Bold innovation isn’t motivated by ecological concerns, but a desire to preserve a part of Japanese agricultural heritage.
Along with excessive packaging, Japan’s penchant for disposable wooden chopsticks is commonly pointed to as a way in which the country isn’t as environmentally friendly as it could be. While many modern disposable chopsticks are made from recycled materials, one could still make the argument that those recycled materials could instead be used for more lasting purposes than to make single-time-use eating utensils.
So one could see an environmental upside to chopsticks that aren’t just thrown away after the diner is done dining, but which instead become part of the meal itself. Nagoya-based Marushige Confectionery recently developed just such a product, which at first glance looks like a pair of ordinary, if slightly rustic, wooden chopsticks.
But a closer look reveals that the texture is unlike that of wood, and while these chopsticks are firm enough to pick up other morsels of food, they’re not so hard that you can’t bite right through them.
So if they’re not made of wood, what does Marushige craft these out of? Igusa, the type of reeds used to make traditional Japanese tatami floor mats.
The edible chopsticks are made using igusa grown in Kumamoto Prefecture, on the southern island of Kyushu. But while Kumamoto remains Japan’s top igusa producer, demand for the plant has been dropping in recent years, with a shift to more modern building materials in Japanese homes as well as a rise in imported tatami mats. The edible chopstick project was born out of a desire to help preserve and promote the culture of domestic igusa production.
▼ The introductory video for the edible chopsticks
However, just because something can be eaten by humans doesn’t mean it is eaten by a society. While Japanese cuisine can make use of some very surprising ingredients, igusa isn’t something that most Japanese people consider a food. Making the edible chopsticks an even harder sell is that Marushige openly bills them as “tatami-flavored,” which brings to mind a bitter, dried grass taste.
▼ An igusa field
Perhaps the biggest hurdle of all is that since you’re supposed to eat the things that let you eat other things, by necessity the edible chopsticks will be the last part of your meal. While it’s not hard to find people who relish the idea of closing out their dining experience with a sweet dessert or even a final blast of savory flavor, those who like to cap the meal by chewing on a reed are likely to be few and far between. Nevertheless, Marushige has found two restaurants in Tokyo willing to field test its edible chopsticks by providing them to customers, so if you’ve ever wanted to know what a tatami mat tastes like, here’s your chance.
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