April’s Moon-Kim summit brought public attention to a dish routinely consumed in both Koreas in the summer, a meal of Northern origin: buckwheat noodles in cold broth, or Pyongyang naengmyeon. Many Southerners believe that their Northern brethren hold this dish in high esteem as an authentic local specialty.
However, few things could be further from the truth.
Until the 2000s, the idea that cold noodles were a national culinary symbol would raise eyebrows in the North, and the social status of this dish was quite low. For decades, propaganda of socialist abundance had been rice-centered, driven by a popular slogan derived from Kim Il Sung’s idiom that “rice is socialism.” In films or fiction produced before the mid-1990s, one finds no mention of cold noodles at all.
This does not mean, of course, that at that time North Koreans consumed only rice. Rice has always been expensive and scarce in the DPRK, and North Koreans used to cook it mixed with other grains, such as corn or millet.
In more desperate circumstances, they ate cold noodles, which, similar to the other flour-based food, were perceived as a mere substitute for the “real food.” In fact, cold noodles were a kind of Cinderella of the North Korean table, dutifully filling the stomachs at times of need but hearing no word of gratitude in response.
For decades, propaganda of socialist abundance was rice-centered
To understand the real status of buckwheat noodles in the North Korean mind, one should have a look at the memoirs of Kim Il Sung “With the Century,” published in 1992. Recollecting his years in a guerrilla camp, the Great Leader describes, with great empathy, the poverty of Korean peasants in northern provinces.
He repeatedly mentions in particular that the only available food there was buckwheat and potato, and poor families treated his troops to noodles made of a mixture of buckwheat and potato flour. According to the leader, noodle soup made in this way was surprisingly tasty.
But for all this nostalgia for the “partisan noodles” of his youth, Kim Il Sung did not attempt to make this dish a culinary symbol of the DPRK. Instead, he resorted to the traditional Korean images of abundance: refined and high protein products, such as white rice and meat. For the Dear Leader, buckwheat noodles were a famine relief food – tasty only when you are really, really hungry and have no other choice.
Enlightening in this regard is the film “Two Families of Haeungdong”(1996) which I have mentioned in a previous article. The protagonist, a devoted researcher whose wife has temporarily left him with a little son to care for is so busy working on a project that all he can cook for his son is cold buckwheat noodles.
The boy rejects his father’s unappetizing cooking, and the researcher urges the son to pretend that it is good food:
“When I finish my work I will bring you lots of nice things to eat! Now just close your eyes and imagine this is tasty!”
Luckily for the boy a kind neighbor intervenes, inviting the child to her house with the luring:
“Come with me. I will cook warm rice and delicious dishes for you.”
At the beginning of the 2000s, the economic situation in North Korea had become so desperate that it was impossible for North Korean propagandists to pretend that in the peoples’ paradise everybody enjoyed enough rice. Instead, they chose the way of the protagonist of “Two Families in Haeungdong,” in effect asking people to pretend that the famine relief food was really enjoyable and that they should ask for nothing else.
Unlike the protagonist’s son, their target audience was adults so the line of argument had to be more complex, and this new campaign of abundance employed all the proven propaganda tools.
Monthly journals like Cheollima and Choson Nyoson published recipes of “nutritious dishes” made of potato starch and corn, while filmmakers were busy producing work which glorified the virtues of authentic national dishes: “Our Aroma” (2004), “Snowy Landscape” (2010), “Our chef” (2000), “Faithful servants” (2005), “Introduction” (2007), among many others.
It was impossible for North Korean propagandists to pretend that in the peoples’ paradise everybody enjoyed enough rice
As readers might expect, the lists of such dishes omitted steamed rice and pulkogi but emphasized soy paste soup, kimchi, and boiled potatoes – foodstuffs which even the shattered North Korean economy could produce.
In 2000, another film called “Onnyu Landscape” (옥류 풍경) was devoted to another dish: buckwheat noodles.
This popular genre of culinary-themed cinematography tended to be light comedies constructed along an unsophisticated pattern: a protagonist is a devoted chef/researcher of an “authentic national dish/food” which is deeply traditional and loved by the Dear Leader.
The protagonist is supported by the majority of the people around them, yet opposed by one or two short-sighted opponents who disregard this national dish as too plain and prefer instead some trendy but unhealthy food (usually of foreign origin).
The researcher spares neither time nor effort searching for more authentic recipes of the dish and further popularizing it among customers, and their opponents discard their previous misconceptions and become the lovers of the dish, too. More importantly, his fervent enthusiasm for the dish wins our hero the heart of a beautiful lady, who typically belongs to a higher social class.
“Ongnyu Landscape” is a classic example of this genre. After demobilization from the navy, our protagonist, bachelor Han Gi, played by the famous actor of the 2000s Kim Yeong Il, along with another soldier, is dispatched to work at the famous Pyongyang restaurant Ongnyugwan.
Han Gil’s friend is unhappy about this job, which is not manly and heroic enough, and dreams about quitting and joining the storm brigade at the all-nation construction site. Han Gi persuades his friend that their job is a service of an ultimate importance because feeding people amply with good things is the heroism of the times. His friend is still unpersuaded.
“What we do here is just making noodles! Why do you perceive plain noodles as a piece of gold? – I see it higher than a piece of gold.”
Sure enough, the point of this heated dialogue is not to raise the social status of a chef in the main national restaurant. During the famine, this job was extremely luxurious, so the very idea of trading it for a dirty, dangerous, and dumb job in a storm brigade would surely have made North Korean viewers sarcastically giggle. The aim of propaganda here is not the job, but rather the area of its application: noodles.
Why, indeed, all this fuss over the modest dish? What makes the noodles so good? The answer is typical of North Korean propaganda: because the leaders tell us so.
In the film, the prestige of buckwheat noodle is upheld by the authority of both leaders. Kim Il Sung allegedly insisted that the authentic noodle should be made with a mixture of buckwheat and potato flour (we remember that in Kim’s memoirs this mixture emerges only as a result of scarcity in the households of peasants in Northern provinces, who lacked rice and wheat).
Kim Jong Il, the-then leader, allegedly inspired North Korean chefs to widely propagate noodles and raise the prestige of Pyongyang noodles onto the international level.
In addition to this unbeatable argument (“the leader tells us that noodles are good”), guksu (noodle soup) is said to be a deeply traditional Korean food, which history has been allegedly traced since the 14th century. It is widely known in the world as a “food of long life” (장수 요리).
A loyal son of the leaders, Han Gi dutifully follows their orders. He organizes an affiliate farm where the employers of Ongnyugwan raise cattle for their kitchen. In search for the ancient recipes, he interviews veteran experts in noodles (they are portrayed as old sages in traditional clothes who live deep in the mountains and wear long white beards) and plays with components, adding special grass to the noodle dough, which he, again, finds deep in the mountains.
Han Gi not only cooks Pyongyang naengmyeon – he composes songs about them and performs it in front of the customers
For all this traditionalist ritual, Han Gi’s noodle-making is portrayed as a scientific procedure. While cooking, the chef works, for unclear reasons, with a magnifying glass, test-tubes, and the other laboratory tools of a mad scientist.
To emphasize the hygiene of cooking at Oknyugwang, the film shows Han Gi checking cooks’ hands before letting them into the kitchen. Typically for North Korean restaurants, the cooks wear no disposable gloves: they work the noodle (pulling it out of water, draining and rinsing it) with bare hands, using no other kitchen utensils.
Han Gi not only cooks Pyongyang naengmyeon – he composes songs about them and performs it in front of the customers. The song says that “Pyongyang cold noodles are the best in the world/ These noodles are searched for the young and the old”.
Han Gi’s ultimate dream, of course, is to cook noodles for Kim Jong Il during his one of his on the spot guidance tours.
NOODLES AS APHRODISIAC
Though this dream of the hero has not yet been fulfilled, his efforts are reward in other ways.
Han Gi falls in love with a figure skater of international acclaim Sung Ae, played by the beauty of the 2000s Chu Keum Hyang. Though the chef is a fat short guy with crooked teeth, a short neck, and a double chin, while the figure skater is an elegant beauty whose portraits decorate national calendars, his feelings are effortlessly reciprocated after the girl witnesses his enthusiasm about Pyongyang noodles.
Sun Ae suggests: “Let us compete: I will turn into a star of the ice, you will be the star of Pyongyang cold noodles!”
In the eyes of the film-makers, a figure skater who brings glory to Korea on international scene and a devoted chef who feeds people with tasty noodles, were a perfect pair.
However, one character is certain that the union between “princess of ice” and “noodle bachelor” is a shameful mésalliance.
Sun Ae’s uncle – played by the people’s actor Son Weon Ju – tries to bring his niece to her senses and arrange her to marry a young men of decent appearance and profession, involved in earning hard currency in international companies.
Sun Ae rejects her uncle’s proposals and criticizes him for “conservatism” and “formalism”: “You know, today we consider content to be more important than form,” she claims, implying that her noodle maker is a man of richer content that men involved in international trade.
After a series of slapstick episodes (such as the uncle locking himself in a restaurant fridge), the uncle’s “conservatism” is eventually broken. He comes to understanding that Han Gi is decent marriage material for his distinguished niece when he sees how excited his cooking makes his customers.
For all dynamism of the film, its noodle propaganda line is far from consistent. For instance, the value of Pyongyang naengmyeon is justified by its alleged world-wide popularity and old traditions which trace back to the 14the century. So why does Han Gi formulate his ultimate goal as raising international prestige of the dish?
The uncle’s disparaging attitude to noodle making is criticized as “conservative.” But, according to the film, the secrets of authentic Pyongyang noodles are kept by the white-bearded sages living deep in the mountains, and it is unclear how a person who denies the value of this dish could be called conservative.
These logical lacunas reveal a rather hasty work of North Korean propaganda in turning a famine relief food into the national symbol. In reality, Pyongyang noodle remains a mere Cinderella of the North Korean table and its place in the people’s minds remains rather insignificant.
While sitting in a Pyongyang restaurant a few years ago in front of a wide variety of plates, I tried to impress my minder by singing the song from “Ongnyu Landscape“: “Pyongyang noodle is the best in the world.” The girl rushed to persuade me that Pyongyang naengmyeon is no more than a seasonal dish consumed only sporadically, while normal food for North Koreans is boiled rice.
I believed her.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Youtube screen capture
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