Every week we ask a North Korean your questions, giving you the chance to learn more about the country we know so little about.
This week Maria from Spain asks:
I heard there’s no tteokbokki in North Korea. Is this true? How about other kinds of street food commonly found in South Korea such as hotteok and oden? Do they not exist in North Korea?
You’re right. Tteokbokki does not exist in North Korea. Before I came to South Korea, I had never heard of tteokbokki. I had no idea such food existed. Only after I came to South Korea did I see tteokbokki for the first time.
When I tasted tteokbokki for the first time in South Korea, I couldn’t understand why it was such a popular street food and why people would enjoy eating it. It was very different from the kinds of food I was used to. But as I got used to South Korean food day by day, I grew to like tteokbokki so much. Now I must admit that I’ve become a big fan of tteokbokki!
Near my home in South Korea, there is a very famous tteokbokki restaurant. My wife and I go there at least once a week. That’s how much we enjoy eating tteokbokki these days. Our daughter was recently born. We can’t wait to take her with us on our weekly visit to this tteokbokki restaurant when she grows up. I’m sure our daughter will grow up to like tteokbokki just as much as me and my wife when she’s big enough to eat it.
If you haven’t tried tteokbokki yet and just looked at pictures of it, you’d probably wonder if it would be delicious at all. But let me assure you: It is one of the best street foods I have ever had.
The tteok in tteokbokki refers to the rice cake, its main ingredient. Tteok is very sticky and tasty itself, but when chili pepper paste called gochujang is added to make tteokbokki, an even richer, spicy and sweet flavor is added to this amazing food. People who love tteokbokki love it because it’s spicy and sweet at the same time. Tteokbokki is my comfort food: When I eat it, it feels as if it relieves my stress right away. What’s even better? Tteokbokki itself is an amazing comfort food. But when you eat it with a bowl of hot soup, tteokbokki tastes heavenly.
You also asked me whether other kinds of street food in South Korea such as hotteok and oden exist in North Korea. No, hotteok and oden are not commonly found in North Korea. I have never seen them in North Korea. Instead, there are other kinds of street food in North Korea: Injo gogi bap (artificial meat rice), tofu bap (rice) and soondae (Korean traditional sausages).
Remember the Great Famine? … People used leftover soybeans and turned them into soy sausages
The most popular street food in North Korea is injo gogi bap. It is as commonly found in the streets as tteokbokki is on the streets of South Korea. The term injo gogi may sound strange to most South Koreans. But injo gogi would be called soy sausages in South Korea and Western countries. The period from 1995-1999 was the hardest time for all North Koreans as they were affected by economic difficulties. Remember the Great Famine? During this time, North Koreans didn’t let any food go to waste. People used leftover soybeans and turned them into soy sausages. This became popular all over North Korea. At first glance, these soy sausages called injo gogi look like oden in South Korea. People stuff injo gogi with rice and spicy sauce. This became a delicacy and a popular dish in North Korea. I often saw people eating injo gogi, tofu bap and soondae at street kiosks when I was living in North Korea.
After I arrived in South Korea, I saw that street food also exists in the South. But street foods in South Korea are what I had never seen in North Korea. Of course, they tasted very different from the kinds of food I was used to in North Korea. Among South Korean street foods, tteokbokki and hotteok are my favorites. I eat both pretty often here in South Korea. But oden … I don’t enjoy eating it just yet. But who knows? I never thought I would like tteokbokki when I first arrived in South Korea. Now, I love it so much that I eat it every week. I may like oden just as much as I love tteokbokki someday.
When Korea becomes unified, I bet South Korean street foods such as tteokbokki, hotteok and oden will be quite new to North Koreans. As well, South Koreans don’t know street foods in North Korea such as injo gogi bap and tofu bap. I look forward to the day when Korea becomes one country again and Koreans from both sides of the country can enjoy these street foods with each other.
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Translation by Elizabeth Jae
Artwork by Catherine Salkeld
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