Food in North Korea

October 23, 2011 by Joshua
in Freedom, NorthKorea

People like to talk about food in places they travel. Naturally they ask about food in North Korea.

At the beginning I liked it, but by the end a couple things get to you. First, as a tourist you get a lot of similar things over again. Second, at least when we visited in August, besides some slices of apple with breakfast, we had no fresh fruits or vegetables. Most food was pickled, boiled, or fried. Don’t get me wrong, some was delicious, but we got tired of it.

There seemed to be a fair amount I could eat as a vegetarian. The language difficulties made it hard to verify just how vegetarian something was. I wouldn’t be surprised if things I ate had fish in them, but after I’ve asked three or four times and they insist no fish are in it, I believe them.

I couldn’t help but contrast North Korea with India. India’s poverty doesn’t keep it from having tons of fresh fruits and vegetables, I guess aided by being tropical. But in India the fruit stands explode with colors, smells, and flavors — and they’re everywhere.

When you picture a market, is not one of the first images you imagine a food market, with farmers selling overflowing bushels of fresh produce and people moving from stall to stall looking for the freshest and ripest? Not having the fresh produce stores and open-air markets like that create seems one of the gravest day-to-day consequences (as opposed to human rights issues) of not allowing markets.

I didn’t see stands or displays of any sorts showing off fresh produce.

We had plenty of beer. I was surprised how available they made it to us at first. Then I realized the markup must be great and, since people can drink so much of it, they must make a lot of money on it. I wonder if North Koreans can afford much alcohol or if it’s rationed to them. What must it look like if foreigners all get drunk when they can’t?

Our guides ate different food than we did, which we didn’t understand, especially toward the end of the trip, when several members of our group began to gripe about the monotony of the food. (Meat eaters view not having meat as decreasing variety, but they don’t act like they have more variety. They seem to get frustrated at the lack of it faster than people who don’t eat meat. It least that’s my impression.) Our guides always ate at separate tables. They tended to have a noodle soup, I think called Pyongyang naengmyeon. I don’t think they served that dish to us and people in my group wanted to try it.

Most of our meals were served with lots of little dishes banchan style, like I’m used to with Korean food in the U.S. and South Korea. On the other hand, they didn’t always serve white rice or kimchi, which surprised me. I expected those two foods to make up most of our food there.

Still, I never went hungry and I didn’t get that bored with the food. Ingrid bought a spicy paste called Gojuchan that tasted amazing, went with nearly everything, and made everything we put it on taste better.

Most of us agreed we liked the outdoor barbecue at the ultimate tournament best. I’ll write about that when I write about the tournament. Food is often part of something bigger and more social than just putting food in your mouth. Here I am joking around with our guide while someone else’s meat cooks on the grill.

North Korean barbecue at frisbee tournamentAt the end of the trip I remembered I had an orange I had bought in Beijing for the flight over. Though it had sat in the hotel room a week it was still ripe on the last day. When Ingrid started griping about the monotony of our food in the bus, I peeled the orange to share.

Maybe the orange had something special on its own, but I tend to think because it broke the monotony and lack of fresh fruit, but that orange tasted as juicy, sweet, and delicious as any food I’d ever had.

It’s hard to think about North Korea and food without thinking of famine of the 90s where about ten percent of the population died. They have food shortages today, but not on the scale of then. The Soviet Union had collapsed, reducing that source of cheap oil and other aid. I understand they had planted on hillsides, removing trees that held the soil together. Rain washed those hillside crops away, losing those crops, also filling rivers, which flooded, losing something like half the arable land.

I understand the North Korean decision-makers declined aid from other countries due to requirements to ensure it was going to hungry people and not just military. I hear that North Korean history tells that the U.S. caused the famine by blockading them, while their leaders did their best to help. I also understand that, on the contrary, the U.S. was one of the main suppliers of food aid, along with South Korea. I also understand during that period (and before and after) Kim Jong Il was one of the largest single buyers of cognac in the world, maintained a huge store of wines and alcohols, had the finest luxury ingredients flown in from around the world, and … well you get the idea.

I wasn’t there, so I don’t know, but that’s what I heard. If you want references I can give them to you, but a quick search on the web will show you.

By the way, they did serve a dog dish to those who wanted it in Kaesong. A few people in my group ordered it, but didn’t remark on in tasting that unusual. I don’t know what breed the dog was.

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