For many in the outside world, North Korea remains the ultimate international enigma. Fiercely secretive and synonymous with displays of military bravado, the majority of us would be hard-pressed to say anything about the nation’s culture beyond the endless parades and highly orchestrated dance performances. To the international community, North Korea’s cultural traditions and touchstones remain largely opaque. This air of mystery extends to everything, including the country’s food.
It is a nation that has repeatedly struggled to feed its starving population and is often reliant upon sporadic foreign aid, despite the ruling regime’s status as an international pariah. In such circumstances, it would be easy to assume that North Korea would be the last place to unearth a vibrant and colourful culinary heritage. But it turns out that this couldn’t be further from the truth.
If North Korea is a world leader in anything, it is for almost laughable levels of censorship. There’s fake news, and then there’s the North Korean media. Unintentionally hilarious stories like the discovery of a “unicorn lair” outside Pyongyang and Kim Jong-il’s “record-breaking” 38-under par round of golf are living proof of the total lack of shame in the nation’s news outlets. The regime maintains strict control over what North Korean citizens consume through constant monitoring of every media platform. Television and mobile phone usage are strictly controlled and the internet only provides access to a limited selection of carefully curated websites. However, while it would be easy to dismiss these channels as pure propaganda, some offer a fascinating look at North Korea’s cultural identity. Perhaps none is more revealing than Chosun Ryori - which is dedicated to the hidden history and tradition at the heart of North Korean cuisine.
From the first glance at the website, it’s clear that, at least in theory, North Korean food is about so much more than flavourless bowls of rice donated by foreign aid givers. There is a wealth of dishes that feature local traditional ingredients and techniques that mark proper North Korean cooking as worthy of recognition. There are clear similarities with the food of South Korea, with recipes for southern staples like kimchi, bulgogi and rock dumplings described on the first page. However, there is also an array of more obscure regional treasures. Instructions for delicious-sounding “Pyongyang lange surface” and “Daedong river mullet” prove that North Korea has a whole lot more to offer the world than funny headlines and the threat of nuclear annihilation.
The site provides a fascinating window into the history of hitherto unknown North Korean specialities. One section reveals the legacy of North Korean sparrow catchers, who we learn were historically active during the winter months and integral in the preparation of the region’s signature grilled sparrow dish - said to prevent the spread of smallpox. Another outlines the importance of chrysanthemum cakes as a celebratory dessert, along with instructions for correctly glazing the sweet treats in “licking honey”. The vivid descriptions of these dishes help add colour to a nation that has remained obscure and sinister in the minds of many for over 70 years.
While recipes for local delicacies are both inspirational and fascinating for any foodie, the real value of the Chosun Ryori website is as an insight into the broader culinary culture of North Korea. The site describes a number of foodie festivals, alongside instructions for what should be served when. For example, the site tells us that a traditional North Korean New Year’s Eve feast should contain goji noodles, jujube and white pine nuts, as well as a mix of oggubo and rice dishes. The site also reveals dates in the North Korean calendar that carry greater weight and significance. Close inspection reveals that major celebrations such as “comrade day” are dictated by the lunar cycle and fall on a different day each year. This just goes to show how food can be crucial in helping us to understand the intricacies of cultures other than our own.
Perhaps most surprising of all the pages is the list of North Korean restaurants. As well as more standard offerings like the “Pyongyang beef house” and the “duck specialty restaurant”, the list includes the intriguing sounding “incense barrel restaurant” and the “Daedong river restaurant ship”. Replete with carefully constructed images of pristine tables and vistas of an idealised version of Pyongyang, this section of the website is the most obviously misleading. Nevertheless, the pictures still provide a fascinating insight into a restaurant scene that many will be surprised to learn exists at all.
Being a website run by the North Korean government, Chosun Ryori is not devoid of a touch of propaganda. Dishes that only the most dedicated food historian will have heard of are described as “famed across the world”. You can’t go a paragraph without at least one reference to “Our Glorious General” or “Our Benevolent Leader”. However, for a country famed for its dishonesty, this may be the closest that we can get to a truthful representation of its culture. While it’s a topic of some debate as to whether the citizens of North Korea actually get to enjoy any of the food described on Chosun Ryori, the website may actually provide an honest insight into a secretive nation through food. In a world where many are growing ever more suspicious of the isolated nation, the best way to build bridges could be through our stomachs.