Korean culture is one that values food, in which sharing a meal is an essential part of getting to know a person. So how are the cuisines in North Korea different from, or similar to, their counterparts in South Korea? I imagine that many of you reading this article have had some kind of exposure to South Korean food—the spicy Kimchi orbibimbap with beef, various vegetables, and rice all mixed with spicy pepper paste. North Korean cuisines are similar, but different in certain aspects due to geographical and climatic characteristics of the region. Korean food is typically known for its spiciness, but in fact, North Korean food is usually not as spicy as southern ones. Why? Because the climate in south is hotter, they learned to use saltier, spicier seasonings in order to preserve the food for as long as possible. In contrast, in the north because it is much colder, the taste is simpler. While both Koreas eat rice as their main staple, due to the mountainous topography North Koreans traditionally take multigrain rice as opposed to white rice or barley rice in the south where the lands are fertile.
Now let us turn to some specific examples of North Korean cuisines. How are they similar to, or different from South Korean food? One example is Pyoung Yang naeng-myon (冷麵), meaning literally cold noodles. Unlike most naeng-myon’s you see in South Korea, the noodles are especially thin and tough. Also, in Pyoung Yang they put slices of pear on top of the noodles as a finishing touch, which is unusual. Use of soy sauce and red pepper powder is another characteristic new to South Koreans. Furthermore, while South Koreans eat naeng-myon in the summer to shake off the heat, North Koreans tend to eat them in the winter—their idea of having ice cream in a warm room while it’s snowing outside.
[Pyoung Yang naeng-myon and “water” naeng-myon as seen in South Korea]
Naeng-myon became especially popular in the north where the climate is cold, because many of the ingredients used—buckwheat and potatoes, among others—can easily be grown in a cold, tough weather. In fact some say that naeng-myon was quite rare to find in the south until those with northern origins settled down after the Korean War. Ancient documents from JoSeon Dynasty (1392-1910) talk about naeng-myon as a special dish for winter, famous in the northern region.
When talking about naeng-myon, one cannot neglect to mention Ham-Heung, a city in the upper eastern Ham-Gyoung province of North Korea. Its noodles made of potato starch, Ham-Heung naeng-myon is itself a proper noun. Unlike South Koreanbibim naeng-myon, which just means mixed noodles with red pepper sauce, Ham-Heung naeng-myon is more specific in that instead of using red pepper sauce, it uses sliced raw skate (a type of fermented fish dish), mixed with red pepper and other seasonings depending on the household. I personally have never had the chance to try Pyoung Yang or Ham Heung naeng-myon despite the fact that there are a number of “authentic” restaurants in Seoul, but I think I will hold it off until I get the chance to taste the real thing.