Korean Chopsticks – All About “Jeotgarak”

Korean Chopsticks – All About “Jeotgarak”

Originating over 5000 years ago in China, the chopsticks spread in Korea at around the 5th century A.D during the Baekje kingdom. Just like in most of East Asia, chopsticks are used daily as eating utensils and have become part of the cultural heritage in Korea.

What is Jeotgarak?

The Korean word for chopsticks “jeotgarak” (in Hangul, the Korean alphabet: 젓가락). The word consists of jeo, which means “chopsticks”, and garak, which means “stick”.

Jeo is a word that cannot be used on its own. It is also part of “sujeo”, which describes Korean eating utensils, which are the spoon and chopsticks. Sujeo is a mix of “sutgarak”, which means spoon (숟가락), and jeotgarak, which means chopsticks (젓가락).

How do chopsticks in Korea look like?

The Korean style chopsticks are a bit longer than the Japanese and a bit shorter than the Chinese, but they are heavier and thinner compared to both. They are 9-10 inches long and made out of metal or stainless steel, which makes them a bit slippery. The chopsticks in Korea are squared with flat tips for a better grip and they have ornate designs, which are carved at the grip. The reason chopsticks are flat is because they do not slide off the table. Usually, the ends of the chopsticks are embroidered especially when given as gifts.

What materials are used?

Sujeo chopsticks and spoonDespite the standard belief that chopsticks are wooden or bamboo, the material used in Korea is stainless steel. Why are Korean chopsticks made of metal? There are 3 explanations for that.

The first reason is that during the Baekje Kingdom (which existed in Southwest Korea between 18B.C and 660 A.D) the royal and upper-class families used silver chopsticks as means of protection because it was widely believed that silver would change color, if the food was poisoned. The commoners wanted to be more like the affluent so they started using steel as they could not afford precious metals such as silver, gold, cloisonne or brass.

Another reason is that metal chopsticks are more hygienic and durable compared to the wooden ones and they can be easily sanitized in boiling water.

The final reason is that Koreans use spoons for eating rice and soups, which is too slippery for metal sticks. However, all other dishes such as banchan, vegetables, meat, etc.

Korean chopsticks etiquette

Standard set of stainless steel chopsticksOn a typical dining table in Korea, you will see a pair of metal chopsticks and a long-handled spoon from the same material on their left side. This set is called sujeo and it should be placed on the right side of the rice bowl (known as bap) and soup (gouk). Of course, there are some table manners that should be followed and they are the following:

  • do not suck the chopsticks;
  • do not use your hands to pick any food;
  • do not put the chopsticks to the left of the spoon;
  • do not eat too fast or too slow compared to the others;
  • do not rest the sujeo on any bowl or dish during the meal;
  • start with the soup and then try the rice or the other dishes;
  • do not hold the chopstick and spoon at the same time in one hand;
  • do not hit the plates or bowls with the sujeo in order to make noises;
  • use the spoon under the chopsticks, if the food you picked is dripping juice;
  • put the sujeo the way they were initially placed on the table after you finish your meal;
  • do not pick up a bowl to bring it closer to your mouth in order to eat the food inside with chopsticks;
  • use the chopsticks for the side dishes (known as banchan), but not for the rice, stews or soups as the spoon must be used for these.