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’s question is:
I heard ramen is a rare food item in North Korea. Is it true? What kind of ramen do you eat in North Korea?
In my hometown, you could obtain almost anything if you had enough money. It was simply a question of cash, rather than the matter of what you wanted to obtain. As such, ramen (freeze dried noodles) weren’t really much of a rarity in my hometown. With money, you could eat ramen anytime.
So, what’s the North Korean view of this dish?
Actually, in the DPRK we call the dish koburang noodles, but here in the South people obviously use the name ramen. Because of this, South Koreans don’t understand it if a North Korean tries to order koburang noodles, meaning we all change our vocab pretty quickly upon arriving in Seoul.
When I lived in the North I recall seeing ramen being boiled in a pot of some kind, never the cup ramens which are so popular in the South. I assume that this is because vendors were hesitant to bring cup ramens into the country as they were bigger in size, actually having a rather awkward shape. And because of their shape, it’d be difficult for the traders to import a big bulk of cup ramen into the country, which would naturally lead to less profit.
But I should point out that ramen is a food item which is not exactly welcomed by the North Korean regime, meaning vendors have to keep them out of the eyes of the authorities. As a result, ramen are actually pretty costly in North Korea. I remember many kids loved ramen, but not all of them could afford to eat them as often as they’d like. When a bag of rice weighing 1kg – enough to feed a family for two days – cost 3000 won, one single ramen cost 800 won.
It was usually Chinese ramen that we bought and ate in North Korea, although I don’t really recall the brand names of them. However, I do remember I mostly ate beef and kimchi flavored ones. And with the increased popularity and preference for South Korean products, Chinese factories and companies began to deliberately put Hangul on their products in order to make them look as if they were from South Korea.
In my hometown people even used to think that the smell of ramen would help you lose weight
But you know what’s funny? Ramen was actually seen as a diet food by people in my region of North Korea, even though – as you probably know – it is far from nutritious! And in my hometown people even used to think that the smell of ramen would help you lose weight.
It is really funny thinking about it now, but I once lived on a ramen-only diet for a week in order to lose weight. Of course, I never succeeded, but I really believed that eating only ramen for a week would help me lose weight!
In the case of my family, we also often ate ramen when we lost our appetite. But I soon learned to ‘game the system’. Every time I wanted to eat ramen, I acted to my mom as if I had lost my appetite and I didn’t feel like eating anything. Then, my mom would buy and cook ramen for me. Oh, it was so delicious every time I ate ramen like that!
I think the South Korean dramas also contributed to the increased popularity of ramen. You could frequently see a scene with people eating ramen in most dramas and North Koreans would suddenly go hungry every time they watched such scenes. Also, when people go on a picnic or trip, they often brought ramen with them. On a valley or mountainside it can be difficult to cook rice or an entire Korean meal, but it was very convenient to cook ramen in those places.
In North Korea, military drills are held in mid-August or late August every year. That’s when everyone has to go to the mountain for one night and two days. And that’s when the highest number of ramen is sold during an year, because it’s very quick and easy to make ramen on a mountainside. So while it might have been expensive and annoying for grown-ups to buy them, I remember that children relished the military drills as they could eat ramen on the mountainside. It was like going on a camp!
In conclusion, in North Korea people can eat ramen as often as they like, if they have cash. Ramen is therefore not a rarity, unlike Chocopies, which can be tricky to find even if you have the money. That’s because Chocopies come from South Korea, not China. I remember I once was unable to eat Chocopie for over a month because they were out of stock in my hometown. In fact, Chocopie was the only food item that would be out of stock from time to time in my hometown of North Korea.
Main picture: NK News