Culture Quirk: Metal Chopsticks

by Lindsay Shapka in , ,


Octopi at the Fish Market             Busan, South Korea

Imagine being in a foreign country and ordering what you think, from the photo in the menu, is chicken in marinara sauce, only to have a plate of cold, raw octopus tentacles in spicy fish sauce set in front of you. Because you can’t speak the language, and all eyes are already on you because you are the only foreigner in the room, you have no choice but to attempt a few bites of your exotic dish. Reaching for your utensils, you register that the chopsticks that you are about to use don’t have the familiar round, wooden feel — like the ones that come with Chinese take-out at home — but are flat, cold, made of metal and seem to slip with every attempt to pick up your food. 

Where are you?

If you guessed South Korea (great guess!), you would be correct! 

Out of all the Asian countries, only South Korea uses metal rather than wood, bamboo, or plastic as the material for their chopsticks. This practice started centuries ago in the time of the Joseon dynasty when one of the Joseon kings, paranoid about an attempt being made on his life, started using chopsticks made of solid silver thinking that the silver would tarnish if there was any poison in his food. His higher officials followed suit and over time, the use of metal filtered down to the rest of the population.

Though difficult to use for those of us familiar with the cheap, wooden take-out version, these stainless steel utensils are not only easier to clean than their wooden counterparts, but are reusable and so better for the environment.

Out of all the Asian countries, only South Korea uses metal rather than wood, bamboo, or plastic as the material for their chopsticks

They do take awhile to get the hang of however.

My first attempt, involving red saucy tentacles, resulted in a large red stain in the middle of my lap that matched the color of my (embarrassed) face.