On the far north side of Seoul, in the mountainous neighborhood of Buam-dong, a small gallery dedicated to chopsticks has been quietly doing business for the past six years. Jeo Jip, which translates to “that house” or “that place,” is Seoul’s only shop dedicated to chopsticks. It is housed in a modern white structure that resembles folded white paper. Inside, pairs of chopsticks are displayed with a reverence that is both familiar and surprising, like seeing an old friend all dressed up for the ball. Here, the humble chopstick has come into its own.
There’s a symbolism to the space, owner Park Yeon-ok explains: The tables in the center of the gallery represent lotus blossoms floating on the water, while the abstract display hanging from the ceiling represents the mist rising from the water. It all ties into her philosophy of highlighting the natural beauty of everyday objects. “As our lifestyles have changed, I wasn’t seeing traditional crafts being modernized for everyday life,” says Park, whose background is in art publishing. She and her daughter, Yoo Kyung-min, design the chopsticks and collaborate with local artisans to make them.
While metal chopsticks are more widely recognized as Korean, Park decided to highlight lacquered wooden chopsticks first to help keep this disappearing art alive. The process of lacquering chopsticks is painstaking and laborious: Each pair requires a minimum of three coats of lacquer, with sanding and drying between each layer; it takes a total of two months, because only small amounts of lacquer can be extracted from the sumac tree, which grows in Gangwon Province north of Seoul. Chopsticks with mother-of-pearl inlays, called najeon, require up to seven layers and far more time. (Prices range from 35,000 Korean won [$33] to 95,000 Korean won [$88] a pair.)
Yoo also points out that different cuisines across Asia have also influenced how chopsticks look: Chinese food tends to use more oil and have larger pieces, she says, so Chinese chopsticks average around 25cm (almost 10 inches) in length and are larger, sturdier and have wider tips for a better grip. Japanese chopsticks tend to come in around 22cm or 23cm (8 1/2 inches to 9 inches), and have sharper ends for picking up delicate pieces of seafood, while Korean chopsticks measure between 23cm and 25cm (9 inches to 10 inches) and tend to have slightly more of a grainy texture at the ends to help pick up noodles and vegetable banchan.
To Park, chopsticks are more than art, they represent something essential about Asian culinary culture: “In Asian cuisine, you have several shared dishes on the table, and with chopsticks, you can take a bite of this and that, and move from dish to dish—there's a spirit of sharing, and that's something I find very beautiful about eating with chopsticks.”
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