My spoon is too big.
June 13, 2010 7:54 AM   Subscribe

Why are Chinese spoons shaped like that?

I've never been able to figure out why spoons in China (and some other Asian countries) generally look like this rather than like this.

So, several questions here:

1. Why are they made of ceramic or porcelain rather than metal? From my point of view, this seems to make them unnecessarily heavy for their size, and probably also makes them break more easily...

2. Why are they shaped like that, in particular with a groove in the handle? Even aluminum ones have the distinctive shape and the groove. Why?

3. Why has this style of spoon remained popular when in direct competition with Western-style metal spoons? Do they serve different purposes somehow?

Answers that can be backed up would be best, but speculation is also welcome!
posted by danceswithlight to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I always have some in my kitchen - they're better for soup. Also the ceramic's not a heat sink like metal.

Also I think if you come from a culture where you don't grow up putting metal implements in your mouth it's more natural to have cutlery made of bamboo or ceramic or even plastic. Metal can have a taste.
posted by zadcat at 7:58 AM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

China's preference of ceramic over metal probably is related to their long history with porcelain.

And if you assume porcelain, that might explain the handle shape -- to provide structural strength.

All mere conjecture, however.
posted by intermod at 8:01 AM on June 13, 2010

I'm pretty sure these spoons are used for soup and noodle dishes, not rice dishes. In Japan you get these kind of spoons with ramen. The soup is used for 2 purposes, to gather and eat the broth and also to put noodles in and eat the noodles from.
posted by bindasj at 8:06 AM on June 13, 2010

1. Honestly, the ones I've used have either been sturdy plastic or very lightweight ceramic. I've never encountered one that weighed more than a Western spoon. I suppose they might exist.

2. I'm not entirely sure about this. I would have to guess that it gives you some leeway and extra space for liquid to flow in once you have noodles in the flat part.

3. What bindasj said. They're for eating soup -- and they beat the hell out of Western soup spoons for that purpose, really. Western soup spoons are just goofy looking spoons that don't work much better than a normal spoon for eating soup. They're particularly helpful for soup that has noodles, which is a lot of Asian soup, but even if you get something without noodles you use the same spoon. I always figured that it's because it would be stupid for them to keep two kinds of soup spoons around, and noodles are common.

If you try eating ramen or pho or another Asian noodle soup with a Western spoon, you will understand why the Asian spoons are different. It is an ordeal.
posted by Nattie at 8:13 AM on June 13, 2010 [5 favorites]

Also, they can stand by themselves when full, so they can be used to hold a hot dumpling on your plate while it cools a bit.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:38 AM on June 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

Another possibility: the traditional Western spoon is shaped the way it is because of the way we use forks. As far as I can tell, forks are the shape they are mostly for functional reasons (you need a long handle for leverage when using a fork to tear flesh apart or hold things in place while you cut them), and spoons may have evolved to match them for mostly aesthetic reasons.

According to Wikipedia, Western spoons haven't always been shaped the way they are. I'm just speculating here, but I wouldn't be surprised if the modern spoon evolved partly because of an upper-class fashion for symmetrical, elongated forks, knives and spoons that ended up being copied by the rest of the population as soon as they could afford tableware.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 8:48 AM on June 13, 2010

As to point three - why they've remained popular - having grown up in a Vietnamese household in Canada, we've always had both types of spoons in our house.

The 'Asian' spoons we bring out for anything with a more liquid consistency: soups (with and without noodles), stews, congee / porridge. The greater holding capacity helps in this case.

The 'Western' spoons we bring out for anything with a firmer texture that you may need to 'cut' into: rice dishes, firm desserts. The thinner edge of the spoon helps a lot to cut in and portion out bites.

If I think about it a little more, another rule of thumb is whether the spoon will be accompanied by chopsticks or a fork. Chopsticks = 'Asian' spoons, forks = 'Western' spoons.

Really, they serve different specialised purposes.
posted by thisisnotbruce at 9:06 AM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, I should mention that when somebody sets the 'wrong' spoon on the table, I or somebody else will inevitably get up and replace them with the 'correct' spoon type.

That's how useful a specialised spoon is and how annoying it is to use the incorrect one after you're used to their particular functions.
posted by thisisnotbruce at 9:09 AM on June 13, 2010

They're used as soup spoons, usually (but not always) in conjunction with chopsticks.

Also, you are assuming that Western spoons are in direct competition with those things - they're not. Overseas Chinese households frequently stock both kinds and use them for different purposes, and when I was in China I met many people who could use Western-style cutlery only with great difficulty.
posted by Xany at 9:21 AM on June 13, 2010

the angle on the spoon aids in scooping soup from a standard (fairly steep-sided) asian soup bowl.
posted by grubby at 9:24 AM on June 13, 2010

they're stackable
posted by ZackTM at 9:41 AM on June 13, 2010

like stickycarpet points out, the flat-bottomed spoons stand up so you can use them like a tiny holder for a little bit of hot sauce. (to dip your chopsticks in between bites). I don't know if this is a common use, but it would be impossible with a Western-style spoon.
posted by Joad at 9:56 AM on June 13, 2010

Western spoons are also designed to be inserted into the mouth, Chinese are not. As far as I've been able to figure out, the groove is not functional beyond providing edges that keep it secure in your grip, the spoon is held in the hand more or less the same as Western spoons.
posted by rhizome at 11:22 AM on June 13, 2010

1. As others have said, the spoon is for intended drinking soup or eating hot noodles, so metal spoons can get unpleasantly hot. In fact, Wikipedia just reminded me that the common word for spoon in Chinese is actually "soup spoon": 湯匙.
2. Just a guess, but the groove seems to be there because it's an efficient, clever design. Because of the groove, the spoon is sturdy (it's tough to bend the handle of the aluminum spoon you linked the way you could with a normal spoon handle) while also requiring very little material. If the handle were solid, it probably would also be sturdy, but it would be difficult to stand the spoon up on its base or stack it, and it would be wasteful of material.
3. The ladle style spoon has a slightly different purpose from the Western style spoon. I think it has to do with how food is commonly eaten at the table in Chinese households.
At home, Chinese people generally eat out of bowls and not plates. Food can be presented on plates, but individual servings of food go into bowls. When food is mostly dry, like rice topped with some stir-fry, they hold the bowls up to their mouths and push the food in with their chopsticks. People also do this with small portions of soup. Thus, no real need for Western style spoons when eating anything dry. In my family, we keep Western style spoons around for eating Western style food: cereal, jello, yogurt, ice cream, etc.
The ladle style spoons you linked are used for eating noodles, jook/xifan/congee, large bowls of soup, or any liquidy substance you want to cool for a bit before eating. For noodles, I was taught to do this: stack a small portion of noodles and other good stuff on your spoon using your chopsticks; add just a bit of broth; let it cool if you like; eat the tiny bite you just prepared from the spoon. You basically can't get that little serving of broth with a Western style spoon, so ladle-spoons are considered better for the task. Okay, now you've made me hungry, time to locate the nearest bowl of beef noodle soup.
posted by millions of peaches at 1:36 PM on June 13, 2010

This is not what the slot is for, as far as I know, but there is a similar slot on a tasting spoon that aloows one to sip from the handle end without slobberig on the part that goes back in the pot.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:12 PM on June 13, 2010

You don't shove your fork or knife into your mouth, why yould you shove a spoon in there?
posted by captaincrouton at 6:23 PM on June 13, 2010

Just want to point out that the character in 湯匙 originally just mean hot water in ancient Chinese. Only Japanese still use the character in its original meaning. So 湯匙 could also interpreted as a spoon for any hot liquid. As for the design I have no idea why it's that way, but it's clearly as many already pointed out it's for soup or any other hot liquids.
posted by Carius at 9:49 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Data point:
At my first ever non-profit, we got a lot of university kids who volunteered. We went to a local kickass sushi joint about 2-4x a month. We'd often invite our new volunteers. One of the rites of passage was to tell them that it was important that at this place (tiny hole in the wall) that you behave in a way that was culturally appropriate

To wit:
We informed them that the reason the spoons were shaped with the groove was because you were to fill up the bowl portion w/ fluid, then tilt the spoon backwards and sip from the narrow fluted end. A truly wise person could do this w/o spilling.

Hazing, I guess, but great for a LOL. I still tell people, and they often still believe me. Sort of like the old "if the stopsign has a white ring around the outside, you don't have to come to a complete stop if nobody is there" thing.
posted by TomMelee at 10:34 AM on June 14, 2010

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