Guest post by Graham Holliday:
It took me ten or more attempts to enjoy an eastern European, summertime borscht and five or six attempts to get into Spain’s gazpacho, but I’d long given up on North Korea’s signature dish naengmyeon (냉면).
It took me ten or more attempts to enjoy an eastern European, summertime borscht and five or six attempts to get into Spain’s gazpacho, but I’d long given up on North Korea’s signature dish naengmyeon (냉면). Cold noodle soup… Just saying those words, the very notion of them, they sound wrong. Noodles and soups should be hot, not cold, surely? At least that’s the way my closed mind worked when I first tried naengmyeon in Jeonju, the capital of Jeollabuk-do, in 1996.
Back then, I found it an interesting dish, but it wasn’t one I had fallen in love with. A cold, vinegary noodle soup was a step too far for me at that time and I wasn’t sure I could ever really like a cold noodle soup. Naengmyeon was a little too out there for me, more so than borscht or gazpacho. It wasn’t until some twenty years later, when I found myself talking to a North Korean man in downtown Seoul, that I was tempted to go near it again.
Below is an excerpt from Eating Korea: Reports on a Culinary Renaissance by Graham Holliday.
The skinny girl sitting at the table next to me was staring into her phone. She had a mocha iced coffee and three doughnuts, which she chomped at like an enthusiastic pet. There is a theory that eating with your mouth open keeps the body cool. There was a case to be made for open-mouth eating during a kimchi-jjigae blowout, but not, I would argue, while hogging down three sugar-coated American-style doughnuts in an air-conditioned Dunkin’ Donuts.
I was in a Dunkin’ Donuts in the City Hall district of Seoul because I couldn’t go to North Korea. I wasn’t allowed in. For a year before this trip I had been living in Senegal, and unfortunately, the West African nation had recorded a single case of Ebola. A man from Guinea had caught it in his own country and brought it to Dakar, where I had lived. He’d been quickly quarantined and eventually recovered and returned home. That was almost six months before I arrived in Seoul and no new Ebola cases had been reported in Senegal since. However, North Korea had banned entry to anyone coming from an Ebola-infected country. That one case barred me from Pyongyang, and that’s how I ended up in Dunkin’ Donuts, that scion of Western capitalism, to meet a bit of North Korea in South Korea.
Mr. Choi arrived, and as we talked, a waitress wiped our table like she was swabbing the deck of a boat. Over the years, I’d been told many a time that North Korean women were the most beautiful and that South Korean men were the most handsome. Mr. Choi was neither ugly nor overly handsome. He had thick, black eyebrows, an open smile, and thinning hair. Loose strands of it fluttered under the air conditioning like tree branches against a winter’s sky. He had escaped from North Korea in 1999.
“There is nothing to compare to life in North Korea,” he said. “It is a hell.”
We ordered coffees. I took a double espresso and Mr. Choi ordered what the girl with the open mouth was having.
“Living there,” he said, “you don’t know any different. There is no information about the outside world—you only get what you are told. You have no way of really knowing anything, so you believe everything.”
Mr. Choi grew up in a coastal town in the province of South Hwanghae, a part of North Korea that is very close to a number of South Korean islands.
“You know Yeonpyeong?” he said. “It’s the island the North Koreans bombed. Where I come from is the frontier of that conflict.” Yeonpyeong Island is part of South Korea. During a border skirmish in 2010, the North Koreans bombarded it, killing four South Koreans and injuring nineteen.
Getting information into and out of North Korea is notoriously difficult, and it was no different for Mr. Choi. “I heard that my sister had gotten married,” he said, “and that my father had died, but apart from that, I’ve had no news of my family.”
After he escaped to China, he went to the German Embassy and subsequently gained asylum in South Korea.
“You cannot imagine what life is like in North Korea,” he said. “It is unimaginable to anyone who hasn’t lived it.”
He worked at a human rights organization in Seoul and was learning English through an organization funded by the U.S. government. He was also writing his life story and looking for a publisher.
“I visited Cambodia once,” he said. “Compared to life in Cambodia, the facilities in North Korea are better. However, education and society are far, far worse in North Korea.”
Vivian Han (owner of Congdu, a restaurant in Seoul) was extremely proud of her North Korean heritage and of the food. It was, she had told me, more refined, cleaner, and purer. I was keen to hear Mr. Choi’s take on his food, the food he grew up with, his version of the South Korean mom’s food I had recently eaten inside Gwanghwamun Jjib.
“It’s hard to explain the difference between the food in North Korea and South Korea,” he said. “Take my favorite food, the one I miss the most, naengmyeon. It’s a simple cold soup with noodles, but once you’ve tasted it in Pyongyang, you can appreciate the difference and the quality. After you’ve tasted it there, it can never be the same anywhere else.”
He went on to tell me that there are two different styles of naengmyeon and that the flavor varies depending on which city you eat it in. Hamhung, North Korea’s second largest city in the east of the country, has quite a different style of naengmyeon from Pyongyang in the west. The noodles are chewier than those in Pyongyang, as they’re made from sweet potato and not from buckwheat as they are in Pyongyang. In addition, the soup tastes stronger in Hamhung, according to Mr. Choi, although it was the Pyongyang taste he preferred.
North Korea is more mountainous than the south, has a harsher climate and less arable land, and rice is difficult to grow. As a result, the north came to rely upon buckwheat and potatoes for its starch intake. More potato and buckwheat noodles are consumed in North Korea than rice.
By now we had finished our coffees and walked outside. We stood at a crossroads waiting for the lights to change. It’s easy to feel small and lost in Seoul, especially in City Hall, hemmed in by concrete, glass, and flashing lights. I figured Mr. Choi must have a bolthole, a secret spot in the south, somewhere he could go to relive the north. Regardless of where we come from, we all need that when we’ve been abroad for a long time. A taste of the mother’s teat suckled from afar.
“You must miss the food from home,” I said. “Is there anywhere in Seoul that you go when you want a taste of home?”
“I go to Pyongyang Myon Ok [평양면옥],” he said. “There is another place that people like, but I prefer the taste at Pyongyang Myon Ok. It’s in Dongdaemun, near the spaceship.”
He could see that I did not understand what he meant. Korea was not known for space travel, beyond Yi So-yeon, the Korean astronaut who took kimchi into space with her.
“What spaceship?” I asked.
“You’ll know it when you see it,” he said. “Just go to Dongdaemun, you can’t miss it, and Pyongyang Myon Ok is on the same road.”
Pyongyang Myeonok (평양면옥)
26-14 Jangchung-dong 1-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul (서울 중구 장충동 1가 26-14)
Hours: Open every day 11am~9:30pm except national holidays
Official Website: http://pyungyangmyunok.modoo.at/
Click here for an interactive map: http://naver.me/GjMNHneS
Service: ★★★★ out of 5 stars
Ambiance: ★★★★ out of 5 stars
Value: ★★★½ out of 5 stars
147-6 Yeomri-dong, Mapo-gu, Seoul (서울 마포구 염리동 147-6)
Hours: Open every day 11am~10pm
Click here for an interactive map: http://naver.me/xyhE6oFs
Service: ★★★½ out of 5 stars
Ambiance: ★★★★ out of 5 stars
Value: ★★★½ out of 5 stars