Why Are Korean Chopsticks Metal and Flat?
Chopsticks from South Korea are made of metal (stainless steel) and they are flat, this is rather different than the material and shape of chopsticks from other parts of the world. As most Asian countries use wooden or bamboo chopsticks. This blog post will cover why Korean chopsticks are metal and flat! Read on to find out more.
South Korea, like many other Asian countries, was originally using the traditional wooden or bamboo style chopsticks. This was due to the influence of China, which spread to South Korea and Japan around A.D. 500. In Korean, they are called Cheot-garak (젓가락). ‘cheo’ is the Chinese word for chopsticks, and ‘garak’ meaning ‘sticks’. Many Korean words traditionally originate from Chinese.
Typically, Koreans use a pair of flat metal chopsticks and spoon set when eating. Both the Korean stainless steel chopsticks and spoon are usually laid out at the right-had side of the dish. This makes it easier to pick up your utensils as most people are right handed. You’ll often come across chopsticks that are a bit scratched or have carves, which makes the texture rougher. Because it is scratched, it makes it easier to use the chopsticks. And depending on the chopsticks, you’ll find the ends to be decorated with traditional Korean patterns, like flowers, cranes or other traditional animals.
1. Korean Metal Chopsticks History
It is speculated that the first metal chopsticks were used in Korea around the year 523. As metal chopsticks were found buried inside the tomb of King Muryeong of Baekje, who died that year. These excavations indicate that metal chopsticks were used by royal or noble families. Historians assume that during this time most people at using their hands, instead of using cutlery.
Korea has always been heavily influenced by its neighbouring countries like China. Spoons and chopsticks were first discovered in China, before being brought to Korea. Originally in China, spoons and chopsticks were never used together. Spoons were for eating soup or porridge, and chopsticks were for eating other meals. This was also supported by the excavation of chopsticks and spoons in the Royal Tomb of King Muryeong as they were located far apart from each other.
Why Are Korean Chopsticks Metal?
So you’ve learned how to use chopsticks, and want to learn more about their history, then you came to the right place! There are many speculations on why Koreans use metal chopsticks instead of wooden ones. It isn’t known for certain why Koreans use metal chopsticks but there are many theories on why they started using metal chopsticks and why they still use them today. Below are all the different reasons on why are Korean chopsticks metal.
1. Status Symbol
South Korea has a very long history with kingdoms and royal families dating back all the way to the Three Kingdom Period! The King has always been regarded as a role model and the people would to a certain extend always try and adapt to the King’s way of living.
Using silver or golden chopsticks and spoon would have been a symbol of wealth and status. If you were ever given a pair of chopsticks made from metal, silver or gold when eating, you are seen as a special guest.
Later on, cheaper metals, such as stainless steel, became easier to produce, so the rest of the country and people could enjoy eating with chopsticks fit for royal or noble families.
1.1 Bangjja, Bronze Table Ware
One type of bronzeware that was often used for the royal tables was Bangjja. This was very unique to Korea only and was considered to be among the highest class Korean tableware.
The use of this material goes back a long time, to the period of the Three Kingdoms. During the years it gained and lost popularity on a frequent basis due to high scale mining and the influence of China. It is said that this Bangjja tableware contributed to the use of metal chopsticks in Korea, as Koreans are more used to having metal tableware in traditional settings.
Another important reason why Koreans still use flat metal chopsticks these days is because of hygiene. It is much easier to clean metal chopsticks at a higher temperature than wooden or plastic chopsticks.
If you go to Korean restaurants these days, you’ll often see industrial size sterilization units, to keep Korean stainless steel chopsticks and spoons set, cups, etc clean. Back in the days they used their break times to sterilize the chopsticks in a large bowl of boiling water.
3. Against Poison
Another believe, is that the silver chopsticks used by royals would react to the poison or arsenic in food. One theory is that silver chopsticks would change colour, and therefore warn the nobility, if their food was poisoned.
Throughout history, there was an intense rivalry between royal families and within high class ‘yangban’ families. Attempts of murder were not uncommon, and many family members were poisoned or had experienced poisoning attempts by their rivals.
Some families had official ‘food tasters’ to try the food before it was being served in case of poisoning, but another way was to use silver bowl and chopsticks as it would discolour when it came in contact with a toxic substance.
4. Spoon for Rice
In South Korea, people use a metal spoon to eat their rice, as it’s often combined with some kind of soup. Therefor wooden or bamboo chopsticks, which are easier for eating rice, are not necessary. This in in contrast with other Asian countries who do not standardly have a spoon as part of the cutlery setup.
5. Korean War
After the Japanese occupation, South Korea went through an extended time of hardship during the Korean War (1950s) and after. Steel chopsticks and metal bowls became more frequently used during this time and there was lots of environmental damage. Many of the Korean forest were destroyed during WW2 and the Korean War. The government of South Korea encouraged people to start using more reusable metal chopsticks instead of wood, as the steel industry is a major pillar of the Korean economy. Whoever was still using wooden or bamboo chopsticks during that time, switched to steel ones during the war.
Not only the scarcity of wood influenced this but also the durability of the steel. Modern stainless steel chopsticks is easier to maintain and lasts much longer than wooden ones.
Why Are Korean Chopsticks Flat?
Korean chopsticks are typically made of metal and are flat, but not always. It is said the the surface are of flat chopsticks is bigger which makes it easier from holding food.
The way Korean steel chopsticks are manufactured is the same way as other stainless steel cutlery. They are made by cutting large flat metal sheets. Making them round would require more steps, raw materials and labor. Resulting in more expensive chopsticks.
Frequently Asked Questions
The are multiple speculations why Korean chopsticks are made of metal and they include: against poisoning, due to war, as a status symbol, for hygiene reasons and much more!
As Korean chopsticks are mostly made out of steel metal, the production process is similar to that of forks or spoons. The chopsticks are cut out of a bit stainless steel sheet. If they were round, it requires additional steps, raw materials and labor, making it more expensive.
Hopefully this article answered your question on why Korean chopsticks are metal! If you have any more questions about metal chopsticks, the history of Korean chopsticks or anything else, let us know in the comment section below.