Tradition is a funny thing.
Every day, we imitate the behaviours of generations that have been gone for centuries without giving it much thought.
But when you really put your mind to it, why do we hit our glasses together before drinking? And what is the benefit of using chopsticks to eat?
You perhaps considered these questions one Thursday when you were 12 and soon forgot that it was ever a curious mystery to you. Luckily, we are here to explore the cultures of the world and uncover the reasons for accepted customs worldwide (and you’ll learn about other cultures along the way!).
Why do the Eastern Asians use chopsticks?
Thousands of years ago, the Chinese used sticks to cook and had knives to eat with at the table.
When the population started really increasing in the last 1500 years, fuel shortage became a real problem and all food was chopped prior to cooking to make it faster and therefore use less fuel. As a result, knives weren’t needed to eat and they could cook and serve themselves using the same cheaper utensils; what we know as chopsticks. The trend spread across the East and now, Japan, Korea and other neighbouring countries also use chopsticks as their cutlery of choice.
It is a modern idea that chopsticks were used to eat slower, though some say that the dainty mouthfuls do indeed help weight loss!
In fact, why does East Asian food include almost no cheese?
When you think about it, have you ever had a Japanese or Thai dish with dairy ingredients? Coconut or soy milk are in common use, sure, but bread and butter?
In ancient rural Asia, though cows were in abundance, they were needed to cultivate crops and therefore were not nurtured to produce milk. Those that did eat dairy did not create a trend because the diet of the lower class was regarded as unsophisticated.
As humans, our stomachs are naturally lactose intolerant but our love of cheeses and creams has promoted a certain level of immunity. This never happened in East Asia so even today, it makes them sick to add it to their meal. All the more macaroni cheese for us!
What’s the point in clinking glasses together before drinking?
“I propose a toast…”.
The standard introduction to an age old tradition involving knocking glasses of alcohol together. But what is a “toast” and why do we do it?
Despite the popular myth suggesting that toasting prevented you poisoning fellow revellers, a more studied explanation takes the custom back to when the companions would share drink from a single bowl as a sign of trust and friendship. Toast would be left in the wine to soak up any bitter taste.
When it became more common and convenient for each to have their own glass, the sense of camaraderie was retained by continuing to share the “toast”, touching glasses across the table.
And of course, they wished each other good cheer(s)!
How did we collectively decide that ‘dessert’ is a thing?
The idea of eating something sweet after your main meal seems to be a universal custom for mealtimes. It’s so engrained in cultures across the globe that most of us have never stopped to wonder why.
Apart from the obvious sugar cravings that savoury food triggers, dessert, as with so many culinary trends, was popularised by the French.
From around the 15-1600s when Lords and Ladies started hosting extravagant evenings of food-fuelled fun, when the time came for the servants to ‘desservir’, or ‘clear the table’, the guests needed to stay entertained and eating while dirty dishes and goblets were dealt with. So, pre-prepared sugar-preserved items would be served to finish up.
‘Desservir’ became ‘dessert’, and voilà.
Once you look at it, nothing we do is meaningless! Everything can be traced back to its historical roots which is what makes food so rich in culture.
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