Why is it so fucking hard to find a good pair of chopsticks? I’ll grant you that defining a great set of chopsticks has a lot to do with personal taste—like delineating what it is you want in a kitchen knife or a perfect pen. But like knives and pens, the playing field for chopsticks is saturated with such bumbling, shitty competition that when you finally find a real player you tend to idolize it with annoying conviction. Don’t worry; I have yet to find a pair that has moved me to the epicurean altar, so I’m not here to proselytize. Instead, I’m just going to talk about my basic wants when it comes to chopsticks.
Balance & Weight. I want chopsticks that are light, easily maneuverable, and well-balanced. Most people hold chopsticks about two-thirds or three-fourths of the way up from the tip. It is nothing short of a transcendent experience when you find a pair of chopsticks whose center of balance is situated perfectly at your point of grip. Light, perfectly-balanced chopsticks are zippy and responsive. They handle like a sports car.
Material. Full disclosure: I’m going to veer into some controversy here. I hate metal chopsticks. I fully appreciate that metal chopsticks have integrated themselves into the Korean dining experience. And anyone who knows me knows that I am a glutton for good Korean food after living in Los Angeles’s Koreatown for four years. But given the choice, I would never willingly choose metal chopsticks. They get ten points for their beautiful aesthetic, and minus one hundred points for basically everything else.
I want chopsticks constructed out of quality wood or bamboo. Both wood and bamboo provide a vehicle for food delivery that is neutral in taste, temperature, and texture. Also, when using chopsticks to sear and stir fry food, wooden/bamboo utensils resist heat. Metal chopsticks lack in all of these areas, plus they are ill-balanced and heavy. But this is not an article about the differences between Chinese/Korean/Japanese chopsticks, so I’ll leave it at that.**
Maintenance & Durability. Be dishwasher safe. All this really means is that the wood/bamboo should be constructed so that it resists the temptation to warp into bendy, misshapen torture sticks when exposed to moisture, temperature, and time. There are few things more maddening than negotiating a meal with a set of chopsticks that have veered away from the confines of Euclidean geometry.
Finish. I don’t want my chopsticks treated with some chemical finish. I don’t want them to be coated in glossy polish. In general, just keep any sort of varnish or lacquer far away from my face. I have read that some wooden and bamboo chopsticks are finished with an olive oil coat to add a bit of gloss, which seems okay. But really, I just want my chopsticks to be buffed to a silky smooth, simple, natural finish. In the same vein, I don’t want any gaudy designs, colors, or ribbons tacked onto my utensils. It’s hard to beat a minimalistic aesthetic that shows off the grain of the wood or bamboo.
Geometry. Again, I might be venturing into more heated territory here. But I lean toward chopsticks with a cylindrical construction versus ones with a cuboidal shape at the grip. I like the smooth hand-feel and the clean aesthetics of a rounded construction. Of course, I understand that a square cross-section provides some practical advantages—namely, they allow users to set their utensils on top of their bowl without fear that they might roll away. However, when I set my chopsticks down, I stick the tips directly into my rice like a barbarian, thus foregoing this (rather minor) benefit. Also, I like my chopsticks to have a sturdy width at the grip with a moderate (but not aggressive) taper. I do not want my chopsticks to be pointy.
Finally, WTF are these?
For the sake of all that is honorable and true, I cannot understand why anyone would want grippy grooves at the end of their chopsticks that repeatedly drag across their lips while they eat. I’m not sure who innovated this abomination, but adding ribbed grooves to chopsticks is like adding speed bumps to a runway where jets take off. It seems like some cruel social experiment.
To conclude, I think it is important to mention that if you look on Amazon for highly-rated sets of chopsticks, you will encounter an alarming number of reviews from people commenting on how “perfect” some products were in serving as magic wands for their child’s Harry Potter-themed birthday party. In the 25 years I have used chopsticks to deliver food to my face, I have yet to conjure up the Dark Arts. So I found the sheer quantity of these reviews to be quite disheartening. Yet, we must not lose hope. I believe in my heart there are good, honest chopsticks out there just waiting to be found. For now, my favorite pair is pictured below.
**Footnote: I find plastic chopsticks are sort of an intermediate that combines the worst of both worlds and thus are hardly worth mentioning in this conversation on chopstick perfection. They look cheap, make a distinctly annoying clicking sound around the dining table, and don’t stand up to the heat (of cooking).