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North Korea does not have a reputation for culinary excellence. While there is increasing choice if, say, you want to eat out in Pyongyang, it’s a long way away from the world-renowned cuisine you can find south of the DMZ.
But North Koreans like a snack too, particularly if it’s sweet and colorful or if it can be washed down with a cold beer, and domestic manufacturers have worked to create several brands of snacks to suit a variety of tastes – at least, for those that can afford them.
On a recent trip to the North, NK News was able to pick up some of these brands for, from crisps to chocolate, and tried them out for ourselves. The feedback was mixed, to say the least, from the team.
Step into any convenience store or 7/11 in the South and you’re bombarded with choices of snacks, from western brands to brightly colored domestic stuff. All this begged the question: what would South Koreans think of the more humble snacking options of their Northern compatriots?
To find out, NK News took to the streets of Seoul – more precisely, the capital’s Gwanghwamun square around lunchtime, to find the answer.
Surprisingly, many of the reactions were good. Some of our first tasters, a group of 12-year-old boys (hardly a demographic prone to turning down free candy, granted) seemed pretty thrilled at the idea of trying sweets from the North.
Having never tried North Korean sweets before, one said that he’d guess that “they’d all taste good” – a sentiment the others agreed with.
“Oh, it’s really yummy!” one exclaimed, after trying the marshmallows.
Responses were mixed on whether they thought the snacks were comparable to those you can get in the South.
“No, this is something I’ve tried for the first time,” replied one boy.
“It tastes very familiar, it’s like something I’ve tried from a store,” said another.
There was consensus, however, on North Korea’s unique take on chocolate and cookies.
“I don’t taste the chocolate,” one said.
“I think South Korean cookies taste a lot better,” another commented. “The marshmallow was quite tasty, but the cookie is not that great.”
This minor upset did not dissuade them, however: when asked whether they’d try North Korean snacks again, the answer was a resounding “yes.”
For older South Koreans, however, the snacks inspired something different: nostalgia.
“This should be put inside coffee… it’s sweet,” said Jang Yun-ok, 58 years old, trying the marshmallows. “And it tastes similar to what we used to eat when I was younger, in the 70’s and 80’s.”
“They still sell candy like this here. You can find them in stores.”
And what of the packaging?
“It’s not strange looking at all,” she said. “Looks normal.”
Some tourists were also keen to try. Anostres, Suman, and Sabine, all from Nepal but now living in Japan, had never tried North Korean snacks either, and thought that the marshmallows were “more sweet than we had in Japan.”
The DPRK “Vegetable Crisps” were a big hit, too.
“Unique!” one said. “It’s very good, if I had a beer I think these would be perfect. Looks good!”
Not everyone was so enthusiastic. One 11-year-old boy approached our plate of options and quickly grabbed a marshmallow, before concluding that it “tastes alright but it has both bitter and sweet tastes to it.”
When asked if he wanted to try others, the response was a swift: “no.”
This was the conclusion that an 8-year-old girl shared.
“It tastes different from what I’ve tried before,” she said after trying the North Korean marshmallows.
She preferred a similar South Korean brand, though.
“I think the other one tasted better,” she said, adding that she thought the packaging was “pretty.”
Not everyone was quite so critical of North Korea’s snack offering. A visitor from Canada, for example, a 23-year-old intern with UNICEF – was pretty thrilled with the vegetable crisps.
“I really like the crackers, there’s a little bit of salt, it’s seasoned quite well but it tastes like rice crackers a little bit,” she said, saying that the snack would be perfect anju (a Korean word for food best consumed with alcohol).
“I think these could totally make it big in Korea,” she said. “It’s really good.”
Judging from the assessment on the street of Seoul, it might be a while before any North Korean snack makes it big south of the DMZ: responses ranged from thrilled with the novelty of the food’s origins to unimpressed with its inability to match its southern counterparts.
That being said, if Jang Yun-ok’s nostalgia is anything to go by, there may be North Koreans, in a unified Korea decades from now, who long for some vegetable crisps or peach milk candy when hunger strikes.
Christina Lee, Damin Jung, Oliver Hotham, Sophie Lamotte, and Vincent Choi contributed to this report
All images credit to NK News