Many people worry, unnecessarily, at the idea of visiting North Korea. Is it safe? Are the rules too strict? Will the food be tasty, and adequate?
The latter question is perhaps understandable, given the well-documented periods of famine suffered in the country, but tourists, as honoured guests of the regime, have nothing to fear on that score.
Let me share some of our meal-time experiences …
Breakfasts were the one meal I struggled with; but knowing how plentiful the lunch and dinner offerings would be meant that this wasn’t really a problem. In some hotels the coffee was much weaker than I would have liked. However I’d been pre-warned about that and took some instant granules which I used either to pep it up or to make coffee in our room. Apart from that the choice was often limited to lukewarm (or in one case cold) fried eggs, rather plain bread, kimchi and rice. Sometimes however there was a pleasant surprise: fried potatoes in Kaesong, an omelette in Hamhung.
Breakfast at the Chongjin Foreigners’ Lodgings, with a cold fried egg beside each setting!
Lunches and dinners were often similar, and anyone who has eaten elsewhere in the Far East will recognise the format. Multiple dishes are served to the table for everyone to help themselves. As in Japan, rice is often (but not always) served at the end, in individual portions. And of course, as this is Korea, there will always be kimchi, sometimes among the offerings on the table but more often in small individual portions beside each plate.
So what is kimchi? Or, as it is sometimes spelled, kimchee? Wikipedia describes it as ‘a traditional side dish of salted and fermented vegetables’. Most often these vegetables include cabbage (often only cabbage); radishes, celery, cucumber also featured frequently in the portions we were served.
Traditionally kimchi was a means of preserving vegetables for the lean winter months, long before refrigeration was an option. Historically it wasn’t a spicy dish but today chilli and other spices are common ingredients. It’s very much an acquired taste and people tend to either love it or hate it. I fell firmly into the former camp but found too much of it messed with my insides!
Because the selection at each meal is so large there’s a good chance you’ll find several items that appeal, even if others do not. The only problem may be that everyone will want the same few things; but that only occasionally happened in our group. Here’s what I said in my journal at the time about our first dinner in Pyongyang, which was perhaps better than average but not untypical:
Our dinner was served in a private room in a restaurant and was both delicious and plentiful. The plates of food just kept coming, even when the entire surface of the table was covered! I loved my first taste of kimchi, enjoyed some little pierogi-like dumplings, as well as cold noodles, several salads, sweet and sour fish and a slightly spicy vegetable cake (a bit like a tortilla). There was also chicken, tofu, pork, beef tartare Korean style … Just as we felt we couldn’t eat any more, the rice appeared!
Most meals, both lunches and dinners, were on similar lines, although not always quite so generous.
All meals included drinks: beer, water and sometimes fruit juice. The beer was good and, if we wanted to buy more, very reasonably priced.
From time to time we would have a picnic lunch. But if you think that means a sandwich and an apple, think again! On each of these occasions our food was provided by the hotel we’d been staying at the previous night, and the meal was as close to what they would have served had we been eating lunch there as they could make it, albeit served cold! Sometimes this was OK, other times not so much so, for example cold chips.
In fact, food temperature was for me the only real concern about our North Korean meals. I like my food served piping hot whereas they seem happy to serve and eat it lukewarm. Flabby fried fish and the aforementioned breakfast eggs and chips were among the dishes I found hard to enjoy at these temperatures. But as I have already said, there was always so much food that it didn’t really matter if some items didn’t appeal.
Occasional treats: a royal dinner
In Kaesong one evening we were taken to a restaurant that specialises in so-called ‘royal dinners’. Everything was set out for us in individual place settings. The number of different dishes signifies your level of importance; we had eleven (the soup apparently doesn’t count), second only to a king! The dishes included several kinds of kimchi and other pickled vegetables; cooked vegetables; tofu; cold pork slices; fried fish and rice.
Our royal dinner
Occasional treats: barbecue
The North Koreans love a barbecue, whether prepared outside as a picnic or on hot plates in a restaurant. On the country’s national day, celebrating the 71st anniversary of the founding of the DPRK, we saw lots of groups picnicking in Moranbong Park, and most had some sort of barbecue going.
We had the chance to try a Korean barbecue on three occasions: once in a restaurant in Pyongyang; once on a beach in Wonsan; and once at an outdoor restaurant at our hotel, the Hyangsan, near Mount Myohyang. Of these the two outdoor ones were particularly memorable, and among my favourite meals of the trip. Whether indoors or out the format is much the same. Small pieces of meat are skewered and grill quickly on the flames, to be accompanied with kimchi and rice of course, and usually some other vegetables or salads. At the Hyangsan Hotel the meat was wild boar and lamb; while on the beach at Wonsan it was squid, lamb and duck. Eating on the sands as a huge red moon rose over the bay was a very special experience!
But most meals were eaten indoors and I can’t avoid mentioning the North Korean style in restaurant décor, which is best described as ‘over the top’, especially in hotels. Round tables are the norm, sometimes with a ‘lazy Susan’ to facilitate sharing of dishes. Colours are bright for the most part, with coloured lights common. The preferred wall decoration is usually large rather gaudy paintings of the country’s most attractive landscapes; or sometimes significant locations such as Mount Paektu, the sacred mountain. Often a top table is decorated as if for a wedding, with artificial flowers and perhaps some white doves or even (in Chongjin) a wedding cake!
Some restaurants with a difference
A few restaurants were a little more restrained in style and I want to mention two of these in particular.
Firstly, when we visited the DMZ (Demilitarised Zone) near Kaesong, we had lunch in a rather unique spot. While most tour groups were visiting from Pyongyang on a tight day trip schedule, we were staying in Kaesong so able to spend a little more time here. We were therefore taken for lunch in a former army restaurant, Panmunjomkwan. This was once used by Polish and other Eastern Bloc Troops overseeing the armistice and is the only restaurant inside the DMZ. Serving staff wore mock military uniforms, and the restaurant was more utilitarian in style; but otherwise the meal wasn’t dissimilar to those we ate everywhere else!
Secondly, one day in Wonsan we had lunch at a tourist restaurant, Kalmaegi. Apart from serving one of the better meals of the trip (this coast has excellent fish and squid, and for once they were served hot!), it was also notable for the fact that Michael Palin had eaten his birthday meal here when on his visit to North Korea.
His programme had in part triggered our own decision to visit, although the country had been on my wish-list for a couple of years prior to it being aired. It was fun therefore to think we had fulfilled that wish and were now eating in the same place!
A farewell dinner
Our farewell dinner was in a restaurant on a boat on the Taedong River – unimaginatively but accurately named the Taedonggang Restaurant Boat. Our guide told us that this is the only one of the several on the river that actually leaves its moorings. I had expected therefore to be taken on a bit of a cruise. But as the boat is too large to pass under the nearby bridges we simply drifted around in the immediate area, although that in itself was fun!
The food was good, and we had a particularly large selection of dishes. It was lovely seeing the lights of Pyongyang from the water, especially the Juche Tower with its flame flickering. Those lights, though, only served to emphasise the ‘otherness’ of this city: North Korea’s Shangri-La, its Oz.
Part way through the evening there was live entertainment, Korean style, with some enthusiastic young singers and good musicians, but rather too loud for conversation. I recognised the welcome song, Pangapsumnida, which we had heard the children sing in the kindergarten in Chongjin. Perhaps surprisingly, given the North Korean love of music and dance, this was the only time we were treated to live entertainment over dinner. So even more than on other evenings we were treated here like honoured guests, which is how they try to treat all tourists!
I visited North Korea in 2019