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My Glorious Food Revolution- Day 3 and 4 in N. Korea

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Hello to everyone out there in cyberspace!  I can tell that you have been enjoying my posts that have been offering you a brief glimpse into the mysterious land that is North Korea.  Today’s post is going to be a double feature since Day 3 really didn’t offer anything that spectacular in terms of food and drink yet my last day was filled with memorable meals.  So, I’ll begin with January 2nd (our third day).

Breakfast started off like any other even though they also had some delicious donkatsu (breaded pork cutlet) that actually had more of the texture of breaded sawdust along with the taste.  After hitting up some memorable sites like the Party Foundation Monument and took a ride on the Pyongyang metro, we ended up at another hokey foreigners-only restaurant in another anonymous building in the city.  The only highlights of lunch were plates of fried food along with a rather bland bibimbap with limp vegetables.

A lot of meh

A lot of meh

IMG_1681Weak sauce, North Korea (they didn’t even have enough gochujang or chili sauce for everyone).  However, I tried a new beer called Bonghak or 봉학멕주.  It was a little worse than the Taedonggang or perhaps on par with the common South Korean beers, i.e. an extremely watered-down lager.IMG_3049That was about it for day 3 which was kind of depressing from a culinary perspective, but day 4 more than made up for it.

Day 4 was the same old song and dance with breakfast, but it was going to be a unique day as we would head to the North Korean side of the DMZ along with visiting the city of Kaesong.  After a long bumpy ride through breathtaking mountain passes, we were introduced to the Korean soldier-guides at Panmumjeon, and we saw South Korea from the Joint Security Area.  Their armistice museums were quite eye-opening as well, but I’ll save that for my travel blog.  We rolled into Kaesong after the DMZ, and it was more like what I was expecting from North Korea in terms of a gloomy atmosphere.  However, this wouldn’t translate to the food as we were served a royal meal in a gaggle of small golden bowls with each container containing a new nugget of nom.  IMG_3137I didn’t know where to start once I un-capped all of the tiny basins.IMG_3140

However, most of the elements were not new to me since they have the same dishes in South Korean cuisine.  Go figure.  I’ll break down the picture above for those not in the know.  In the upper left hand corner, we have the dark green strips of dried and salted seaweed paper with a hint of sesame which makes the perfect encasement for making sushi rolls.  To the right in the white bowl are balls of tteok or sticky rice cake in a sweet red bean sauce.  I’m not the biggest fan of either red bean or rice cake due to the savory flavor and lack of flavor, respectively, but these two together somehow managed to pass my taste test.  Moving to the upper right hand corner is a simple piece of fried tofu.  No fuss no muss.  In the second row starting on the left, there is a bowl of random gelatinized eggs that were pedestrian in terms of taste, but the greens to the right of them were delectable and can be found in any bibimbap.  The same goes for the bean sprouts right next to them.  The last bowl in the second row is a bit different.  It’s filled with green bean cake which was kind of disgusting.  I don’t know why they feel the need to make regular and jelly versions of every food.  The last three bowls were a bit more normal with the stewed potato strands on the left and salted baby fish in the middle.  They’re very chewy and salty.  The last bowl is a meat and potato melange.  All of this was the backdrop to the star of the show:  bosingtang or dog soup.  IMG_3142I’ve had dog soup before in South Korea, so I wanted to see who could do it better.  In the end, the North won this battle because not only did they have more meat in the soup, but it was spicier which is a key element for me when it comes to savoring a great dish.  It definitely beat the cold that pervaded almost everywhere we went since effective indoor heating doesn’t really exist in either of the Koreas.  After leaving Kaesong, we ended up at the Taedonggang brewery bar which was extremely modern in decor, and could have been found in any major Western metropolis minus the wonderful Eastern European pop videos on the tvs from the 1990s. IMG_3168 They offered seven varieties of beer from 1 to 7.IMG_3169  1 being the most like an English bitter and 6 and 7 being like Guiness.  Everything between that was a terrible mix of rice and barley.  I decided to go with a 6 since they were out of 7, and I did not regret my choice.IMG_3172  For only two bucks I got a legitimate brew that would cost six times as much back in Seoul.  There were other North Koreans coming in to drink with us, and I could tell that they were higher-ups in the party based off their nicer clothes and shiny new Juche pins.  After downing our pints, we headed to our final dinner together.  They sent us off in style with duck bbq Korean style.IMG_1686  As with most other Korean barbecue, there was not much to it in terms of seasonings or anything like that.  Just throw meat on a grill and eat along with the usual pickled side dishes. IMG_1687 I did like their duck donkatsu which was a welcome change from the typical pork cutlet. IMG_1688 Their dumpling soup was pretty scrumptious as well. IMG_1689 ‘Twas a fitting meal and an excellent end to a wonderful trip to the most magical police state on earth.  Stay tuned for my Beijing eating adventures that involve me consuming some interesting animals and parts of animals.

My Glorious Food Revolution- Day 2 in N. Korea

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Wow, I can’t believe I’ve made it past the 125 post mark, but what better way to push on than with my second day of traveling and eating through North Korea.  New Years Day was godawful since we had to wake up at 7 am to get breakfast and then get out of the hotel to start touring at 8 am.  The actual breakfast was quite run-of-the-mill in terms of what was offered for both Korean and Western tastes.IMG_1619  There were random breads and cakes for Western palates along with the stewed shoestring potatoes and some pickled radish soup.  I did enjoy the unnaturally verdant green apple soda they were serving though.

The leaders are also there to make sure you're still on a diet.

The leaders are also there to make sure you’re still on a diet.

We eventually made our way to the mausoleum of both Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung.  It was quite impressive as waves of soldiers filed passed us with their chests gleaming with medals.  Very Soviet Union a la Brezhnev.

For lunch, we were going to a restaurant that specialized in 냉면 a.k.a. naengmyeon or cold noodles.

Not set up for foreigners at all...

Not set up for foreigners at all…

IMG_1642They brought out other side dishes that are also common to South Korea like pork mandu or dumplings along with spicy kimchi.

Donkatsu or pork cutlet

Donkatsu or pork cutlet

IMG_1644The cold noodles were pretty tasty even though none of us were feeling too hot.  I liked that the waitresses also provided us with spicy mustard and vinegar to really liven up the dish with a little sour and sinus scorching kick.

The famous Pyongyang cold noodles.

The famous Pyongyang cold noodles.

However, the oddest part of the meal was the one I was the most familiar with…or so I thought.  They provided us with plates of hotdogs alongside our Korean food, but when I took a bite of one, I was in another dimension of gastronomy.

Nothing like some oddly plastic hotdogs.

Nothing like some oddly plastic hotdogs.

Texture-wise it was like any other tube steak, but the taste was unnerving because it literally tasted like cotton candy.  I don’t know if that is because they share the same love for sweet things like their Southern brethren, or if it was made from people.  Either way, it redefined the idea of sweet meats.  I left lunch with a very satisfied stomach after the naengmyeon but with the most peculiar taste in my mouth after those hot dogs.  For dinner, we had a version of hot pot that I never had before.  Normally, a hot pot dinner involves literally a large heated pot in the middle of the table that everyone shares while their food cooks within the smoldering cauldron as show in a few of my other posts (1, 2, Taiwan).  In North Korea, they put aside the collectivism for once and gave us our own pots.IMG_1665IMG_1666  They ignited the gas underneath each pot, and then we could throw our ingredients (pork, bean sprouts, peppers, lettuce, etc.) into the boiling water.IMG_1670IMG_1668

There were also various spices and seasonings we could use like chili pepper, black pepper, salt, and even MSG.  Naturally, I decimated the chili powder cask which gave me just the right spice level that I enjoy while still savoring the stewed meat and vegetables.

Just a little spice with a raw egg to cook at the very end.

Just a little spice with a raw egg to cook at the very end.

There was also a raw egg on the side that you plopped in right before you were about to eat it in order to fry it instantly.

That's one fine lookin' jjigae.

That’s one fine lookin’ jjigae.

Day 2 was a day of more traditional Korean food that I really enjoyed along with the occasional bizarre element like the hot dogs.  They left me wondering what they were going to throw at me for day 3.

My Glorious Food Revolution- Day 1 in N. Korea

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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. IMG_2847 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.

Your guess is as good as mine.

Your guess is as good as mine.

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.IMG_1546  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.

Everyone was egging me on to eat it.  Yolks on them.

Everyone was egging me on to eat it. Yolks on them.

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.

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