Nothing about making a North Korean meal is easy. First of all, it's even hard to find someone from North Korea to talk to: estimates say that only 14,000 people have managed to escape the totalitarian state in the 59 years since the end of the Korean War, and there's virtually zero Internet access within the country. Secondly, except for a particular noodle dish, most (South) Koreans aren't really aware of which of the foods they eat originated across the DMZ. And thirdly, when you search for "North Korean food," you tend to find information about famine and international relations, not recipes. Needless to say, this meal is a feast of an abundance that probably only a privileged few would ever enjoy in North Korea.
With help and research from my officemate Soo Young, whose grandfather hailed from the north of Korea, and some clutch advice from my Korean foodie friend Monica, I managed to cobble together a menu. But that's not all...now to make the darn meal! I made the kim chi the week before, and the beef broth a few days before. We took a trip all the way to the H-Mart in Flushing, Queens on Saturday for ingredients, I spent most of Sunday afternoon prepping, and then Soo Young and I spent the evening frying, folding, steaming, and cooling. I've never seen so many prep bowls used in one meal!
Before we continue, a note on the meal order. You may be wondering, "North Korea? But you just cooked Croatia, how's that alphabetical?" Well, we go by the strict alphabetical order of this UN member list, and the official name is Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Yes, we have three more C's to go, but for a variety of reasons we have to do those later.
Along with Soo Young, we had Lauren, Padraig, Jens, Melanie, Angad, Michele, and Rachel — she's the one with the headphones and microphone, recording for an upcoming radio segment!
Bindaetteok | Mung bean pancakes | Recipe
If you'd handed me a bunch of yellow split mung beans, I'd never have thought to soak them in cold water with a bit of rice for a few hours, then puree it, add some preserved fiddlehead ferns, onions, pork, and seasoning, and then fry it like pancakes. But Koreans have been doing exactly that for at least three hundred and fifty years. And I can see why! (And not just because it's fun to mix.) From these basic ingredients a wonderful richness emerges. The crisp outside contrasts with the soft inside, too, which makes it all the more fun to eat.
Mandu | Dumplings | Recipe
So many cultures wrap things in dough that you'd think everyone figured it out on their own. But apparently everyone from the Turks to the Koreans learned to make them from the Mongols many centuries ago — and they have virtually the same name in Turkish and Korean! These ones are made primarily of ground meat and chives, kept separate in the bowl to preserve texture and flavor until being stuffed, which Soo Young did so beautifully. You can pan-fry them, make them into a soup, or steam them as we did.
Apparently, if you ask a South Korean to name the most distinctive dish from across the DMZ, most will mention these chewy noodles in a cold broth. From their unassuming appearance, would you have guessed that this probably took more prep work than any other single United Noshes dish? I mean, I could have used the broth packet included in the package, but that's just cheating.
A week ago I made the mul kim chi, which unlike the red-slathered stuff you're probably more familiar with, is only moderately spiced and is fermented gently in a brine. (Mul means "water.") It was actually not as hard as I'd expected, you pretty much chop up a bunch of stuff, throw it in the brine, let it sit for two days, and it magically ferments on its own. Perhaps the hardest part was clearing out enough space in the fridge for the big pot.
Then a few days ago I made the beef broth. Unlike in the Western tradition, where the bones are first roasted and thus the broth has a rich color, the Korean way is to do an initial boil to get off the gunk, dump that water and scrub the pot, and then do a second boil for several hours. The broth ended up almost clear, and Emmylou has been very happy to have some bones to chew on.
Finally to make the noodles, made of a combination of buckwheat, sweet potato and wheat. After just a few minutes they get chewy, and you immediately strain them and run cold water through them to prevent overcooking. Cop them with Asian pear and marinated cucumber, gently place half a hard-boiled egg, pour in a mix of beef broth and kim chi water, and serve this labor-intensive bowl of pure cold refreshment.
Oh, and I made a hot sauce to put on top of it too! Red pepper paste, Asian pear, and lots of other yummy stuff.
Bulgogi | Marinated grilled beef | Recipe below
According to Soo Young, a survey or study showed that this is the dish North Koreans most wish they could eat. Thinly sliced beef is marinated in soy sauce, sesame oil, etc., and then grilled, or in this case quickly pan-fried. We enjoyed it ssam style, wrapped in a lettuce leaf and spread with a particular sauce. Really tasty.
Sujeonggwa | Cinnamon-ginger drink | Recipe
If most of the rest of this stuff was really complicated, this was shockingly and deliciously simple. Just simmer cinnamon and ginger (separately), add sugar, chill together, sprinkle with pine nuts and dried persimmon if you can find it, and you've got summertime refreshment that tastes like Christmas. Just for fun I turned half of it into sorbet, which was really refreshing too. What a pleasure to have a light dessert after four different tasty and filling dishes.
It will likely not surprise you that it's extremely difficult to find North Korean music online, so alas our soundtrack was lacking — but given that we were recording for radio that's probably for the better. Next week we turn to the only other country in the world where you can't buy a Coke: Cuba.
Photos by Laura Hadden, who regrettably forgot to sip Hennessy in honor of the late Dear Leader.
Soo Young's guide to Korean beef