Eating like honoured guests in North Korea
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
While I was very interested in your experiences, I couldn’t escape the negative feeling that the tour was providing foreign exchange to a regime which was starving its people. That is not to say you should not have done it but simply that I could not do so.
I understand your point although I don’t necessarily agree with it. The regime isn’t starving its people. Admittedly many starved during the famine of the 1990s but the regime has learned some hard lessons since then and provides basic rations to all. Certainly the majority don’t eat as we did, but they don’t starve. Withholding funds from the regime, e.g. through sanctions, punishes the ordinary people far more than it does the leadership and in my view is counter-productive, as it helps perpetuate the feeling that it’s their ‘small country against the rest of the world’. It’s on that foundation that the Kims have created their hold over the people, and it’s also that belief that incentivises their hostility to the rest of the world.
The system the regime follows starves the people, not sanctions. If it were not so, North Korea would not have descended into poverty while South Korea prospered not just now, but over the decades.
But no one imposes sanctions on South Korea, so it’s not a level playing field. Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not sanctioning the regime, but there is a complicated history to this region and North Korea is as it is partly due to the actions of the rest of the world – the division of the country imposed by the US and Soviet Union after WW2, the latter’s installation of Kim il Sung as leader and support for the development of a communist regime there, the bombing by the US and allies during the Korean War. All of those helped to shape a country and regime totally suspicious of the outside world, where the leadership can control the people by promoting their fears of that outside world and thus belief in the superiority of their own country. And that’s despite all its shortcomings that we see but they don’t, because they have no access to it. As visitors from outside we had very limited opportunities to interact with locals, naturally, but even that little helps to change the narrative of hostility between them and us.
Life with Alegria
Sounds like a lovely experience with plenty of food Sarah. Glad you were able to dispel some common notions about North Korea.
Thank you – yes, that’s one of the things I’m aiming to do with my posts about our visit 🙂
I’ve returned here just to ask if you’ve read the reports today about the latest refugee from N. Korea to S. Korea who has returned North as he couldn’t cope with life in the south? It seems also, he brings the total of ‘returnees’ to 31. This surprised me as we are led to believe that life is so bad there the whole country would emigrate if possible and while not believing this of course, one has to be aware that things are not that good there.
Yes, I read about him. It seems unclear what happened to him after he crossed back – but then, everything that happens there is unclear, looking in from the outside. There do seem to be challenges for defectors in adjusting to life outside the country. Living in N Korea you have relatively little control over your life (what job you do, where you live) which seems harsh to us but normal to them. Once outside you have to take more responsibility for your life, make decisions, use your initiative to find a job etc. That must be tough for many defectors who will have been dreaming of a new life with more freedom but not really understood the implications of that freedom.
It may sound odd, but in some ways living in N Korea is easy in that so much is done for you! We wouldn’t like it, as we’re used to having some control over our lives, but if you have never known anything different it probably seems quite reasonable to most of them that the state takes care of their basic needs in that way and could come as a shock when that support is no longer there. Having said that though, the South Koreans do seem to do their best to help defectors adjust, as I also read on the BBC: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-49346262
Yes, I think the Russians and to an even greater extent, the East Germans felt it too when they had the much awaited freedom given to them. Of course, without the support for rents, basic foods, education and health, the bottom falls away from freedom. We are lucky that we have some of these although the rental situation is getting dire. My sister rents in Sweden and I can’t believe the benefits she gets with this, new washing-machine every 5 years, flat decorated every three years, WIFI cable as automatic with the phone etc. etc.
I believe the standard of living in Scandinavia is generally much higher than the UK. And yes, you’re right about the East Germans I think. In North Korea housing is free (as is education and health care) but you can’t choose your home, it’s allocated to you along with your job. And although they wouldn’t call it a class system, the quality of the housing and job, and where you live, all depend on your ‘Songbun’.
I’ve never appreciated kimchi; surprised to learn that it was not originally spicy. The bento box lunch appeals to me (Japanese style) and the many metal bowls of goodies for dinner. You ate well on this journey!
Thanks Ruth. I liked the Japanese bento style of the box lunch too, just a shame about the cold chips! But as always there were things there to enjoy 🙂 Kimchi is definitely not for everyone, and even I had grown tired of it by the end of the trip, but the one thing I grew to appreciate is that it’s more a cooking style rather than a single dish, and some places produced much nicer versions than others. Maybe there’s one out there that you would enjoy?!
Perhaps, but I wouldn’t want to try it over and over again! I had friends in Japan who loved natto. It made me gag. They advised that I keep trying it and I could develop a taste for it. But, no thanks!! 😄
Yes, there are some things you can never develop a taste for!
I very much enjoy reading all your posts on North Korea, Sarah, and I found the subject of this one very interesting. I, too, have noticed that some countries put on elaborate meals for guests/tourists — whether out of sheer generosity or to impress us, I always find it wonderful and appreciate it very much! I am not a particularly adventurous eater though I generally enjoy trying foreign foods and am sometimes am very surprised how much I liked them. However, like you I prefer my food piping hot, coffee/tea the same, but what I consider should be served cold should, in fact, be served cold. So cold, sunny-side up eggs didn’t look too tempting but I would eat the egg white anyway. I would have enjoyed trying the North Korean beer! What did appeal to me most were the settings in which you dined, whether indoors or out. I think I might have mentioned to you in the past that North Korean art appealed to me, and the lightness, brightness and color of the dining areas you featured in your photos are attractive to me. Most of the time we also really enjoy sharing meals with the people in our groups and try to have at least one meal with every individual, couple, and our guide also if possible. Great post, Sarah!!
Thank you Sylvia 🙂 I think you would have enjoyed these sociable meals, where we all had so much to discuss about the day’s adventures that the food almost didn’t matter – and yet it was very memorable as you can see!
Oh, halfway through your post, I thought I will probably go hungry in North Korea 😉 there’s nothing worse than an cold egg (I do like my food hot – meaning warm, but not hot as in “chilli hot”) … we love to try other countries’ food, there’s always something we love! So I guess, after reading your post, the barbeque will definitely be a favourite!
Very interesting to read about the food in North Korea … just maybe, I’ll have a few breakfast bars in my backpack 😄.
Yes, a few breakfast bars probably wouldn’t be a bad idea, but as I said, I could usually find something to eat even while avoiding the cold eggs 😆
You were honored guests, and the food looks scrumptious. I love Korean BBQ and the ponchon side dishes. DPRK is off limits to Americans after several being held hostage. Dual citizens can use a non US passport to enter the country.
P.S. Happy New Year!✨🧨🎇
Thank you – and Happy New Year to you too! The DPRK would actually allow US citizens to visit (or at least, did so pre-Covid) but the US government has banned them from doing so. Those who have been held had broken the country’s rules, I believe. Whether you agree with those rules or not, it’s asking for trouble not to follow them!
I understand what you are saying. But in DPRK and other totalitarian countries, if the state decides it is in its interest to bring charges, you are guilty regardless of the actual facts. B/t/w, DPRK is one of the few countries (Iran is another) where my blog has zero views. Have you had views there or could use WP in the country? Thanks.
There’s no external internet service in N Korea for the vast majority of people. They have an intranet within the country and likewise an internal phone system, but it’s impossible for them to access anything like WP, Google, outside news services or anything that we would take for granted. When you travel there you are similarly isolated. I did pick up a phone signal in the far north, near the Chinese border, and also briefly in the DMZ from the South, but N Koreans themselves wouldn’t be able to do even that much – although I believe a few in the north of the country are beginning to acquire phones smuggled in from China. If they do, I doubt accessing WP is their top priority! And no, I don’t have any views from there (but I do have 37 from South Korea, I see!)
We’re always interested in the food element of travel and in a largely unknown destination like North Korea it’s of particular interest. I was fascinated to read through. That thing about food temperature is something we Brits have to get used too when travelling …it seems to us that we are one of the few races that prefer hot food to be piping, and even close to home in places like Greece hit meals are only ever lukewarm. In the end you start questioning who’s got it right!
Yes I guess you’re right about the temperature thing, although I’ve not found it as big a challenge anywhere else – maybe not piping hot, but not completely cold either. I really couldn’t fancy cold chips 😆
Even worse is decent red wine kept in the fridge…now THAT was big in Seville…
Yes, we’ve run into that a few times! The wine we drank in Seville wasn’t as warm as I would serve it but I’m not sure it was cold enough to have been in a fridge – maybe we were lucky!
Another engaging read from you Sarah!! Thankyou for taking me through the food scene in N.Korea. As someone mentioned, your smile was great…
Thank you Leela – it was a wonderful trip, I probably smiled a lot 😀
We don’t travel these days and I worry about countries that are unfriendly to Americans — but some of the most fascinating places on the globe are exactly those places. If I get younger and richer — neither of which is likely — I’m looking forward to Kyrgyzstan and North Korea — and maybe some parts of Indonesia. Great looking meals!
Thank you Marilyn 🙂 You might be surprised to know that North Korea does allow US citizens to visit, but the US bans travel there. Having said that, I’m not sure what reception you would find if you were able to go . Our very young and inexperienced second guide wouldn’t believe my husband when he told him that Americans were just like anyone else – mostly nice with a few bad eggs 😆 He’d been indoctrinated to think you were all ‘the enemy’. But the older guide would have known better, I’m sure. We were there at a time when there was some softening towards the US, thanks (bizarrely, I know, to your last President!) – the worst of the anti-US propaganda posters had been removed and at the International Friendship exhibition (post to follow one day!) we were shown photos of Trump meeting Kim Jong Un!
Fascinating! Out of everything I like your smile in one of the photos the most. And the tower at dusk! I’d be upset drinking from a bottle on which I don’t recognize any word. 😀 As for the food… Let’s just say there is a reason why I’m in Italy. 😀 😀 But this is a lovely presentation of how you were treated and it was royal indeed!
Thank you Manja 🙂 Clearly this wasn’t a patch on Italian cuisine and you wouldn’t go to North Korea primarily for the food, but I hope I’ve shown that you wouldn’t starve there either! As to the beer, it was pretty much the same as lager anywhere in Asia and went well with the food – so much so that some of us often bought extra after the included bottles were depleted!
Another fascinating window on the enigma that is North Korea. I enjoyed reading about the food although if the food isn’t good, after a few days I start to lose my liking for the trip! I’m a philistine when it comes to food, it is so part of my enjoyment of travelling and to be able to look forward to a nice meal in the evening with a bottle of wine is a large part of the trip for me. I think that is why I so love places like Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos where the French influence means the food is superb – and the bread and the coffee – and Thailand whose cuisine is way up there even if it is sometimes too hot for my liking. But what all these countries can do is rustle up something else if you don’t like what they have on offer – an omelette with stir-fried vegetables, fried eggs with flavoured rice etc. I didn’t have that experience in parts of China where I hated the food and lived on bars of chocolate and rice. And much as I loved the delicacy of the porcelain dishes in which our food was served in Japan, I found the sliminess of much of the food not to my liking. Again, I had to rely on rice as the kitchens seemed, mostly, rather rigid in what they could offer or go to a Western hotel to eat. I never want to see abalone, ever again, sliced and served with pickled pink ginger. It still gives me nightmares! But back to N. Korea. You manage to convey both what the country is like to a visitor, and something of what we can’t see and don’t know. Michael Palin eat your heart out. Sarah has just as much insight!
I’m completely with you Mari – the evening meal is usually a highlight of any trip for me 🙂 And to some extent that was true in North Korea too, although less so than on some other trips. The downsides were firstly that we had no choice as to where to eat – normally that’s part of the experience for me, in towns and cities at least, browsing restaurants and menus before making a decision! Secondly, the food got pretty samey after a while, which is one reason the barbecues were so welcome (the other plus with them was piping hot food!) And of course (although I never tested this) I don’t think we could have asked for anything to be specially made. But because the meals were so generous we didn’t HAVE to eat the same things at each, and most restaurants offered one or two items that were, if not unique, at least less common – the great squid in Wonsan, for instance. And while beer was included, it was possible to buy wine although only by the bottle. Two women in our group paired up to buy a bottle each lunch time and split it over lunch and dinner, taking it in turns to pay. Apparently it was mostly imported (despite the sanctions!) and pretty palatable, apart from a cheap bottle of local plonk they bought in the department store’s supermarket which was dreadful! Eating together like this all the time could potentially have been a nightmare had they not been such a great group. We all got on well and there was always so much to talk about every day!
Thank you for that lovely compliment about Michael Palin. I don’t think I present any real competition, but I’m certainly aiming to show what it’s really like to visit and I had the benefit of staying longer than he did and visiting more off the usual route places 🙂
I think groups that go on the more challenging tours are usually good company so I would have no hesitation in joining one to parts of the world less visited by other tourists. I find the same with River tours, the people who travel on these seem to have curiosity to discover and sample new things, unlike cruise ship travellers – at least this has been my experience.
Yes, I think you’re right – this sort of tour tends to attract people with a good sense of curiosity and adventure. We did have one person who was irritating at times because he kept trying to photograph things we’d been asked not to and had a row with the North Korean guide. That slightly soured the mood for a few days. Of course he shouldn’t have gone if he wasn’t willing to abode by the rules, but he seemed to enjoy the ‘game’ of trying to push the boundaries. However he calmed down a bit thankfully. Apart from him they were a great group and I’ve stayed in touch with a few via Facebook.
The way the food is presented is beautiful. Little works of art on your plate!
Yes, the look of the food is important here, almost as much as in Japan perhaps 🙂
The food looks amazing Sarah, some of it delicious I guess. There is nothing like tasting the local foods when travelling, I am not familiar with Korean foods, so I found it a very interesting post.
Thank you – yes, some of it delicious, some of it not so much! But I agree, tasting the local food is a fun part of travelling for me 🙂
Another gripping post even though Steven and I care little for food when we travel. I know for many people the lure to travel is the chance to try new and exciting foods. For us, give bus an exciting museum, temple, etc and we are happy!
Did you get any sense of how everyday North Koreans were faring or was that impossible in your group situation? We in the US are always presented with such a negative view or possibly stereotype of life in North Korea that I would be interested in knowing your understanding of life for locals.
Thank you Annie 😊 I do enjoy trying new foods when I travel but that certainly wasn’t the main attraction of North Korea even though, as I tried to show here, we were well fed on the trip. As to the locals, you get very limited opportunities to interact with them and none at all to meet anyone who might be poorer or struggling. However, the government/regime does provide a basic level of support for everyone – a roof over their heads (housing is free and is allocated according to your job) and a rice ration. The poorest will subsist on a dull but these days adequate diet, and if they have access to land can supplement it with home-grown vegetables. The better off families, especially in Pyongyang, will have a reasonable diet with some variety, and can eat out in restaurants although not the ones we tended to go to. We did go to a food court in the one department store we were permitted to visit, where locals were enjoying fast food and beers just as shoppers might elsewhere, but they would be among the relatively privileged few, living in Pyongyang. In rural areas I saw people who looked poor but no one who was starving (although if there ARE areas where that is the case we wouldn’t have been taken there!)
This was so interesting to read. I haven’t tried kimchi, but I do love sauerkraut. An internet search says the flavors will be a bit different. Have you tried them both? If so, how similar, or different do they taste? I may have to do some searching to see if I can find kimchi locally.
The serving dish for kimchi in Wonsan is adorable.
Thank you Rose, I’m glad you found this interesting. Yes, I’ve eaten sauerkraut and there are similarities I guess, but the kick of chilli in the kimchi makes it taste quite different. I’m not a fan of sauerkraut and didn’t expect to like kimchi as much as I did!
Yes I remember kimche and bbq’s from my time in South Korea. Enjoyed reading your blog.
I gather the food in the South is pretty similar although in the North relatively few locals will be able to eat this well!
The food looks amazing Sarah, thank you for sharing! 🙂
Thank you Sam 😀
Korea is on top of my list ever since I discovered the world of K-drama. So you can imagine how I devoured your post. You really have an eye for details. Loved this food guide!
Thanks Sheetal 🙂 K-drama is a South Korean phenomenon, so is it the South you’d like to visit rather than the North as I did? Either way, the food is pretty similar I believe, so this will give you an idea what to expect!
Ah! K-Drama meant Korean drama for me so I never really saw the north – south divide. Given a chance, I’m ready to travel to either. 😊
On a serious note, your posts on North Korea are fantastic. As I said , you have an eye for detail, learning a great deal about a nation that has earned the ‘Most secretive nation in the world’ tag.
The North is absolutely fascinating but makes for a very different kind of trip to the South (or anywhere else, come to that!) Well worth doing if you’re looking for a unique travel experience 😀
Clearly North and South Korea have similar diets. I too love kimchi in all its guises. Have you made it? I did once, and it wasn’t difficult, so I’m not sure why it was just the once. A task to revive in 2022!
Yes, I think cuisine is one area where North and South haven’t diverted from each other! I haven’t tried to make kimchi – my husband wasn’t such a big fan and as I said I found it a bit too acid for my digestive system even though I enjoyed the taste 🙂
One job saved then 😉