In most English news these days, when the words “food” and “North Korea” are used in the same sentence, they’re probably not talking about Pyongyang’s restaurant scene. While focus shouldn’t waver from the food shortages and famine, it’s important to remember that North Korea’s food culture and history is rich and varied. Seoul is home to dozens of restaurants owned by defectors or the descendants of Koreans from the North, and it’s not all naengmyeon and mandu—you’ll find stews, seafood and even royal cuisine on these menus. As North Korean Traditional Food Institute founder Lee Ae-ran points out, it’s more accurate to talk about Korean food in terms of regions, not in terms of the sharp division between the North and South. So is there a North Korean cuisine? Perhaps not in strict terms, but what you’ll taste at these restaurants is influenced by the history and geography of the north—go and se for yourself.
A taste of the North
Seven places to try North Korean food in Seoul
Q&A: Yoon Jeong-cheol Chef of Dongmu Bapsang
How did you start cooking?
When I enlisted in the Korean People’s Army at 18, they took me to the Pyeongyang Okryugwan where I trained for four months. Then I was assigned to the Jangsung-geup Restaurant (a restaurant exclusively for army generals), where I cooked for 11 years. I think they took me to Okryugwan because my grandfather was a cook. But I hadn’t even dreamed of cooking. I thought it was embarrassing for a man to cook.
When did you come to South Korea?
1998. For 10 years the luxury I saw in the military gave me high hopes about society but I was disappointed. You couldn’t survive without stealing. So I went to China to earn money, where people were jealous of South Korea. I didn’t even know what South Korea was, let alone know that it was so wealthy; I had only heard of corruption and decay. I made up my mind to go to South Korea myself after hearing of all the riches available there.
Did you start cooking again right when you got to South Korea?
No, I was too embarrassed. But I soon realized I only knew how to cook. I went to one restaurant where I didn’t say I was a cook but that I just wanted to learn. But I couldn’t cook there. They used too much artificial seasoning, ruining the taste of the ingredients. The cooking of
my people used a little seasoning to make the ingredients shine and I thought this new way of cooking would make me forget the tastes of home. So three years ago I started teaching classes at Hoyacooks Cooking Studio and now this.
How do you want people to think of North Korean food?
Aside from food, I want to think that the people coming to our restaurant are coming not just for North Korean flavors but also for reunification. In any case, the customers are here because they’re interested in North Korea. By eating here, they are bringing the Koreas one step closer to reunification. People are brought closer through food and I believe eating here is representative of Korean reunification.