Having visited North Korea nearly 150 times, Simon Cockerell is well-versed in the cuisine of the hermit kingdom. His advice: try the sushi but avoid the clams cooked in gasoline.
Photo courtesy of Simon Cockerell.
This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in March 2016.
"You'll never catch North Koreans missing a meal by choice," says Simon Cockerell. This month, he will make his 150th visit to the hermit kingdom, so he should know.
As general manager of North Korea tour specialist Koryo Tours, Cockerell, who is British, has regularly visited the country since 2002. As for any foreigner visiting North Korea, the areas he can visit there are strictly limited, and he and his tourists have to be accompanied by North Korean guides at all times. Still, his trips have allowed him fascinating, if restricted, insight into the country's culture and eating habits.
North Korea's population was ravaged by famine from 1994 to 1998. And while the dictatorial regime of Kim Jong-Un keeps foreign eyes away from the country's poor, human rights groups regularly report starvation as just one of the problems the under-the-boot masses face in the world's most isolated country.
Even in the capital of Pyongyang, the city of the North Korean elite, memories of the famine strongly affect food culture. "Anyone over the age of 20 there has memories of living in a famine," says Cockerell. "As such, food is very important and the culture is culinary. People know that missing a meal is an extravagance that they used to not have, so they really go for it. There's no real concept of leaving food."
Cockerell has eaten his way around the country for the past 14 years, garnering insights and Instagram photographs, posted under the @simonkoryo handle. I asked him to talk about the ten most interesting things that have passed his lips in North Korea.
Cold noodles with a soundtrack
Perhaps the most common meal in Pyongyang, this dish has a strong cultural history.
Simon: "That's the classic North Korean dish, called naengmyeon in Korean. So classic there's a song about it: "Naengmyeon, naengmyeon, Pyongyang naengmyeon!" Music is a form of propaganda, so to mention food gives people a sense of national pride, and also shows security in food.
"Pyongyang cold noodles are made from buckwheat. They're black and served in a clear, cold broth and normally have dried egg, a few slices of meat, and hot sauce. They look ugly but taste good.
"Long noodles refer to long life, or a long time being married. Everyone at a wedding gets served cold noodles, and the idea that you would say, 'No noodles, thanks' would be exceedingly rude."
United Nations-recognised kimchi
Most North Koreans are mildly obsessed with cabbage-based kimchi, with the country's spicy version now recognised on a United Nations cultural heritage list.
Simon: "If North Koreans can get hold of kimchi, they will eat it with every meal. It keeps well—it's made of simple ingredients and can be buried in the ground: an early form of refrigeration.
"North Korean kimchi is usually spicier than South Korean kimchi. My company has hosted lots of Koreans in China, and if they eat a few meals without kimchi, they get antsy.
"I know Koreans who worked in Mauritius. One said it was a paradise because they had cheap fruit and meat and lovely weather, but the worst thing about it was that cabbages cost so much there. It was all they spent their money on. But 'don't eat the cabbages' is an inconceivable thing to say to a North Korean."
"Delicacy" dog meat
It's a Korean cliché food item, but dog meat is only eaten on special occasions in the north.
Simon: "They don't call it 'dog meat' in North Korea, they call it 'sweet meat.' It could be a euphemism so people don't say they're eating dog, but there's no shame in eating it in the country. It's a delicacy and people eat it maybe once or twice a year, if they can afford it. There are, of course, a large number of people who don't have this choice and will rarely eat meat.
"Most of the time what they offer to tourists is dog soup. It tends to be spicy and not have that much dog in it, and there are a few restaurants in Pyongyang that specialise in dog meat: dog ribs, dog steak.
"It's not the best taste, but if it's done right it's OK. It's fairly gamey and can be a bit heavy. I find it tough, but I have had tender dog meat.
"There isn't much culture of dogs as pets in North Korea. There are guard dogs and farm dogs, but you'd have to be pretty middle class to own a pet one."
Koryo burger: "worst food ever"?
Sometimes described with phrases such as "the worst thing I've ever eaten" by Western social media users, the in-flight burger offered on Air Koryo, North Korea's national airline, has gained a cult following.
Simon: "The only time I saw someone be sick on a plane was on an Air Koryo flight. But I think it was down to the passenger not having flown before, rather than because they ate a Koryo burger.
"Having said that, it's not very nice and it's not clear what kind of meat it is. Probably not dog. Nobody flies Air Koryo for the food, but I've probably eaten about 30 of them so far, and only when very hungry.
"Most North Koreans have never flown, and all who have flown have travelled on Air Koryo. The vegetarian option on the airline is 'don't eat the burger.'"
Beer bought with ration vouchers
In 2000, North Korea imported an entire brewery, Ushers of Trowbridge, UK, to the capital to make Taedonggang: now the most popular beer in the country.
Simon: "Someone got locked up in South Korea once for publicly saying that North Korean beer was better than South Korean beer… which it definitely is. South Korean beer is horrible—it's not a high bar to reach.
"Taedonggang is now the most well-known beer in North Korea, named after a river that runs through Pyongyang. There's a beer ration—men get vouchers every month. This is not necessarily a nationwide policy, but is the case in Pyongyang. But you can buy more; the 'ration' just means you get given vouchers, rather than your consumption being limited.
"If you want a Taedonggang beer, you can go to a fancy bar and get a pint for two or three dollars, or go to a more proletarian place and get it for a voucher, or about 25 cents.
"Most beer-drinking establishments have low tables you would normally sit at, but with no chairs. Like in the West, you get drinking and banter in the bars, so in that way it's identifiable. Drinking pints, buying rounds, getting increasingly silly, a sing-song, the occasional spilling of a pint. Jokes, but not so much political humour.
"The Taedonggang beers have numbers for names: One is made of barley, water, and hops, and tastes good. Two is the most common, with barley, water, hops, and a bit of rice. Three is a 50-50 barley-rice mix. Four is more rice, and Five is rice beer. Five is repulsive.
"I was in this large bar called Kyonghungwan with a Belgian TV crew once. The crew wanted to film people, so we went to the table that had the most women.
"It turned out that a couple of them could speak English; they were obstetricians and gynecologists at a women's hospital. Classic hospital workers: They had just finished 16- to 18-hour shifts and were letting loose. They were the drunkest people there—lots of toasts. It's mostly men at these places. Women do go to bars, but never alone.
Soju and "bumpkin" makgeolli
The cheap, plentiful rice wine known as soju is the most popular tipple in Pyongyang, while the less classy makgeolli dominates in the countryside.
Simon: "It's hard to have a meal in the evening in North Korea without alcohol, and if you're late to a meal you often have to drink three shots of soju. That's a common 'punishment.'
"Soju is a 18- to 25-percent alcohol rice spiritand is harsher in North Korea than in South Korea. It's not as horrible as baijiu [China's most popular spirit], but neither is anything in the world.
"Makgeolli is a drink made with the same process as making soju; it's not as alcoholic and looks milky. It's nice, but in North Korea it's a bumpkin drink: the [byproduct] of something better. But if you go to Seoul, you can get all kinds of flavoured makgeolli and people drink it in hipster bars.
"For Koreans, it's like scrumpy: something drunk by your idiot cousins in the countryside, not an urban sophisticate. You can get makgeolli in Pyongyang, but people think it's a bit funny if you buy it. It's a backwards thing."
KHC: finger lickin' good potato chips
If Kentucky Fried Chicken made potato chips instead of, well, chicken, they might look a little like these.
Simon: "KHC, a stall in North Korea next to a rifle range and bowling alley, sells potato chips. But no one in North Korea knows what KFC is, so why bother ripping it off? The crisps taste like Salt 'n' Shake crisps, but without the salt.
"Because of this lack of brand recognition, there are not many obvious rip-off food brands in North Korea. In Russia, you often see the Golden Arches upside down and it triggers recognition, but in North Korea they would just think it's a big yellow 'W' that means nothing.
"I have seen some Costa Coffee-branded mugs in Pyongyang, but it wasn't at a Costa, just at some restaurant. They probably just got them from a wholesaler. No North Korean has ever gone there and thought, 'Ooh, they're serving Costa Coffee here!'
"They do have domestic production of crisps in North Korea, but you don't see many people walking around munching them. If you order them in a bar, they always cut off the packet top with scissors and pour it on to a plate to bring a sense of class.
"For snacks, people prefer dried squid, but mostly fish. Dried squid with mustard and soy sauce goes well with beer."
Western fast food (with a long wait)
Although North Korea's politics are anti-outsider to the extreme, it's surprisingly easy to find Western food options on Pyongyang.
Simon: "There are more Italian restaurants than there are Chinese restaurants in Pyongyang: three.
"The first place to serve pizza there was Pyolmuri café. Then, around 2008, an Italian restaurant opened that was called… Italian Restaurant. The Korean chef trained in Italy. It was opened with foreign assistance and it was rather good.
"There are burger restaurants, too. They do have market forces in Pyongyang—one particular burger place opened once but no one ever went there, so it closed. It's easy for people to see everything done in North Korea as everything 'done by' North Korea. When someone opens a burger restaurant, it's always, 'Kim Jong-Un has opened a burger restaurant,' but they are opened by business people motivated by profit.
"At these 'fast' food places, the food isn't ready when you go in; they have racks behind the servers but never anything on them. A long-lasting meal is normal in North Korea and most Pyongyang people have a two-hour lunch break.
"You can find burgers all over Pyongyang now. If you had money, you could open up pretty much anything in the city, although you probably couldn't open a place called something like Uncle Sam's All-American Steak House. That might be a step too far."
Sushi from their former oppressors
North Koreans are historically supposed to hate Japan even more than the USA, but in Pyongyang, many residents love sushi.
Simon: "Which country does North Korea stereotypically dislike more than America? Japan. Despite this, Pyongyang has a couple of classic Japanese-style restaurants with food conveyor belts.
"Everyone who knows the restaurants knows it's Japanese food. They don't try and deny what it is, but they don't dress the chefs up to look Japanese, or greet you in Japanese. They're not called things like Hirohito's Rising Sun Sushi Joint or whatever.
"The number of people in Pyongyang who can afford it is, these days, [is] probably in the tens of thousands, so there is a market for it. And it's delicious."
Clams with a petrol twist
The best way to cook clams? Douse them in petrol and watch the flames rise.
Simon: "On the east coast, North Koreans cook clams on a sheet of metal. On the west coast, they pour petrol over them and set them on fire. Then they put more petrol on and keep going until they think it's done.
"They open them by smashing them on the ground, like the apes at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey. They always let the driver [of a tour group] cook, as if because he drives he's the only one who knows how to handle this exceedingly dangerous volatile material.
"The clams stink and taste of petrol, and you sometimes get one that was partly sealed, with un-burned petrol still inside. That's the game you play."
Follow Simon Cockerell on Instagram at @simonkoryo
Follow Jamie Fullerton on Twitter @jamiefullerton1
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in January 2017.