The two thin sticks have no direct point of contact. Rather, with the thumb, index and middle fingers doing the work, the sticks can perform multiple feats including raise, stir, nip, mix, and scrabble. And it can precisely pick up any food except for soup, stew and other kinds of liquid foods. Specific studies show that when using chopsticks to clip foods, it involves more than 80 joints and 50 pieces of muscles in the body, from shoulders to the arms to the wrist and fingers. Using chopsticks can make a person quick-witted and dexterous. Many westerners praise the use of chopsticks as the creation of an art form. Some even think that the Chinese’s excellent skills in table tennis should give credit to the chopstick.

However, chopsticks still have its weakness when compared to knives and forks, as well as to eating from the hand. When it comes to round and slippery foods such as stuffed glutinous rice balls, meatballs or pigeon eggs, one’s skills of using chopsticks are put to the test. Those with less than average mastery of the tool can result in embarrassing moments. Westerners have a real cultured way of dining, usually holding the knife in the right hand, fork in the left, and eating ambidextrously.

The Chinese also has its own set of rules when eating. Chopsticks are for rice and spoons are for soup, but only one hand can be used at a time, unlike the west where both hands are used simultaneously from left and right. In addition, there are even more proprieties when eating with the chopstick. It is usually accepted that chopsticks should be held in the right hand. In olden days, training was conducted for the right-hand usage of chopsticks. When finished with the meal chopsticks must be securely bridged on top, at the middle of, the empty bowl. If for a temporary recess in the middle of a An imperial jade pot with a handle, used by Emperor Jiaqing (1796—1820) of the Qing Dynasty with a height of 10.5 cm and a diameter at the opening of 8.5 cm. The handle height is 10.4 cmbanquet, chopsticks can be laid on the table close to the bowl and should not be placed upright in the bowl. This is because only bowls holding sacrificial offerings are to have a pair of vertically implanted chopsticks. It is also not allowed to aimlessly stir around amidst foods or to poke at things with chopsticks. When two people try to clip up foods, the pairs of chopsticks cannot cross. One should never knock on an empty bowl with chopsticks.

One also cannot use two chopsticks of different lengths or use only one chopstick. Chopsticks cannot be used in place of toothpicks, etc. As a daily appliance of the Chinese, its not unusual to find chopsticks made with a wide range of materials including bamboo, wood, gold, silver, iron, jade, ivory and rhino horn. Former kings and emperors of China usually dine with chopsticks of silver, as it has the peculiar property of reacting to poisonous chemicals by turning black, thus guaranteeing safety of the food.

Chopsticks are not only the most loyal “attendants” on Chinese dining tables, but also a cultural folk craft worthy of collecting. Therefore, many areas in China produce “brand-name chopsticks” that are made of exquisite materials through special crafting process. The unique artistic value that chopsticks hold has won the hearts of domestic and international tourists and collectors alike. Shanghai collector, Mr. Ling Lan, had a keen vision as he set up China’s first family museum specializing in the collection of chopsticks. There, on display are over 1,200 pairs of chopsticks of over 800 types, all in extraordinary splendor for the viewing pleasure of visitors. Among the collection are hotel-used chopsticks; chopsticks from specific tourist spots; chopsticks used for dying of cloth in the countryside; Many people have collecting chopsticks as a favorite hobbyMongolian chopstick dance props; metal chopsticks used as weapons in ancient armies; bird-raising chopsticks and more, the list goes on and on. In Indonesia, an elderly overseas Chinese has over 908 types of chopsticks in his collection, among which is a pair of golden chopsticks that was used by a former imperial Chinese concubine.

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