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Why are chopsticks made of steel popular in Korea

Point 1

By Donil Park
In Korea, steel chopstick, bowels, and other utensils became popular only in the 1950s after the Korean War. In part, this was due to environmental damage (most of the major Korean forests were destroyed during WW2 and the Korean War), and also to encourage demand for steel (development of the steel industry was seen as one of the pillars of the Korean economy). Prior to that, wooden and bronze chopsticks and other utensils were much more common (gold and silver were reserved for use by the nobility during the Joseon period or were unaffordable by common people.)

Currently, disposable wooden chopsticks (mostly imported from SE Asia) are also common, especially for foods such as noodles, etc. which are hard to eat with steel chopsticks. But steel chopsticks are still more prevalent since they are environmentally friendly. (But many restaurants will provide you with wooden disposable chopsticks if you request them.)

The following are pictures of typical Sujeo (수저) or spoon-chopstick sets that Koreans use. I could not find on the internet, but there is also a type of steel chopsticks with grooves near the tip that are supposed to make it easier to grip food.

The common explanations I hear all the time, that Korean royalties and dignitaries used silver utensils to detect poison and that metal withstands better over the flame for barbecue, are not convincing to me. I am sure it wasn’t as if only Korean dignitaries were under the risk of being poisoned and despite Korean cuisine is well known for its barbecues, I am sure it wasn’t like barbecue was a staple for most Koreans to such a degree that having metal chopsticks was useful for most people.

Point 2

By Donil Park
I think it likely has to do with the fact that among the most popular materials for tableware and utensils in Korea was a certain type of bronzeware that is pretty unique to Korea, called Bangjja.


(notice the metal bowls, as well as metal spoons and chopsticks in the background, albeit out of focus)

This type of bronzeware would be used for royal tables, and that is to say that this material was considered to be among the highest class as far as tablewares go. Sure, Koreans also used china and japan for tablewares as well, but Bangjja bronzeware was considered to be classy and prestigious.

The use of Bangjja goes back a long time, sometimes being referred to by foreigners as 신라동 Shilla-dong or 고려동 Koryo-dong, for “Shilla bronze” or “Koryo bronze” (if Korea managed to have more prominence in the global cultural consciousness, this type of bronzeware might have been better recognized in the world and referred to as Korea, like how certain ceramicware is referred to as china and lacquerware is referred to as japan).

It lost popularity somewhat when china was introduced in the middle of the last millennium, but then regained popularity in the 18th century or so due to higher scale metal mining. Then its popularity went down again during the colonial period because apparently, a new type of fuel was introduced during that time that would easily tarnish Bangjja.

All that to say is that Koreans are more used to the idea of using metal tableware and utensils, and so this probably contributed to the prominence of metal chopsticks (and spoons and tableware generally) in Korea today. The popularity of metal may also have to do with the economic hardship Korea went through in recent decades since metal is durable and hygienic in general. The modern popularity of stainless steel (as opposed to the more traditional Bangjja bronzeware) in particular likely also has to do with economic reasons since stainless steel is easier to care for and is significantly cheaper than Bangjja.

Point 3

By Michael L. Best, an avid follower of East Asian/Korean history and affairs.
It’s not exactly a new trend, as Koreans have apparently been using metal chopsticks for centuries. That said, I’ll forewarn readers that a lot of this is my speculation as I haven’t found too much documentation of the why …as of writing this.

First of all, to my knowledge, Japan has used metal/steel chopsticks in the past, primarily for ceremonial purposes rather than daily use. I assume, however, the Emperor and his family might have regularly used metal chopsticks, as most royalties in Asia did. This was a common practice as metal, silver particularly would react to certain poisons, therefore acting as an indicator if the king/emperors food had been poisoned at all. But why were metal chopsticks used widely by the general populous in Korea and not Japan?

Honestly, I can’t speak with certainty, but I suspect that the scarcity of metal ores in Japan played a big part. Though I wouldn’t say either country had an abundant source of iron ore, to my understanding, Japan had a quite a bit less than Korea. Japan also suffered under more periods of civil war, at least in the last thousand years, so much of its metal was dedicated toward military use.

Then there is even the fact that the quality their iron wasn’t very good either as they used iron sand, which was more abundant in Japan but had more impurities than typical iron ore. So this meant it would take a lot more effort to create quality iron/steel products in Japan than it would on the Asian mainland, which had better access to iron ore. I’m not saying Japan couldn’t do this, in fact by necessity, Japanese smiths became very skilled and could probably easily produce quality metal chopsticks. But why waste the time and precious little resources on kitchen utensils with little perceived benefit?

For Koreans, it’s harder to say why exactly the use of metal chopsticks was so common when compared to Japan or even China. Some say it was likely due to the fact that metal spoons were also commonly used, so it just seemed natural to use metal chopsticks as well. Ultimately, I think the comes down to this: why not? As I mentioned already, Korea had greater reserves of iron ore than Japan did (and much more frequent trade with China to supplement). Also, they did they have the same eating etiquette that existed in China, which dictated that it is rude to lift ones plate/bowl while eating.

Thus, some have proposed that it was more cumbersome to pick up rice with metal chopsticks without lifting the bowl (sidenote: I’ve tried this out, however, and it didn’t seem any less difficult with wooden ones, so I’m not sure how true that is) and also looked down on eating rice with a spoon. Koreans, on the other hand, don’t seem as strict with their eating etiquette, at least in those regards, as they had no qualms with using spoons for rice or lifting their plates.

Others have proposed that eating with metal chopsticks aided in improving the dexterity of your hands. I’ll admit, after switching to metal chopsticks years ago, there isn’t a single type of chopstick I can’t use, and some have said my handwriting has improved…a little. But, I can’t say with any certainty if this was actually an intentional factor to the wide use of metal chopsticks or if it was just happened to be a perk.

I have heard Koreans do tend to stand out for hand-eye coordination, excelling in sports like archery, but I’m hesitant to say this is all because of their chopsticks. Ultimately, I’d just say Korea had neither cultural or practical reasons not to use metal chopsticks. Add that to the fact that you could probably go a lifetime with just one set of chopsticks if they were made of metal, it seemed to just make sense.

Now, of course, Japan wouldn’t have any problems producing metal chopsticks today, so what’s the deal? Well, why should they? Each country in Asia has been using chopsticks for thousands of years, and during that time have modified them to suit their own cultural tastes. What they have and have always had works for them. Koreans are accustomed to metal chopsticks and prefer to use them. Japan is not accustomed to metal chopsticks but is comfortable with wooden ones.

Point 4

by Hajime Nomura, lived in Japan 35+ as a native
I shall add China here to explain this better. Japanese eat lots of fish, fish have small bones in it, and needs the removal of the bones during eating, and so the shape of chopsticks’ tips became pointy, unlike Chinese chopsticks (Chinese ones are thick at the tips). Historically Korean also eat fish, and used wood-made chopsticks, but some point in the past, started the BBQ dishes with grilling meat, and this requires the chopsticks to be durable, ended up using metal made chopsticks. In the old times Japanese hardly ate pork or beef either. The common ways of Japanese fish cooking were boiling/simmering, not grilling.

Point 5

by Dong-Yoon Lee
From ancient times, one Korean person was (not officially but conventionally) identified as his own body and her/his a pair of chopsticks and a spoon. So, usually, the familiarity to certain families is said like this “I(or my family) know a number of spoons and chopsticks of the family.”.

Especially, Buddhism monks add his a(or 4 pieces of) wooden dish bowl as his mandatory stuff. It is called as ‘Bari(or Baru)’ or ‘Baritte’. (‘tte’ means ‘stuff’ So, ‘Baritte’ means ‘a dish bowl stuff’.)

Back to chopsticks, for convenience to cleaning, durability, and carefulness habit against losing, Koreans have used spoons and chopsticks made by metal from ㅑIron age(corrected from Bronze age), and it is one of the most representative characteristic cultural customs of Koreans.

And from ancient times, some Koreans have practiced chopstick throwing(‘젓가락 던지기’) as a skill of martial arts.

Point 6

by Albert Chang, studied at The University of Texas at Austin
There are two common explanations that I’ve heard regarding this. The first is that wealthy Koreans, following the imperial tradition, wanted to have silver chopsticks. Silver chopsticks were used by the emperor to test his food for poison, as they react with arsenic (a common poison) and immediately become green. Less wealthy individuals simply settled for any metal chopsticks, as they look and feel similar for a much lower price, and it simply became commonplace (though bone or lacquer Chinese-style chopsticks are still used occasionally).

The other, less common explanation, which could be complementary to the first, is that during the Korean War, many forests and trees were destroyed in addition to the existing unsustainable logging forced by Imperial Japan for firewood and materials. In response, the Korean government implemented a long-term reforestation policy, which restricted logging. One of the few papers I found stated there were 4 million hectares of forest at the start of 1960, which under the policy grew to a high of about 6.5 million in 1990.

Because of these policies and history, it likely led to metal chopsticks becoming more popular during the 50’s-mid-70’s when South Korea was still poorer than North Korea, as they are both cheap and durable.

Attributing it to the eating of barbecue seems somewhat short-sighted; South Korea didn’t reach upper-middle-income status until nearly 1990, and metal utensils were common well before then.

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