Monday, November 16, 2009

Green Chopsticks

We went out to South El Monte the other day and stopped in for lunch at Pho Minh, a Vietnamese noodle joint recommended by local foodies for its wonderful Pho - the classic Vietnamese beef noodle soup.

I noticed among the usual table fixtures - the rack of soup spoons and little dishes, the tray of bottled sauces and condiments - that there were two kinds of chopsticks offered. There were the familiar paper packets holding disposable wooden chopsticks. And there were pairs of bright green plastic reusable chopsticks.

We ordered. I had my usual - I like Pho Tai, soup with rare beef. Before the soup we had an order of cha gio, or fried egg rolls. Vietnamese egg rolls are eaten by wrapping them in a leaf of lettuce with a slice of cucumber and pickled carrot or daikon, and dunking them into a sweet/sour watery dipping sauce.

When the soup came, it was accompanied by a platter piled high with fresh herbs, bean sprouts, quartered limes and sliced jalapenos. To eat Pho, diners typically garnish the soup to their taste with all these things, and use chopsticks to slurp up the noodles and push morsels into the spoon along with the broth.

I first learned how to use chopsticks when I was about eight years old. My dad had a favorite restaurant in Chicago's Chinatown, and he would bring us all there for dinner, the six of us seated around a large round table with a lazy-susan turntable in the middle. The chopsticks laid at each place were long and squared at the ends, made of yellow bamboo.

After dinner, we'd walk to the parking lot past stores that had colorful gifts I longed for, like silken pin-cushions and red and gold lanterns. Once we went in, and bought a packet of round almond cookies and a pair of ivory plastic chopsticks for each member of the family - they were printed in red and green with Chinese characters and images.

Chopsticks originated in China as early as 1700 BC. From there they spread to Japan, Korea and Vietnam. The word "chopstick" is from pidgin English. In China they are called kuài, meaning "fast" or "quick." In Japan they are called hashi.

Each culture's chopsticks are a little different. Here's a picture from Wikipedia showing an assortment. At the top are chopsticks from Taiwan, and they're just like the ones I remember being from the Chinatown store. Next down are porcelain ones from Mainland China, bamboo chopsticks from Tibet, palmwood chopsticks from Indonesia (Vietnamese style), stainless flat chopsticks from Korea (plus a matching spoon), a Japanese couple's set (two pairs), Japanese child's chopsticks, and disposable Japanese chopsticks (in wrapper).

Disposable chopsticks are known in Japan as warabashi and they became popular in the 19th century. Warabashi are joined together at the top and must be snapped apart before being used, assuring finicky customers that no one else has eaten with them.

They look pretty harmless, don't they?

Disposable chopsticks are a serious global problem, believe it or not. The chopstick industry's consumption of trees is responsible for deforestation in many countries, including China, Indonesian rainforests, and Western Canada.

When they first became popular, warabashi were made from scrap wood, but that's not the case today. Chopsticks are made from trees cut down specifically for that purpose. The most popular tree for warabashi are aspen and poplar. The Canadian Chopstick Manufacturing Company - a subsidiary of Mitsubishi - took only eight years to exhaust the aspen forests of Fort Nelson, British Columbia, with logging for chopstick production.

China itself produces more than 45 billion disposable chopsticks a year, cutting down 25 million trees in the process. In addition to domestic consumers, billions are exported, notably to Japan, which lacks the natural resources to make its own. Some 25 billion warabashi are used in Japan each year.

Environmental activists in both China and Japan are trying to change this. In Chinese universities, students have successfully convinced their universities to stop buying disposable chopsticks. A tax levied by China on exported chopsticks has caused Japanese restaurateurs to react by finding new source material for disposable chopsticks - corn-based, bamboo and rice-waste based chopsticks are on the market. A movement called "My Hashi" or "Bring Your Own" has made it cool for diners to carry their own personal chopsticks with them. Ingenious inventors sell special travel chopsticks that fold in half to save space, and have their own carrying cases.

Other restaurants stock reusable chopsticks, like the green plastic ones I used at Pho Minh.

Like the chopsticks from Chinatown I had as a kid, plastic chopsticks can be a little slippery in the bowl, and are hard to get used to. Noodles and slithery vegetables seem to cling to the texture of wooden chopsticks, while plastic's slick surface makes it trickier to hold on.

I did some searching on line and found that it costs about $20 for a thousand warabashi, while the plastic reusable chopsticks - the cheap ones, like Pho Minh's green ones - cost about $4 for a package of ten. Plus you have to worry about collecting them and washing them. So it might take a little more education and convincing before many restaurants change their habits.

Pho Minh is trying. If you're a lover of pho, pay them a visit and reward their efforts with your business.

Years ago, someone gave us a gift set of Japanese wooden chopsticks, like the pair third from the bottom in the picture above. I rummaged around in the drawer for them just now. I think I'll take a pair to work, and keep them in my desk. No more warabashi when I buy supermarket sushi for lunch.

How about you?


Sue said...

I have never mastered the art. I actually have a set of dishes I may use in this weeks tablescape. It came with chopsticks...lots of them. I love Asian food, but I stick to my fork. I love getting the story behind the "sticks"!


mo.stoneskin said...

I had not even thought or heard or read about the disposable chopstick problem.

Gilly said...

I've never had Asian food (as opposed to English Chinese!) and I am certain I could never master the art of chopsticks!

And I had never thought of the problem of wooden throw-away chopsticks! Seems its not one thing its another destroying the planet's eco-system! Too many people, that's what!

And as usual, lovely photographs. I do learn a lot from you!

Beverly said...

You've got me drooling for pho. fyi - I get grocery store sushi for lunch sometimes, too.

I've never mastered chopsticks, but my son and grandson can go to town with them.

Great post, Glennis.

Anonymous said...

I love how you can take a simple topic and weave it into a complete editorial! Truly, this is newspaper/magazine worthy. I honestly had no idea of the environmental impact made my warabashi. We don't go out for meals very often, but I will keep my eye out for green chopsticks.

PS: I still have my own set of reusable chopsticks, a childhood purchase like yours.

Personalized chopsticks said...

The fried egg rolls seems delicious as well as the soup, I really love Thai food but haven’t really tried the dish you mentioned above but looking forward to try them soon.