Q: Five boys use two long poles. They chase a herd of white water buffalo into a dark cave. What is this?
A: A hand using chopsticks to eat rice.

I once took a visiting lady companion to one of the swankiest Vietnamese joints in town, just to let her know that I’m in the know about things to know. And, not to be outdone in things to be done by those who do them, she insisted on displaying her skill in the use of chopsticks. Fair enough.

But the temple of the kitchen gods to which I squired my charming companion serves all its dishes on china plates. Wide, flat plates. No surprise there, but chopsticks are intended for use with small eating bowls. Rice bowls. As in “don’t break someone’s rice bowl”. You put rice in it. Then you put some food in it. Then you lift it to your mouth and with your sticks you stuff your face. This way you can get every grain of rice and scrap of meat or veg. But you’ll never scoop up everything from a wide, flat plate. Chopsticks just don’t work well in the horizontal. They are designed for more vertical use.

I advised my charming companion to do as the local diners at neighbouring tables and I were doing: using the fork and spoon provided. But she chopsticked grimly on, and left enough on her plate for another meal.

And that was her first lesson in the seemingly simple yet endlessly fascinating subject of what is sometimes called “the two fast boys”. The twin sticks are not just instruments for the conveyance of food to the mouth. They are imbued with legend and lore. They have a cultural, historical, and even a legal significance that our humble fork will never achieve. So remember that the next time you lift a pair of “dua”, you will be imbibing much more than mere sustenance.

There is a Vietnamese tale about a woman who marries a handsome man from another province. She knows he has a younger brother, but she has never seen him. She goes to live with her new husband and his family. At supper in the new home with her new family, her husband and his “younger” brother take their seats. To her surprise, they are identical twins; one is only minutes older than the other. She cannot tell them apart, but does not wish to let her husband know this. She waits until dinner starts and the chopsticks are distributed. One of the brothers hands a pair to the other, the act of deference from the younger to the elder.

In some places people believe that if you hold the chopsticks halfway down it is an evil omen. However, here you can hold your chopsticks halfway because it gives the chopsticks another use. The fat end of the chopsticks can be use to pick up food and place it into your bowl, while the tapered end can be used for bringing food to your mouth. This bit of knowledge is the traditional standard for judging one’s capacity for responsible behaviour. If you’re savvy enough to know which end of the sticks to use, you’re savvy enough to know right from wrong. In the 19th century this standard was used even in some death penalty cases. No diminished capacity or “twinkie defense” allowed.

The Vietnamese are superstitious in matters of the dead and take great pains to avoid upsetting the spirits. So beware. Do not tap on your bowl with your chopsticks. This is how, in spooky séances, they call upon the dead. No drum solo at the table, please. And don’t shove your sticks vertically into your rice bowl and leave them standing. It’s the poker player’s equivalent of Aces and Eights, the “dead man’s hand”.

Further chopstick savvy: Do not pluck up more than one piece of food at a time. This makes you look too hungry. And if you are too hungry, it must be because you have not eaten in days. In which case, you must be a beggar, you beggar.  Do not use the fat ends to reach for something on the serving plate that looks good and then return it. It could cast aspersions upon the cook. And lastly, don’t eat directly from the serving plate, not even a little bit. Nimbly use your sticks to place every morsel in your rice bowl first, even if only for a second. I don’t know why. It’s just considered polite.

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