About the Author
View more articles by In-hua Kim
In-hua Kim is a pseudonym for a North Korean defector writer. She left the DPRK in 2018, and now resides in South Korea.
Today’s question comes from Girish in India: “I really love North Korean culture and cuisine. I’m planning a visit really soon, and want to ask what is North Korea’s favorite dish?”
Korea is full of various dishes that you won’t find anywhere else in the world, and there are also many local dishes that you may struggle to find even in other parts of Korea!
In-hua is from Hyesan, in Ryanggang Province, and takes us through a few of the foods that people in her hometown eat, and how they prepare those dishes as well.
Got a question for In-hua? Email it to [email protected] with your name and city. We’ll be publishing the best ones.
The most popular dish in my home province, Ryanggangdo, is nongma noodles (potato starch noodles). As far as I know, potato starch is only produced in Ryanggangdo.
My province is also unique for its blueberry products: blueberry jello and liquor.
In fall, students from third-year in middle school and up are mobilized for a month to dig out potatoes in Kapsan, Pochon, and Unhung counties.
University students are sent to faraway Taehongdan, 360 li (141km) from Hyesan.
It’s mandatory for schools to participate in farmwork like harvesting potatoes and picking blueberries. But parents who can’t, or simply don’t want to, send their children just give the teacher a bribe and get exempted.
These harvested potatoes and blueberries are processed and transported to the central government as ‘number 1’ products. These so-called number 1 items are high-quality products that have been handled with the utmost care for consumption by the Kim family.
There are times that visitors to Mount Paektu are offered expired number 1 products “from the consideration of the Party.” People from Hyesan would get irritated because those from other regions get to have a taste of these special foods that locals can’t even catch a glimpse of.
The white potato starch was categorized as a number 1 product and the yellow one was rationed out to the people.
During the late 1980s, however, the government started distributing a different kind of starch that was poor quality. When we received it, it had already gone bad and was not good enough to make noodles, only jello. But today they don’t even provide this kind of sub-standard starch.
Back in 2016 (if my memory is correct), they built a potato-processing factory in Potae-ri, Samjiyon, as instructed by Kim Jong Un. I only saw the outside of the building when I visited Samjiyon, but it was quite fancy.
When construction was completed in October 2018, not only schools but also married women were called on to work on remote potato farms. People openly complained that they were working for potato starch they wouldn’t even be able to see, let alone eat.
They were also fed up because they wouldn’t be able to run their own businesses that, while illegal, actually feed them when the government calls them up for this kind of farming work.
In any case, I heard that these potatoes, harvested with great effort, ended up not being processed in time and rotting because of a shortage of electricity.
We’re also proud of another dish in my hometown, our frozen potato rice cakes. To make them, you peel off the skin of the frozen potatoes, dry them, and smash them into a powder. Then, after soaking them in water for a couple of hours, you make them into the shape of a rice cake and fill them with vegetable stuffing.
They have a chewy texture and savory taste. One piece is as big as a fist, and people from out of town find its shape and size a little funny when they see it for the first time. They liken it to a shiny rubber shoe because the rice cakes are black and shiny from the oil on their surface.
You can make another kind of noodle, ‘kari‘ noodles, from the potato residue (which is basically the potato peel filtered from the potato starch).
It’s very popular at the market because it’s affordable. Kari noodles are unique to Ryanggangdo and locals are proud of how it’s inexpensive yet provides a useful source of calories.
In North Korea, the three biggest celebrations take place on the birthdays of the three Kim leaders: January 8 for Kim Jong Un, February 16 for Kim Jong Il, and April 15 for Kim Il Sung.
Traditional holidays such as Seollal, Dano, and Chuseok are definitely important, but North Koreans are taught from a young age that the birthdays of the Kims are the most significant. All households prepare rice cakes and other delicious food to mark these occasions.
Nongma noodles are the first thing that people from my hometown make when preparing to bring in the New Year.
Potato starch is readily available at the jangmadang (North Korea’s unofficial markets), and there’s enough of it to last until the New Year because many people in Hyesan sell home-made starch from potatoes that they planted and harvested in the mountains themselves. These people buy rice and daily necessities with the money they earn from selling starch.
Those who can afford it buy in advance and make noodles using a mold, freezing them out in the cold afterward for 2-3 days prior to the holiday. The noodles are then blanched in boiling water and served in a meat broth. They’re chewy and taste really good.
This residue, which we used as pig feed in the 1970s and 80s, is now a precious source of food.
People from outside Hyesan say it feels like they’re eating rubber bands. Kari noodles are, to be fair, black and elastic like rubber bands. However, there are many households that cannot even afford such simple and tasteless food.
During the famine and my prison sentence in the reformatory, I used to reminisce about the good old days, tears in my eyes
Back in the day, the government used to air instructional cooking shows, but you won’t see them these days. I reckon that’s because teaching recipes to starving people could potentially instigate an uprising.
Whenever I see South Koreans out dining and laughing with their family and colleagues in one of the many restaurants here, I’m reminded of the children in my hometown who are not fed and schooled properly.
It makes me wonder why on earth white rice and sugary treats are so common in the South and so difficult to get hold of in the North. This stark contrast between the two countries causes you to become disillusioned with the North’s plump leader, Kim Jong Un.
Many can’t even afford frozen potatoes or the kari that, when I was young, was fed to pigs. Starving children, instead of being in school, wander in the fields and mountains looking for edible greens.
And then we have the leader, who can barely carry himself he’s so fat. Wouldn’t it be nice if he diverted funds from missile programs to provide ordinary people with some better food?
If he did, he would receive genuine reverence and respect from the people. Then no one would want to leave the country.
When I was little, my mother used to prepare sundae (Korean blood sausage), rice cakes, and lots of other delicious dishes on national commemoration days to give to people who came to visit my father, who was a Party cadre.
Back then, I only picked and ate the expensive savory dishes, since they were in abundance.
Most of my relatives were living in Pyongyang, so my father used to bring back lots of goodies whenever he visited them on business trips. My family would feast on these whenever my father returned home from the capital.
During the famine and my prison sentence in the reformatory, I used to reminisce about the good old days, tears in my eyes.
Nowadays I strive to live a diligent life here in South Korea, lest the tribulations of the past somehow make a return.
I plan to send money to my sister in North Korea, who is still in a reformatory, so she can enjoy a hearty meal, albeit in a cell.
I look forward to the day when people in my hometown can also work freely and earn enough to not go hungry.
Translated by Jihye Park
Edited by James Fretwell
Featured image: Morsky Studio
Today's question comes from Girish in India: "I really love North Korean culture and cuisine. I'm planning a visit really soon, and want to ask what is North Korea's favorite dish?"