North Korea is a forbidden land for South Koreans. But there is a way to experience the contemporary culture of the reclusive communist state without actually crossing the border: Visiting restaurants here that specialize in North Korean cuisine.
With over 32,000 North Korean refugees calling South Korea home now, such eateries, either targeting fellow homesick defectors or curious South Korean diners, are easy to find with a quick search on the internet.
“Having been separated for nearly 70 years now, the two Koreas have developed their respective food culture under distinctly different socioeconomic environments, resulting in similar but different tastes,” writes Song Kwang-shik of KB Research in a recent paper.
A five-dish meal served at North Korean cuisine restaurant Bukhyang features onban (soup with rice,) pork chops and three side dishes. (Lee Sun-young/The Korea Herald)
In general, North Korean cuisine is distinguished by its milder tastes. Longer winter and mountainous land also lead to differences in food resources. For instance, potatoes and corn make a prominent appearance on dining tables, defectors and food experts say.
While the cold noodle naengmyeon reigns as the most iconic North Korean dish, restaurants in Seoul, Incheon and areas with a high concentration of defectors offer more diverse choices that more accurately reflect common North Korean meals, such as onban (soup rice), nongma guksu (potato starch noodle) and dubu-bap (rice with stir-fried tofu).
Defector Hong Eun-hye, who has been selling North Korean rice cakes and snacks since 2006, says South Koreans’ interest in North Korean food is increasing.
“There are many cultural events introducing North Korean food,” she explained.
“Young people are drawn by curiosity, I think. On the other hand, older generations appreciate the taste, saying they remind them of the good old days,” she said.
By Lee Sun-young (firstname.lastname@example.org)