Inside the Secretive Kitchens of Britain’s North Korean Refugees
“There is nowhere in the UK you can buy North Korean food but I cook it for my family at home everyday,” says Lee Min, a North Korean refugee and chef now living in Manchester.
Foto von Hyunwoo Sun via Flickr
London might be one of the food capitals of the world but there is one cuisine you will struggle to find. Rarer than bluefin tuna, scarcer than white truffles, more exclusive than Almas Caviar, is North Korean food.
Despite the fact that there are 1,000 North Korean refugees currently living in Britain, there are no North Korean restaurants in the UK. Nor cafes. Nor grocery shops, for that matter. While South Korean fare lines British high streets—commandeered by trendy street food vans or fused with Mexican cuisine to create "Korexican"—North Korean food remains curiously unobtainable.
Perhaps this is unsurprising when you consider that North Korea is the most secretive, isolated regime in the world.
The Democratic People's Republic of North Korea is one of the most feared dictatorships on the globe and doesn't exactly have the best track record when it comes to human rights. The vast majority of its 25 million citizens not only endures starvation but also lives with the daily threat of the gulag, Public Execution, and forced labour camps.
Like most things in North Korea, its food remains a mystery to those on the outside. What's more, the cuisine is untouched by foreign influence. To get an insight into one of the least known cuisines in the world, I decided to hunt down one of Britain's rare North Korean chefs.
Living in Manchester, Lee Min* has worked in his fair share of northern pubs and Chinese eateries but has never had the chance to cook his native cuisine.
"There is nowhere in the UK you can buy North Korean food," explains Min. "But I cook North Korean food for my family at home everyday. I buy the ingredients from Chinese supermarkets because they're cheaper than South Korean markets".
It is through Min's traditional North Korean cooking that his three children are able to rediscover their history.
"The kids are too young to understand the rough time we had in North Korea, but we can share good memories of traditional foods. When my kids come back from the school, we serve a nice steamy stew and rice and tell our memories from the homeland," he tells me. "They especially like kimchi and Korean soup".
Min left North Korea in 2000 but in a country where absconding is punishable by death, departing was no small feat. After being repeatedly captured by the North Korean authorities, Min swam across the Tumen River to China. Unfortunately his tumultuous journey was still far from over.
"The kids are too young to understand the rough time we had in North Korea, but we can share good memories of traditional foods. We serve a nice steamy stew and rice and tell our memories from the homeland."
"In 2004, I was repatriated back to North Korea where I was placed in a labour camp for four months," he explains. "My son was very ill from the famine. When he died from starvation, I left again. I didn't arrive in England until 2008."
Ironically, cooking his indigenous cuisine was far easier in Manchester than back home in North Korea, where food shortages often make it difficult to access basic ingredients. The combination of economic difficulties, drought, flooding, and the odd typhoon, meant the famine of the 1990s killed an estimated 500,000 North Koreans.
This raises the question: what is the food in North Korea actually like?
"Our traditional meals always come with a warm broth or stew and rice. The Western diet of bread and milk doesn't suit us," Min tells me. "North Korea's main food is rice and kimchi. Everything is cooked with chili".
"Naung-myon [cold buckwheat noodles] is well known as traditional North Korean food in other countries, but we prefer ohn-myon, which is basically the same but served hot. When you cook for the whole family, naturally the portions get small, but warm soup can satisfy hunger. That's why we prefer Ohn-myon".
Like everywhere, different dishes are cooked for special occasions and holidays.
"For New Year and birthdays we make soondae [traditional Korean sausages]," adds Min. "We buy blood in the Chinese supermarket. I also make mandoo [North Korean dumplings.]"
This brings me to the predictable question of the difference between North and South Korean fare. Unsurprisingly, kimchi is the key dish in the firing line.
"The difference between North and South's kimchi is mainly its seasoning. Northern-style kimchi barely uses any artificial flavour enhancers and we pound chili in a mortar, so the kimchi has a fresh chili taste," Min explains. "Also, unlike Southern-style, the kimchi is seafood based—we use cod, squid, and octopus."
Funnily enough, this is the exact time of year that cabbage for making kimchi is distributed in North Korea. Preserved in the autumn, the national dish of fiery crimson cabbage lasts through North Korea's long and grueling winter.
The main difference between North and South Korean food is the intensity of spice. South Korean food is somewhat hotter but this isn't the only difference. Poverty dictates what can be eaten in the Hermit Kingdom and while beef is widely revered in South Korea, it is rarely eaten in the North because oxen are used as draft animals.
Ironically, cooking indigenous cuisine was far easier for Lee Min in Manchester than back home in North Korea, where food shortages often make it difficult to access basic ingredients.
Saying that, North Koreans love a barbeque as much as their Southern neighbours, either grilling meat over a small gas stove in restaurants or a charcoal fire, alfresco style. To put it simply, the staple North Korean dishes are rice, noodles, tofu, vegetables, and meat. This is generally flavoured with soy sauce, fermented soybean paste, garlic, ginger, red chili paste, and sesame oil.
But while Min and his family may have feasted on kimchi and preserved vegetables, it's worth noting that restaurant fare was strictly off limits. After all, it is only the upper echelons of North Korean society that can afford to eat out. While dinner in an upmarket restaurant might appear cheap to you or me, priced at $7-10, it is more than most North Koreans earn in a year. The average monthly salary of a university professor in North Korea is about 80 cents.
For this reason, you could say that food is more about status and—you guessed it—propaganda than flavour in North Korea. While Western tourists are routinely wined and dined on fast depleting delicacies, the rest of the country goes starving. To top it all off, as most North Koreans get skinnier, the leader Kim Jong-Un gets progressively podgier. Feasting on steak, Cristal, and Swiss cheese, it isn't difficult to see why Kim was recently diagnosed with gout. But he's not the only one becoming more rotund; bizarrely enough, obesity is a growing problem among North Korean kids and teenagers from elite families.
But here in the UK, obesity most certainly isn't a problem for North Korean refugees. Often employed in menial, poorly paid jobs for South Korean businesses, many North Korean refugees live in poverty. Moreover, subject to racism from South Koreans, legally prohibited from contacting their families back home, and faced with extreme language barriers (most North Koreans won't have heard English until stepping foot on British soil), it can be particularly difficult for them to adapt to life in the UK.
Always living in the shadow of South Korea—their wealthy, powerful neighbour—it can be virtually impossible for North Koreans to express and develop their own cultural identity. By the same token, their cuisine also becomes subsumed and eclipsed by South Korea.
Let's hope that one day, Min's North Korean cooking will no longer be hidden away in the privacy of his home, but available for all to eat in a restaurant.
*Name changed to protect identity.