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:
Do you eat dairy products such as milk, cheese and butter in North Korea, too?
Written by Je-son Lee | Translation by Elizabeth Jae
In North Korea we don’t normally get to eat dairy products such as milk, cheese, and butter, mainly just because they’re over-priced. I don’t know how it is over in Pyongyang but, to be honest, I hadn’t even heard of the word “cheese” growing up in my hometown in the north of the country.
That said, butter was familiar to everyone in my town. When I was still a little girl, grown-ups who came back from their business trips to Russia used to bring back chunks of butter, meaning my family became quite familiar with the taste of Russian butter.
Thinking back to those days, I especially loved the scent of butter and would spread it all over a piece of bread or on my boiled potatoes. But it wasn’t like I could eat it whenever I wanted to, because you couldn’t just go to the market and buy it. In fact, I don’t ever remember seeing any vendors selling chunks of butter at the market, probably because most North Koreans are not too keen on oily food and, as I said, because it was expensive and hard to get.
What about milk?
When you want to drink milk in North Korea, you have to buy a carton at the market or from the dairy farm. But unless you buy a carton directly from the dairy farm, most of the milk you buy at the market comes from China.
Once, my mom bought a carton of milk straight from the dairy farm, but since we didn’t have a fridge at home we couldn’t keep it for very long, meaning we ended up sharing with my neighbors. Yet the real reason my mom bought that milk was because she heard that drinking it would make her skin look more beautiful, even though we would never have afforded to drink it regularly enough to have any effect. Of course, even if we did have the money, there would have been no way to have it delivered to our doorstep every morning, either! So, we had to give up drinking milk for beauty purposes.
The other thing is that the kind of milk we got from the local dairy farm didn’t taste as good as the milk imported from China. But when I recall, the milk imported from China was not actually milk, at all. After arriving in South Korea, I soon realized that the Chinese ‘milk’ we had been enjoying was actually yogurt!
Back in North Korea, we couldn’t tell the difference between milk from yogurt. As a result, we drank yogurt imported from China, thinking it was milk the whole time! Of course, the Chinese version tasted much sweeter as it was actually yogurt. No wonder I thought Chinese milk tasted better than the fresh milk my mom bought from the local farm!
Apart from the yogurt, milk powder also makes its way into North Korea from China. We used to use it mixed with water to drink. But while milk powder by itself is sweet, when you mix it with water, it isn’t so sweet anymore. So, we always added a spoonful of sugar when we poured water it into a cup filled with water. We also often used it as an ingredient for ice cream, sometimes with cocoa powder, too.
Among the UN humanitarian aid we used to receive in my town, we also found something that we used to think was milk powder. People loved the taste of it and so it made sense it was milk power. But now that I think about it, I think it’s possible that it may have been baby formula!
Anyway, thanks to China, we had easy access to milk powder, cocoa powder, and baby formula. But it was never easy to eat cheese or drink fresh milk, because both go bad quickly without a fridge, and not many North Koreans have fridges. Consequently, it was easier to stock bags of milk powder, cocoa powder, and baby formula in the cupboard for an extended period of time.
We have some other dairy products you might be less familiar with, though. In rural towns of North Korea, people often drink goat milk, something which in my personal opinion always tasted way better than cow milk!
Once, when I visited a rural town on vacation, a North Korean family I met had a goat at their house. They offered me a cup of goat milk, which had to be boiled first and have a pinch of salt added to it. They then poured it over some rice to eat themselves. I never thought anyone would eat rice soaked in goat milk. I thought “yuk” just at the thought of it. But when I actually tried it, it tasted way better than I had imagined. They even put “sujebi” in goat milk – and it was so good that I still cannot forget how delicious it was.
Because of everything I’ve said so far, you can understand that not many dairy products are made in North Korean factories. I’m sure there are some that produce cheese, butter, and milk in more affluent places such as Pyongyang. But we didn’t have any factories where they produced such dairy products in my hometown.
At the factory which produced ice cream in my hometown, though, they would produce yogurt from time to time. Disappointingly, it didn’t taste any good compared to yogurt produced in Pyongyang. But while they didn’t make yogurt all year round, ice cream there was much easier to get from them. That’s because that ice cream factory wasn’t making the product on behalf of the North Korean government: it was simply selling its product line for the purpose of making profits and money. As a result, that factory hardly ever ran out of electricity and power shortages were another world to them.
That factory was also good for us because we could buy ice cubes and ice cream from it, even on a blazing hot summer day, as long as we had money. Consequently, those who sold naengmyeon (cold noodles) and icy water bought their ice cubes from such factories.
To conclude, you can buy almost everything in North Korea as long as you have money. But exceptions exist when it comes down to dairy products such as milk and cheese. And in particular, milk and cheese are not easy to buy over there.
Of course, rich people in Pyongyang who have a fridge at home and steady access to electricity don’t have to worry about anything and they can buy milk and cheese anytime they want! But at least in my hometown, there rarely was demand for milk and cheese.
Main picture: NK News