News / Asia

Koreans Overcome Differences By Way of Cuisine

Lee Aeran once inspected food for the North Korean government, now she teaches North Korean cuisine at her cooking institute in Seoul
Lee Aeran once inspected food for the North Korean government, now she teaches North Korean cuisine at her cooking institute in Seoul


Jason Strother

It is well known that food is hard to come by in parts of North Korea, where the U.N. World Food Program has been helping feed more than 3.5 million people since April in the wake of severe food shortages.

But travel past the Korean Demilitarized Zone, a strip of land that separates the two Koreas, into South Korea and one can find an abundance of North Korean-style dishes.

That is, in part, thanks to an increasing number of defectors who have opened restaurants and even a cooking school in their new home.

Gastronomical tour

Ryu Kyung-ok is a tiny restaurant that fills up with customers quickly during lunchtime.  The menu takes you on a gastronomical tour of North Korea.

There is dumpling soup from Kaeseong, a rice and beef dish from Pyongyang and from Hamheung, a bowl of cold noodles called naengmyeon.

The noodles is what many people come for.

Customer Rho Soo-ah, 20, says naengmyeon is just what you want on a steamy day.

“When it’s really hot, it’s just really refreshing and it tastes good it kinda cools down your whole body,” Rho explains, before ordering one bowl of naengmyeon served in a cold beef broth and another mixed with raw fish and pepper sauce.   

All the staff at Ryu Kyung -ok are North Korean defectors, including the owner, Ahn Mi-ok.

She says North Korean food is much simpler than South Korean food.  It uses the traditional cooking methods without adding unnecessary ingredients. Ahn says South Koreans use too many artificial flavorings or add extra types of sauces.  North Korean food goes back to the basics, she notes.

Naengmyeon has been popular in South Korea for decades.  Ahn hopes other North Korean dishes will catch on soon.

For the love of food

Lee Aeran, 47, is also counting on that.  Lee, a former food inspector from Pyongyang, now runs the North Korean Food Institute in Seoul.

She says cooking is a great way for Koreans from both sides of the peninsula to overcome their differences.

Lee says, the problem is that North and South Korean people have had no communication since they were separated. But the love of food is universal.  She says cooking provides a place for people to come together and chat.

Recently, Lee’s school started offering classes in English, so non-Korean speakers can talk about North Korean food too.  

With the help of an interpreter, Lee instructs the class on how to make haeju bimbinbap - a rice and vegetable dish with chicken and soy sauce.

Delicious way to learn

Korean American Alex Jung, 27, stands over a simmering pot.  He says the class taught him some new things about Korean food.

“I think that I am pretty familiar with South Korean cooking, in general, and all the regional differences within South Korea," Jung says.  "And, there definitely aren’t that many opportunities to try, eat or make North Korean food.  And I was just excited to learn about a certain style of North Korean food that I had never eaten before.”    

Lee Aeran says her cooking school also has a special meaning for North Korean defectors who did not have much to eat back home.

She says many North Koreans really can't eat well.  They struggle because of food shortages and often have meals consisting of just rice mixed with water.

Often, there isn't even enough rice, says Seong Yuri, 41.  She is a student at the cooking school too and says that since she arrived in the south in 2007, she has learned a lot about food from her homeland. Seong says, in the North, they did not have the ingredients to make these types of dishes.

Food appreciation

But Seong says the most important thing she learned was how differently North and South Koreans appreciate food.

Seong says she was really surprised that many South Koreans diet.  She says it's odd that while North Koreans are starving to death, people here strive to be slim.  Seong thinks there is so much diversity in food that it is hard to choose what to eat.  Seong says the great thing is that she's gotten to try a lot of other countries’ foods.

Seong says despite the differences, she believes learning about each others’ food can bring the two Koreas closer together.  Reunification, starts at the dinner table, she notes.

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