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Inside North Korea

Street Food in N. Korea



A video of North Korean street food on YouTube has become the talk of the town. 

In the video posted by a diplomat who had resided in North Korea, a local soldier is seen eating gimbab, which is rice rolled with dry seaweed, and buchimgae, or savory pancakes, sold on a street stand. The video that offers a rare glimpse at the closed North Korean society surpassed 17 million views on YouTube. 

In today’s installment of Inside North Korea, we’ll talk about North Korea’s street food which has recently aroused curiosity in the global community with Kang Mi-jin, a North Korean defector and reporter at the Seoul-based online newspaper, Daily NK. 

There’s a lot of street food in Pyongyang and local regions in North Korea. Popular street food includes rice with artificial meat. It is cooked rice wrapped in a thin skin made from leftover soybean paste. People add a chili sauce to enjoy the dish, which produces a chewy, meat-like texture. The bean-based vegetarian meat is so delicious that there’s even a saying that a daughter-in-law who ran away from home would return home to eat the food. Another tasty street food is rice with stir-fried tofu. In Pyongyang, it is common to find roasted chestnuts and baked sweet potatoes on the streets. In the past, people would make gimbab when hiking or taking a long journey, but it is now one of the favored street foods in the North. People also enjoy Korean-style pancakes, called jeon, with beans or vegetables added to the flour dough, as well as fried twisted breadsticks.

Streets in South Korea are lined with food stalls selling various mouth-watering snacks such as fish-shaped pastry stuffed with sweetened red bean paste, Korean fish cakes, sweet fried pancakes and tteokbokki or rice cake in spicy sauce, that draw attention from passers-by. 

In North Korea, similar street stalls selling rice with artificial meat, tofu rice, potato rice cakes, soondae or the Korean version of blood sausage, and gimbab are found at private markets, near residential areas or in front of train stations. In the capital of Pyongyang, a food alley is formed on the street between Pyongyang Station and the Koryo Hotel. 

Street food began to appear in North Korea in the mid-1990s, widely known as the “Arduous March” period. 

I remember street food emerged from the late 1990s. Numerous people in North Korea starved to death in the mid-1990s, and private markets appeared afterwards. While engaging in market activities, people had to eat on the streets, giving rise to street food. At first, some would bring their lunch, but the food often went bad in the summer and froze in the winter. So, more and more people chose to grab some food on the streets. Street food has since been selling well. 

In the past, North Korea provided its people with daily necessities through the rationing system. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, however, economic difficulties hit North Korea. To make matters worse, people starved in the years of famine. During the Arduous March period, the rationing system could no longer work properly due to an extreme economic contraction and food shortages. North Korean residents had to survive on their own and they voluntarily formed the jangmadang, where an increasing number of people were selling and buying things. Naturally, a variety of street food appeared at markets so people could eat food easily, quickly and deliciously. North Koreans endured the difficult times with the street food such as rice with artificial meat and fried tofu slices stuffed with steamed rice. 

Street food in the early period was the only channel through which hungry North Korean citizens could access various food items. For vendors who sold food, it was a precious opportunity to earn money. As time went by, street food became more common. At present, most food stalls are managed by state agencies. 

In most cases, street stalls in North Korea are operated under the name of agencies. 

In Pyongyang and other cities, food booths can be opened on the streets or at department stores in a particular district, and they are run under the people’s committee in that district. Food stalls can be opened anywhere, including inns, as long as they register with the commerce department at the people’s committee and pay part of the proceeds in the form of taxes. 

Food stands in South Korea should first register with their district office. Street stalls in the North are similar. Those in big cities in the North, including Pyongyang and Pyongsong, register with the relevant office in the region and offer a certain portion of their sales to the office. Food stalls near the jangmadang in large cities also do their business under the name of certain agencies. They can be opened at department stores and food factories. Of course, individuals can sell street food. In that case, they sell food using handcarts, rather than from stalls. Recently, state agencies have started collecting a small amount of tax from them or include them in food stalls at general markets. 

It is said that street food in North Korea has been diversified. 

Since the 2010s, many North Koreans have pursued a civilized life and tried food that is consumed in Western countries. One such food is pizza. Street vendors purchased pizza at Italian restaurants or saw pictures of the food to make their own version of pizza, which is now on the list of popular street food. In the North, pizza is pronounced something like 삐자. It is said that this street food is loved by locals and foreign visitors alike. 

There is an Italian restaurant on Gwangbok Street in Pyongyang. When it opened in 2008, pizza was pricy gourmet food that was only enjoyed by wealthy people. But North Korea has developed new types of pizza, like kimchi pizza and crown daisy pizza, to suit the taste of local people. Now, it is enjoyed by many as street food. Some food stands sell Western-style sandwiches, while Chinese street food including lamb skewers can be found in areas bordering China. 

It seems street food has now permeated deeply into the everyday life of North Korean people. Ms. Kang now explains how much North Korean street food costs and what it means to local residents. 

In Pyongyang, a roll of gimbab is 1,000 to 1,500 North Korean won, while rice with artificial meat and tofu rice is 500 to 700 won, depending on the size. Five-hundred North Korean won is equivalent to 70 to 80 South Korean won, which is about a mere 6 to 7 cents. In other words, one can enjoy a piece of rice with artificial meat for less than 10 cents. It’s pretty cheap. 

People like street food, as they can eat it with other people, instead of eating alone at home. They don’t mind sitting next to total strangers to eat and even chat with each other and say things like “How does it taste?” and “Why don’t you try this one?” They have pleasant conversations and share new information as well, while eating tasty snacks in a wide open space.

In North Korea, even those who are not very well off can enjoy street food at affordable prices. For North Koreans, street food is a small consolation as they fill their empty stomachs and share stories with other people. We look forward to witnessing a unified Korea, where people from both sides of the border can share the joy of eating street food together. 

(Next week, we’ll learn about animated films in North Korea.)

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