Using “Jeotgarak” or chopsticks is essential when it comes to Korean food culture. They’re a big part of Korean table manners, where utensil etiquette should always be observed and practiced.
Chopsticks from other Asian countries are primarily made of wood and bamboo, making South Korea the only country to use the unique metal, steel, or iron chopsticks. Korean metal chopstick is different from its round counterparts as it’s thin and flat. Also, its tip is tapered while its end is squared off.
Korean widely use metal chopsticks in both cooking and dining. Historically, they have also used wooden chopsticks, but they started to switch to metal chopsticks for various reasons.
Why Koreans Use Metal Chopsticks?
Surprisingly, there is not just one but many reasons why Koreans use metal chopsticks. To give you more information about why they use them, check out the following:
- Theories on the Origin of Metal Chopsticks
- Offers Better Grip
- More Hygienic
- Safer to Use
- Long-lasting and Durable
- Good Conductor of Heat
Theories on the Origin of Metal Chopsticks
Before we talk about the beneficial uses of metal chopsticks, let’s first dive deep into some theories on their origin.
According to the Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the switch from wooden to metal chopsticks happened when King Muryeong of the Baekje Dynasty died, and metal chopsticks were found in his tomb.
Since the citizens look up to the King as a role model, they tried to adopt his way of living. So, they produced and used metal chopsticks made of “bangjja” or Korean bronze alloy—an affordable alternative material to silver. Later on, the people started to create various kitchenware made of metal.
It’s also believed that Korean metal chopsticks were used as the royal family’s food tester or protection against enemies’ assassination plots during the Baekje period. Back then, chopsticks were made of silver because it’s said that it changes color when exposed to toxins mixed in the food.
Another theory is that during dynasties in Korean history, gold, silver, or brass chopsticks were also used by wealthy upper class and rich families to showcase their wealth and power. They also use them during important events or occasions to make their guest feel special.
When it’s completely clear where this tradition comes from, Korean metal chopsticks have a lot of advantages that can can explain why people use it until today. Let’s see them together below.
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Offers Better Grip
Compared to other types of chopsticks, one advantage of metal chopsticks is that they offer a better grip because of their flat shape and carved tip. This makes picking up small and thin pieces of food easier.
They’re also smooth, thin, and heavy, so foreigners or first-time users might find them difficult to use at first.
But in fact, despite being quite a challenge to use, Korean parents do their best to teach their children how to use metal chopsticks because it plays a major role in Korean table manners.
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Even though Koreans use metal chopsticks on a daily basis, dirt and bacteria can’t build up on them, especially when cleaned properly. So, they’re more hygienic than wooden ones.
There are different ways to clean them, but each method is easy. They can be washed using a dishwasher and they dry quickly. For deep cleaning, they should be soaked in lukewarm water with soap for 30 minutes.
Korean restaurants also utilize industrial sterilization units to keep metal utensils clean and sanitary, which is more convenient than sterilizing their chopsticks in a bowl of boiling water during their break times.
Safer to Use
Compared to wooden chopsticks, metal chopsticks are safer to use because they don’t lock in moisture as they’re not porous. Also, they don’t have splinters and tiny cracks where bacteria can proliferate.
Additionally, as they’re non-absorbent, they don’t retain the taste or flavor of food, so they don’t develop and mix strange flavors or weird tastes with the dishes, even when used frequently.
Although wooden chopstick manufacturers use fast-growing trees, wooden or bamboo chopsticks still don’t seem like a sustainable choice, especially with increasing demand. The same goes for plastic chopsticks, which do not break down when disposed of.
As Korea promotes recycling, reducing waste, and saving resources, Koreans prefer to use metal chopsticks since they’re reusable, eco-friendly, and a better option than wooden and plastic chopsticks.
Long-lasting and Durable
Metal chopsticks are a great option for those who often break their wooden chopsticks while using. They’re highly durable as they’re not prone to damage and stains.
Another advantage of using metal chopsticks is that they do not decompose.
They might be pricier than wooden or disposable chopsticks, but they’re more practical in the long run as you don’t have to buy new ones frequently. Lasting for a long time or even a lifetime with proper care, they can even be passed down from one generation to the next.
Good Conductor of Heat
Koreans often do barbecue, where they grill meat right at their dining table using portable grills or built-in tabletop grills. Also, Korean stews and soups are served hot and almost boiling, making metal chopsticks handy and ideal.
Apart from being durable, they’re also a good conductor of heat. Unlike wooden and plastic chopsticks, they won’t catch fire or melt even when used directly on the grill.
Korean Utensils Etiquette
Koreans have a strict dining etiquette. One of them is the proper use of utensils wherein the spoon is for rice and soup while the chopstick is for everything else. And both utensils should not be used simultaneously.
So, metal chopsticks usually come in a set with a metal spoon. This set is called “Sujeo,” meaning Korean spoon and chopsticks. The intricate Korean designs on the metal utensils also reflect Korea’s beautiful culture.
Some metal chopsticks can even be custom-made and personalized by engraving decorations or personal messages, making them a great idea for gifts.
There are many theories on how Korea developed the tradition of using metal chopsticks. Apart from these, there are also advantageous reasons why metal chopsticks are perfect for Korean food culture.
If you’re planning dig in Korean food, try and practice eating with metal chopsticks. It might be a bit challenging to use compared to wooden and plastic ones, but it’s surely worth the time and effort as it lets you immerse yourself in a feast of Korean cuisine.
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If you want to discover more interesting facts about South Korea, feel free to check out our super interesting blog post about Korean Superstitions!