Communism and food have a complex relationship.
Often coming to power in countries with rich culinary traditions and customs, Marxism-Leninism’s opposition to the “bourgeois decadence” of the past – as well as the economic austerity it often brings – meant that citizens usually lived Spartan lives where just getting by, not fine dining, is the priority, often in stark contrast with the country’s ruling elites.
Nowhere is this more true than in North Korea, where the country’s leadership has always eaten well while encouraging its citizenship to make do with less. At the height of the devastating famine of the 1990s, where millions died and the country came close to collapse, for example, the state launched a campaign encouraging its starving citizens to “eat two meals a day.” This, while Kim Jong Il was enjoying lavish meals, enjoying fatty cutlets of rich tuna and shark fin soup, all washed down with his beloved Hennessy cognac.
It said a lot about the ruling dynasty’s love of food that many of the most interesting revelations about North Korea’s inner circle have come not from defected officials, but from the Kim family’s sushi chef, Kenji Fujimoto. He now lives in Japan, and alleges that his former boss often held extensive banquets which would last for days, sending him traveling around the world collecting exotic fruit, caviar and meats. And of course Kim Jong Un, reportedly, has a fondness for Swiss cheese developed during his time at boarding school in Köniz, near Bern.
WHAT’S ON THE MENU?
Simon Cockerell of travel company Koryo Tours said that most come to North Korea not expecting much out of the local cuisine, assuming that all their meals will be comprised of “rice or gruel, and not much else,” and many even taking large amounts of food into the country in case they don’t get fed or aren’t fed well.
‘I would say people are generally pleasantly surprised by the food they eat while on a tour in North Korea’
“I would say people are generally pleasantly surprised by the food they eat while on a tour in North Korea,” he said. “While food in North Korea is generally not particularly ‘weird’ for Western tourists, while some people are not keen on fish with bones and so on what they are served is often meat, rice, vegetables – nothing to make one too squeamish – so no real problems with people not getting enough to eat.
And, of course, many believe that they will be fed dog – which is not impossible, said Cockerell, as it is available across North Korea, with varying degrees of quality. But for those who choose to abstain from it there’s no pressure, and tour guides can even, increasingly, cater to a wide range of diets that might baffle North Koreans for cultural reasons, such as halal and kosher requirements – or even vegetarianism. A decade ago, Simon said, non-meat eaters might have had limited options on a trip to the DPRK, subsisting on cucumber and eggs.
“While meat is still served at every meal for tourists (as a matter of fact for the Koreans as much as anything else),” he said, “vegetarians will also get some more varied dishes than before.”
The key difference, of course, is that North Korean cuisine simply can’t offer the variety they would get on the southern half of the peninsula, where South Korea’s enormous economic success means that Seoul had become a diverse, international center of fine dining.
“Generally by the time tourists leave then they have had enough of Korean food for a while,” said Cockerell. “It’s not that it isn’t good – it’s just that I think most people we take are used to some more variation in what they eat.”
But visitors to Pyongyang talk of increasing range, and more and more the capital offers a variety of restaurants for visitors and residents. Not many know about, for example, the growing popularity of Italian food in North Korea, with street vendors and restaurants praising its nutritional value and even creating fusion versions of Sicilian classics, such as pizza with kimchi.
“There is obviously some popularity behind this dish in the new Pyongyang middle class,” said Cockerell. “When I first went to the pizza place most of the Koreans there would be eating Korean food (all restaurants also serve local staples) but now it isn’t unusual to see Korean families and groups eating just pizza, or eating other Western food (such as sausages at the German-style Taedonggang #3 bar).”
THE REVIEWS ARE IN
Some foreigners visiting have taken to Tripadvisor to air their impressions on eating out in the North Korean capital.
“Very decent food and a variety of imported beers are available at this establishment,” said frequent user DHWShanghai on a forum for the The Diplomatic Restaurant – “The New Diplo” in Pyongyang, a restaurant specializing in European cooking.
“In a city with few options, this restaurant ranks near the top if you are looking for something that is not Korean,” they wrote.
User Melbourneworld was disappointed by his meal, and somewhat baffled by the location of the restaurant, saying that while he had had “fantastic” meals on his trip, “this was just ok.”
“It was really weird overlooking a swimming pool,” he adds.
“While there aren’t Thai, Indian or Georgian restaurants to go to there are various different types of Korean food available, more restaurants that serve sushi and sashimi, pizzas and so on,” said Cockerell, while conceding that there is “still some way to go before Pyongyang is considered a culinary destination of course.”
This should not be read as meaning that this variety is available to most North Koreans. Pyongyang exists in a rarified world, detached from much of the rest of the country due to its status as a city for those most loyal to the government, rewarded with shopping malls, spacious apartments and restaurants, and there are economic options there which simply for not exists for most people. Cockerell said that, also, North Korean food is often adjusted for Western palates.
“It’s worth remembering that the food served to tourists isn’t representative of what local people eat, and also a lot of it is sometimes toned down a little,” he said. “There is a belief in North Korea that foreigners cannot handle spicy food, even though the spiciest Korean food I have ever eaten pales next to a vindaloo – so often it is ‘tourist food’ which is milder Korean food really.”
“The quality isn’t fine dining though, especially outside of Pyongyang, but its good and does fill everyone up,” said Cockerell.
North Korea’s regions enjoy their own culinary traditions, albeit slightly more rustic than their cosmopolitan counterparts. The coastal region of Wonsan, for example, is known for its seafood – with everyday people on the coast known to enjoy a fish and shellfish barbeque in the summer.
An upcoming book by Elizabeth Jae, an NK News contributor based in Seoul, contains some insights into what North Koreans might eat on a regular basis. Jae combed state media and spoke to defectors for some insights, and the ebook Recipes of North Korea will be available soon.
Some of the recipes are, to put it mildly, minimalistic. Mil-ssam, for example, is a North Korean snack involving a sausage which is wrapped in a tortilla with perilla and miso paste, chili, and other vegetables. Jae calls it a “North Korean burrito,” and according to the KCNA it was introduced in recent years to satiate the appetites of the more younger, cosmopolitan North Koreans.
“It may look like that Mexican food you can get at Taco Bell,” Jae writes. “But it won’t taste anything like any burrito you’ve tasted before. This is one North Korean sandwich wrap with extra spicy Korean flavor you’ll never forget.”
Some of them are more recognizable. The famous Jiri pancake features prominently, although the North Korean version is quite different from the variety most people would have tried in Korean restaurants. While in the South the pancakes are often made with chives, spring onions, onions and seafood, the North Korean version is more often accompanied with pork or beef. Jijim is often accompanied, in both Koreas, by a glass of rice wine makgeolli.
‘It’s not the prettiest dessert you’ll see … but it’s definitely better and healthier than big scoops of ice cream’
As for dessert, Jae recommends gwimil deok, an oatmeal rice cake made by blending oats into a powder and turning it into pieces dough, which are then boiled and sugar is added. In South Korea, oats are usually used for oatmeal or to make cookies or bread, but in the North they can be used to make this somewhat austere snack.
“It’s not the prettiest dessert you’ll see,” she concedes, “but it’s definitely better and healthier than big scoops of ice cream.”
A TASTE OF HOME
The Korean Peninsula, of course, has a rich food culture steeped in its history, as anyone who’s sampled the satisfying heat of kimchi or the comfort of bibimbap will attest, and it plays an enormous role in day-to-day life. Increasingly, it seems, it could be playing a role in the country’s tentative transformation.
When asking defectors for input to the cookbook, Jae was sent a particularly touching story by defector and former Pyongyang resident Jimin Kang about what came to mind when he thought of food back home. Each region of the country has a few dishes which define it, and Jimin that dish was Pyongyang Onban, a chicken and rice soup which served at the banquet at the inter-Korea Summit when former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung visited Pyongyang in 2000.
“It isn’t difficult at all to make one,” he wrote. “I’m going to be honest. My mother wasn’t the best cook in town. But her Pyongyang onban was the best. I always loved Pyongyang onban she made for me.”
“When I was late for school in the morning, I would eat it in the doorstep. Once I had Pyongyang onban in the morning, I wouldn’t be cold or hungry during the day.”
Pictures of food dishes courtesy of Elizabeth Jae.
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Featured Image: Food For Tourists In A Restaurant, Kaesong, North Korea by Eric Lafforgue on 2012-09-11 06:19:00