Happy New Year to everyone out there! Sorry for the long hiatus between posts, but I just returned from an insane vacation through North Korea and China. I’m going to start off with North Korea since it is the more mysterious of the two countries, but if one is familiar with Korean food beyond the ubiquitous barbecue that everyone and their 엄마 (momma) loves, then you’ll see that my food adventures in the Hermit Kingdom really aren’t as exotic as one would think. I’m going to do a day-by-day installation of the various foodstuffs and stuff they passed off as food whilst we were ushered throughout Pyongyang and Kaesong which is a city close to the DMZ. I knew I was in for a doozy of a trip when I had my first encounter with North Korean food on the airplane.
Sadly, we were not riding on a Cold War era Russian plane en route to the Glorious Fatherland; then again, it’s not sad since I greatly value my life. However, I questioned the safety of my G.I. tract when I was face to face with what I’d like to call the “enigma burger.” I got a beer on the side since I was in a festive mood, and they seemed to have more of that than water. It looked like a normal burger of sorts when wrapped, but after unwrapping it slowly I took a peak under its uniform top bun to find some sort of organic matter with some scraps of lettuce.
I assumed it was chicken, but when I bit into it I was greeted with an oddly creamy texture that kind of tasted like tuna yet had yellow flecks of what seemed like eggs. Yet between my befuddled bites, it had tinges of chicken which made me somewhat relieved that my theory was correct…sorta. It was a microcosm of one of the most isolated countries on earth: nothing is really what it seems. Overall, it wasn’t too bad, but it may have been overshadowed by my ravenous appetite.
When we landed in Pyongyang, we made history as the first tour group to ever been in North Korea during the New Year festivities, so even our guides were leading us into uncharted territory. All of which obviously led to an even heightened sense of excitement when we started the night off right with some classic Taedonggang North Korean beer. Taedonggang in Korean means “Taedong River” which is where we had our New Year’s Eve cruise through the middle of Pyongyang. The story behind the beer is quite interesting. A British beer company, Ushers, went bankrupt, so the North Korean government bought the factory. They brought it over to Pyongyang, and now are churning out bottles of this delectable brew. My first bottle was like heaven after months of drinking the dreadful triumvirate of Hite, Cass, and OB in South Korea. It was a full bodied lager with a slightly bitter aftertaste which nicely complimented the eats at our little shindig. It wouldn’t be my last time tangling with Taedonggang though during the trip. The first food at dinner that I never saw before was this julienned potato dish that was delicious. It was served slightly warm, and each starchy strand was soaked in a peppery vinaigrette that supplied my palate with a piquant punch with every chopstick clasp. The other element of the meal that really caught my eye and tastebuds was actually a garnish to our main meal of fried rice: a thousand year old egg. Obviously, these eggs aren’t really a thousand years old, but they have been around for centuries in Chinese cuisine where they are known as 皮蛋 or pidan. They are prepared by taking eggs and storing them in clay, ash, quicklime, and salt for months at a time. What ends up happening is the whites turn a deep amber color almost bordering on black, and the yolk becomes a grey almost light green/yellow color which you can see in the photo.
I saw them before in Taiwan, but I never got around to buying one while chilling in the 7-11. So now I found myself on a boat in the middle of Pyongyang for NYE= YOLO. I was the only one brave enough to pop the gelatinous slices in my mouth, and it really wasn’t that bad. It just tasted like a hard boiled egg that got a brand new paint job, and they certainly didn’t taste as bad as the German cookies they were selling on the boat for snacks. It was a great celebration where everyone enjoyed each others company in a unique environment. However, the main thought in the back of my head the entire time was how much food we were being served while millions of people have died from famine in the very same country. It added a somewhat sombre tinge to my perusing of Pyongyang’s culinary entries, but it was a sad truth that further added to the odd atmosphere that would continue in day two.