Naengmyun: Discovering North Korea’s Surprising Food Heritage

October 18, 2014

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It seems strange to write about the cuisine of a nation where so many of its citizens go hungry. According to the World Food Programme, only 16 percent of households in North Korea have “acceptable food consumption.” In the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, food is less about pleasure and taste than survival.

And yet deeply buried beneath its all-encompassing Great Leader culture is a 5,000-year-old Korean past, which includes a rich culinary history. And perhaps no dish is more central to North Korean cuisine than naengmyun, a regional specialty of Pyongyang dating back to the Joseon dynasty. When I was living and teaching at a university there, my students often told me that naengmyun (pronounced with an initial R sound in the North) was hailed as the “best food” all over the world. Of course, none of them had ever seen the world, since most North Koreans are not allowed to travel abroad, and even domestic travel requires permission. Still, they were convinced of its fame and popularity.

Naengmyun literally means “cold noodle,” and Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel grow up eating it the way Americans grow up eating pasta. In both Koreas, each province has its own version, and the thin handmade noodles can be made from the flour of buckwheat, kudzu, potatoes, sweet potatoes, or corn. Naengmyun is always served cold, either as mul-naengmyung in soup or as bibim naengmyun with no liquid, just a spicy seasoning. The base for the soup is usually beef broth, although sometimes pork or pheasant meat is used, and it can include dried seafood and mushrooms. In some seaside regions, the noodle comes topped with raw skate. The usual seasoning accompaniments are vinegar and spicy mustard dressing.

The most famous kind in all of Korea, however, is Pyongyang naengmyun, which is a mul naengmyun variety served in soup with buckwheat noodles. The soup is made with dongchimi liquid (clear, watery radish kimchi) and meat broth, which is made from the innards and bones of either beef or pheasant. The noodles come topped with Napa cabbage kimchi, shaved beef, a boiled egg, julienned Asian pear and cucumber, shredded chili peppers, and scallions. Traditionally, the dish is served in a brass bowl so that it will stay ice cold.

In South Korea, those Koreans who grew up in the North before the war inevitably bring up the topic of their hometown naengmyun. There are countless restaurants specializing in various Northern styles, as well as plenty of Southern-style naengmyun, but Koreans from the North always claim that none of them compares to the real thing. Their craving reflects their longing for home, which has been forbidden to them since the 1953 armistice between the two Koreas.

During my visits to North Korea, I ate naengmyun at every opportunity, including at Okryu-gwan, Pyongyang’s most famous restaurant. Although my eating companions—mostly South Korean visitors who originally came from the North—generally seemed to like it, I never loved the naengmyun I tasted there. I always wondered if my companions’ appreciation was based more on nostalgia than on the actual quality of the food, because the broth inevitably tasted of MSG. This was hardly surprising. To make a good soup stock, you need fresh ingredients, which are scarce in North Korea. Besides, I found it hard to enjoy the food there because I was always aware that so many North Koreans were malnourished.

Still, I kept eating their naengmyun because I admired what it suggested. In Korea, noodles symbolize longevity; in the South, people eat noodles on wedding days, and in the North, people eat them on birthdays. Naengmyun noodles are tough and not always easy to chew, and although traditionally one is not supposed to cut them, the servers often offer to cut them for diners with a scissor. Long life and resilience—these are my hopes for the 25 million people of North Korea, including my beloved former students, as they face the approaching harsh winter, where heat, electricity, and food inevitably lack.

Suki Kim is the author of the memoir Without You, There Is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite.

Cold NoodlesFood HeritageNaengmyunNorth KoreaSuki Kim
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