About the Author
View more articles by Park Ji Woo
Park Ji Woo
Park Ji Woo is author of the "North Korean in New York" series. She left North Korea in the mid 2000s and is now living in New York City, New York.
Editing and translation by Nara Han / Artwork by NK NEWS illustrator Cammy Smithwick
There are so many different kinds of street food in New York City. I am so lucky to be here! Especially in the morning when I walk to school, I can see lots of street vendors and people out and about. I’m amazed and energized by the delightful sounds and smells. New York is full of surprises!
One of the things I find most surprising is that people in New York eat while they walk. This would never happen in North Korea because there are many homeless people on the streets who are incredibly hungry. They are always ready to steal your food. Also, there were no street vendors or convenience stores in North Korea. We usually went to Jangmadang (North Korean outdoor markets) to buy and eat food. I remember when I bought food in Jangmadang, I always looked around first to make sure there were no beggars around since Jang-ma-dangs were full of beggars who tried to snatch the food from my hands. Once I bought my food, I held it tight in both hands and finished it quickly and completely. It became one of my eating habits. I eat food much faster than others.
My favorite street food in New York City is the Halal food truck, which serves fried rice with chicken and beef. I like their food because is is similar to Korean fried rice with meat and is also pretty cheap. My roommate and I usually buy one and share it in the street if it is warm out. No one interrupts us except pigeons and we don’t have to worry about beggars. I also like hot dogs and pretzels. There are so many delicious street foods that sometimes it is too difficult to choose just one.
Some people might think there are only a few types of food in North Korea; however, there are many different kinds of food in Jang-ma-dang, such as Wan-za-bap (a kind of fried rice ball), Du-bu-bap (rice wrapped in a fried tofu bag), sticky rice cake, Guk-bap (boiled rice in soup) and many more. It might surprise you that most of the dishes are made with rice. It’s because there aren’t that many different raw ingredients available in North Korea to develop the food industry more. North Korean people did their best with limited resources. Another reason is that rice has a special meaning to North Korean people. For most North Koreans, rice is not only food, but also the symbol of wealth and success.
When I was in elementary school, the teacher taught us that Kim Il Sung, “the Greatest Leader in the world”, worked so hard because he wanted to provide “white rice and meat soup” to his People. That became the biggest dream for us. Unfortunately, despite our effort, far from eating rice and meat soup, we couldn’t even eat three meals a day.
For New Yorkers, eating street food is like having a snack. However, North Korean people have Jang-ma-dang food as a meal. The food was so expensive that many times we couldn’t afford to buy any. One of my best memories of my childhood is eating with my father in the markets. I was about six years old and it was a humid summer day when my father brought me to Jang-ma-dang and asked me what I felt like eating. I excitedly said, “ Du-bu-bap!” The woman handed me two big yellow Du-bu-baps and I stared eating them with great pleasure. After I finished the Du-bu-bap, he also bought me a pencil sharpener, which was extraordinarily expensive at that time. On our way home, he asked me not to tell my mother that he bought me Du-bu-bap because our outing had just cost him his monthly wage. There was nothing left. I guess the money he spent was around 50 Won, which could buy two kilograms of corn back then. Until now, I haven’t told anyone. It had been a secret just between my father and me.
Before the 1990s’ famine, markets were controlled and restricted by the government. However, since the late 1990s, North Korean people learned to find a way to survive and created the Jang-ma-dang. Everyone sold whatever they had and bought whatever they needed there. Most housewives made food at home and sold them in the Jang-ma-dang. As a result, the Jang-ma-dang flourished. My grandmother also tried to do the food business, but she failed because of the beggars. She gave her food away to those beggars to eat instead of shooing them away. She said she just couldn’t watch them die.
After I defected to South Korea, my mother and I made Du-bu-bap several times, but it wasn’t as delicious as the ones we ate in North Korea. It makes me very sad to think I am not able to taste the Jang-mad-dang Du-bu-bap again. Even though there are so many delicious things in New York City, I can never forget the flavors of the North Korean Jang-ma-dang.