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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

Alimentary, My Dear

Chopsticks, Anyone?

By Tamia Nelson

April 17, 2007

No one would ever have mistaken my Outward Bound patrol for members of the Go-Light Brotherhood. We staggered down the trail under mountains of war-surplus gear and climbing hardware. Yet our mess kits were as rudimentary as they could be: one steel World‑War‑II‑era canteen cup and a companion GI spoon per person. That was it. No bowls, no plates, no forks — and no spares. So when Sean lost his spoon several days from the trailhead, he was well and truly up the creek. One-pot glop was on the menu for that evening (as it was on every evening), with sardines straight from the tin for appetizers. Still, Sean managed as best he could with only his fingers. For a while. But we were deep in bear country. The unmistakable evidence was everywhere around us. And it wasn't long before we started wondering if Sean's greasy fingerprints on our group gear were an invitation that no hungry bear could resist.

Clearly, something had to be done, and soon. Someone suggested that Sean carve a new spoon with the jackknife he'd been issued, but the results weren't encouraging. After several hours' work, all Sean had to show for his efforts were a pile of shavings and an imaginatively carved thumb. (Good thing we had an excellent first-aid kit and the skill to use it.) Then someone else suggested that Sean try eating with his knife blade, following the example of Inuit hunters and countless movie cowboys. But Sean had lost all interest in further experimentation by then. He figured he could manage without the use of his thumb — at least until it healed — but he didn't want to risk losing his nose or tongue.

That's when I had a Good Idea. I picked up a couple of small, straight branches from the trail. Each was about as big around as my little finger. In less than a minute I'd trimmed them, peeled them, and cut them to length — about 10 inches, more or less. Then I handed them to Sean. He looked at me quizzically, and I answered the question in his eyes with just one word: "Chopsticks." That was all he needed. Outward Bound's can-do philosophy did the rest.


This little episode taught me a lot. Lesson Number One: Always bring at least one spare set of utensils along on any trip. Lesson Number Two: Sardines packed in oil are not the best snack food for bear country. And Lesson Number Three? You guessed it:

Chopsticks Rock!

Need convincing? Well, a paddling trip is a departure from your day-to-day routines, right? That makes it a good time to break away from the tyranny of the everyday. So why not give chopsticks a try? You won't find many utensils that are lighter or more compact — or that have a better claim to the title "traditional." Moreover, chopsticks fit in nicely with the aesthetic of paddling. They're the very embodiment of the KISS principle in action. And like a well-lofted canoe or kayak, chopsticks possess an undeniable elegance, the beauty that comes when function is distilled down to the irreducible minimum of form.

So, how do you begin? Nothing could be simpler. Take a pair in your hand and go to it. Buy some inexpensive bamboo chopsticks if you don't already have a couple lying around the house from your last visit to an oriental restaurant. You won't need your credit card. I found a package holding 10 pairs on sale for less than a dollar at a Canoe Country HyperMart. They're not museum quality, I admit, but they do the job. And if I drop them on the trail I won't have lost much money. Better yet, the bamboo will eventually rot.

OK. I'll 'fess up. I've glossed over a critical step in the learning process. It's not enough to put a pair of chopsticks in your hand. You gotta know how to hold 'em. But don't worry. The secret will soon be revealed:

Ninja Chopsticks.

Practice makes perfect!

Wedge one chopstick securely in the web of your thumb, resting it against the first joint of your ring finger. Now grasp its companion between your thumb and forefinger and align the tips, using your middle finger to keep the first chopstick from shifting round as you do so. Think of the lower chopstick as the anvil and the upper as the hammer. That's all there is to it. Once you can click the tips together with the deftness and rapidity of a sparrow's beak, you've mastered the art.


Hungry? Then only one question remains:

What's for Dinner?

The short answer? Just about anything. But beware. Chopsticks encourage — no, they require — a very different approach to your food than the chilly, arm's-length etiquette of fork and spoon. To begin with, hold your bowl close to your face. Liquids are drunk directly from the bowl, whereas semisolids should be scooped into your mouth with a rapid paddling motion of the chopsticks. Noodles, chopped vegetables, and cubes of meat are gripped and transferred bit by bit. Beginners will find ramen a good practice food. The long, thin noodles cling together in easy-to-grab clumps. Better yet, ramen is tasty, compact, quick-cooking, and cheap. How can you go wrong? And the preparation couldn't be easier. Just tuck a few bricks of your favorite ramen into your food pack. Once in camp, measure the proper amount of water into a pot, bring it to a boil, add one or more ramen bricks, and stir. In three minutes the noodles will be cooked. Turn off your stove or move the pot to the edge of the fire. Now empty as many packets of soup powder into the pot as you had bricks of ramen. Stir again. That's it. Dinner's ready. Get out your chopsticks and dig in.

Feeling adventurous? Then you're ready to…

Push the Boat Out

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Spice It Up  Mince garlic, fresh ginger root, and the white bulb from a stalk of lemongrass. If you don't have lemongrass, use the zest (grated peel) of a lemon or lime. Drizzle a little sesame oil into your pot. Add the lemon grass, ginger root, and garlic. Heat. But go easy — if you warm them beyond the point where they become fragrant they'll burn and turn bitter. Now add water to the pot, bring it to a boil, and cook your noodles as usual. Add other herbs and spices, too, if you want. Try dropping a pod of star anise into the water before heating it. Or add chopped fresh cilantro to the ramen when it's done. Or stir in some canned coconut milk for the taste of fusion.

Give It Crunch  After the ramen has cooked, top it with thinly sliced raw red onions, red and green bell peppers, nappa cabbage, bok choy, or other vegetables. Scallions (green onions) cut into three-inch lengths will also give you something to chew on. Or break broccoli or cauliflower florets into bite-sized bits and stir these into the water before bringing it to a boil. They'll be crisp-but-tender when the noodles are done. Want even more variety? Then add canned sliced water chestnuts, baby corn on the cob, bamboo shoots, or bean sprouts. (CAUTION! Unless you like your ramen watery, reduce the amount of added cooking water to compensate for any liquid from the cans.) You can sprinkle sesame seeds over the hot ramen, too. Or give dried coconut a try.

Up the Heat  Chop a chili or jalapeño pepper very fine — use the seeds and membrane as well if you like things really hot — and add it to your cooking water. Or stir in a few dashes of hot-pepper oil before serving.

Add Some Meat  Flash-cook some satays — thinly-sliced beef, chicken, and other meats roasted over coals — then slide the meat off the skewers onto the pile of noodles in your bowl. The long, thin strands are easy to pick up with chopsticks. What's that? You don't eat meat? No problem. Just cut tofu into one-inch squares and heat it in the pot along with your ramen.

Make It Saucy  Splash a generous dash of soy sauce or teriyaki sauce on the cooked ramen. Or stir in a tablespoon or three of hoisin or plum sauce. Peanut sauce is yet another alternative. You can make it in camp. Here's how: Put a few dollops of peanut butter in a cup with a little bit of hot water, stirring the water and peanut butter together to make a thick sauce. Then spoon the sauce into the pot with the cooked noodles and broth. Stir again to blend. Now eat.

Go Nuts  Peanuts and cashews both go well with Asian food, but don't stop there. Experiment with other kinds of nuts, as well. Macadamias, Brazil nuts, slivered almonds, walnut pieces — all are widely available and worth investigation. They're delicious and nutritious, too. Just ask any squirrel!


Is there a downside to packaged ramen? Yes. Many folks find the ubiquitous monosodium glutamate (MSG) hard to stomach, and the sodium load may be a bit much for hypertensives. Other cooks simply like doing things from scratch. Do you belong to either of these groups? Then you'll want to look for authentic Japanese or Chinese noodles in your local HyperMart, and search the shelves of ethnic markets for soup bases, canned and fresh oriental vegetables, and dried delicacies like seaweed, shrimp, or mushrooms. In camp, round off your dinner with jasmine tea, fortune cookies, and fruit — lychees are always a good choice. Enjoy!

Why wait till you lose your spoon to give chopsticks a try? These simple yet elegant implements are inexpensive, lightweight, and easy to pack. And you can't get more traditional than chopsticks, can you? So bring on the ramen. Practice makes perfect, after all, and the learning curve was never gentler — or more delicious.

Copyright 2007 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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