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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Korea eco-win

You may consider yourself proficient at chopstick use but that's when dealing with the relatively simple wooden or plastic variety.

It's not until you master the infinitely more difficult metal chopsticks that you truly become a chopstick pro -- or, to Koreans, 선생님 ("sonsaengnim," teacher/expert).

China, Japan, Thailand and the rest of Asia mainly use chopsticks made of plastic, wood or bamboo. These allow for a more secure grip and make it easier to pick up food. There's a reason that the chopsticks in your Chinese takeaway bag are wooden.

But stainless steel chopsticks are a whole different ball game. Not only do they occasionally slide out of your hand, it's trickier to pick up slippery foods like noodles and mandoo. To add to the struggle, Korean chopsticks are completely flat, not rounded or squared off like you might be used to from other Asian countries.

Once you've gotten the hang of these suckers, wooden chopsticks are child's play. A truly talented Korean -- aka the average seven-year-old -- even uses chopsticks to tear apart meat. Who needs a knife?!

Many street food vendors offer toothpicks as an acceptable substitute utensil. Why struggle to eat your 떡볶이 ("ddukbokki")?

Why is Korea the only country that primarily uses metal chopsticks? There are different theories:

1. Wikipedia gives credit to former President Park Chung-hee, who mandated metal utensils as "part of an economic reform policy that intended to cut down on wood usage."

2. An unnamed "ancient king" used silver chopsticks, which would turn black if they came in contact with poison. The tradition continues today with stainless steel instead of silver.

Actually, metal is the eco-friendly way to go. As landfills overflow with disposable utensils in China, leading to the imposition of a chopsticks tax, some people have begun carrying the reusable metal kind instead.

Take note, perpetual orderers of Asian food. Just say no to disposable utensils.

(I could write a whole 'nother post about the dangers of plastic utensils -- both on a health and environmental level -- but that's for another day.)