A Meal Fit for Kim Jong-il

One of the difficulties in understanding history and historical works, is to imagine the world truly differently than it is today.  We are so confident that our senses provide us with the, “truth,” that many of us cannot really fathom that the world of the past was different from the present.  Modern audiences recoil at the anti-Semitism expressed in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and laugh when Fletcher’s Jacobean women demand, “liberty and clothes,” from their estranged husbands in exchange for sex.  Moving beyond the text, though, is difficult, for the worlds these works were written in were so very different from our own.

In my opinion, one of the most interesting things that has happened in the world of food recently has been the publication of a website devoted to the cuisine and food culture of North Korea.  It has hundreds of recipes indexed by regions, events, and main-ingredient categories and is well illustrated.  In short, it is fascinating.  I have spent many hours there delving into the information and recipes.

But North Korea is a, “socialist monarchy,” with almost one-third of its population in military, para-military, or reserve service!  There are periodic famines!  People are starving!  This is what our senses tell us about North Korea today.  To a certain degree, these impressions are correct. However, what the site tells us is about the food culture of the northern peninsula, before partition and war, and even before (or during) Japanese occupation.  It also sheds some light on what the elite and prosperous of the north – those who are not starving – might eat today.

Be prepared to be surprised.  The recipes I have tried are all interesting, and some of them are truly delicious.  Regional specialties from Pyongyang include soups with mullet and soft-shell snapping turtle, rice in chicken stock stacked with mushrooms and pickled daikon, and cold buckwheat noodle soup stacked with condiments of sliced meats, kimchi and tofu – a summer dish that is cooled with ice cubes.

Spiced Venison, North Korean Style
Spiced Venison, North Korean Style

I’ve been experimenting around with game recipes from the site that include ways of preparing venison and wild boar as well as grilling fish and eel.  One of the most delicious of these I found so far is pictured above.  A spiced venison fit for Kim Jong-il, that is to say, North Korean style.

Spiced Venison North Korean Style
(Adapted by Laura Kelley from North Korean food website)

Ingredients
1 pound venison (I used tenderloin)
1 ¼ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
¾ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
2 teaspoons flour
1 tablespoon cooking oil
1 cup meat stock
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 spring onions, minced
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes (gochugaru)
1 teaspoon corn syrup

1 cup mountain yam (Dioscorea Japonica), peeled and roughly chopped
Optional garnishes for yam (bonito flakes, soy sauce)

Directions
Slice the tenderloin into ¼ – ½ inch steaks.  Tenderize slightly by hitting meat with the back of the knife.  Place slices in a small bowl and season with salt, one-half of the pepper and nutmeg.  Cover and refrigerate or place in a cold place for several days.  Stir a few times a day to ensure even coating of the meat with the spices.

When ready to cook, spread flour thinly out onto a plate and lightly dredge meat.  When all of the pieces are coated, heat the oil in a sauté pan and when warm, place deer meat into pan.  Cook about 3-4 minutes per side, depending upon the thickness of the pieces.  When done, remove from pan and drain on paper towels briefly and then set aside in a bowl or on a plate.

Peel and chop yam.  If you have sensitive skin, you may wish to wear gloves while doing this, because chemicals in the skin of the yam can irritate some people.  Alternately, if gloves are not your style when cooking, soak the yam in a solution of weak vinegar and water for about 15 minutes to neutralize the offending chemicals.  Also, the meat of the yam is very slimy when sliced.  Better quality and younger roots have less slime, but this is normal.  After the yams are chopped, rinse well with water and let drain in a colander.  Yams are served raw.

Make the sauce for the venison.  In a small sauce pan, combine meat stock and soy sauce and heat over medium flame.  Add the chopped onions and garlic and stir well.  Bring to a boil and reduce heat till stock simmers.  Cook for 20 minutes or until it reduces and starts to thicken.  Add red pepper flakes and corn syrup and stir well.  Cook for another 5-10 minutes until a thicker sauce emerges.

Plate the venison and the yams.  Spoon sauce over the meat, but not the yams.  If desired, crumble some bonito flakes over the yams.

Serve with rice or noodles.  I used Korean corn noodles which are regional specialties in Pyongyang and in the mountainous areas of the north.  I seasoned these with just a touch or sesame oil and soy.  The garnish was a hastily cut up separated and cooked egg, sliced red bell pepper, and spring onions. (I had to work quickly, the troops were hungry!  That’s my excuse for the sloppy presentation.)  For those that read Korean, the original recipe follows.  I did adapt from the original a bit, mostly because the directions were so vague, but I did try to cook as specified.

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노루고기편졸임

기본음식감]노루고기 1kg[보조음식감]참마 200g, 고추 20g, 밀가루 10g, 조청 5g, 후추가루 0.5g, 양파 20g, 소금 6g, 마늘 10g, 간장 20g, 기름 20g, 육두구가루 2g, 국물 200g

  1. 노루고기는 도톰한 편으로 썰어 소금, 후추가루, 육두구가루로 재운다. 2. 국물에 잘게 썬 양파와 고추, 다진 마늘, 간장, 조청, 소금, 후추가루를 두고 양념즙을 만든다. 3. 재운 고기에 밀가루를 묻히고 기름에 지진 다음 양념즙을 두고 졸여서 접시에 담고 참마볶음을 옆에 놓는다.

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So, how does this dish taste?  Well, I served it a few nights ago, and both my husband and I found it quite good.  The venison was tender and wonderfully gamey and the red pepper sauce was an interesting foil to the natural flavor of the deer meat.  We both found it quite mild when compared to many south Korean meat courses we have had, so don’t be afraid to try it if spicy or hot foods are not your thing.  I found that the strong undertones of nutmeg and pepper further help make this dish unusual and delicious.  We both voted it, “a keeper,” and will welcome it to our table in the future.

Honestly, neither of us loved the yam, which was more texture (but healthy for you) than flavor, even with the bonito crumble on top and a dip in soy.  For those a bit sensitive to spice or heat, however it will provide a gentle rest for your palates between bites of spiced venison.

The corn noodles, on the other hand, were really good.  Even in the wide spectrum of Korean noodles – where noodles can be made from acorn starch or fern shoots – corn noodles are rare.  They are mostly enjoyed in Pyongyang and in the mountainous regions of the north.  Like a mild millet, they bring a gentle, but savory taste of corn to the dishes they provide a ground for.  In the case of the spiced venison, they worked nicely and gave a depth of flavor that would be lacking if white rice or if plain rice, egg, or wheat noodles were served. Other North Korean uses of corn include small corn pancakes – sort of like the hoe-cakes found here in the southern USA, only thinner, and cornbread topped with corn meal rubbed with sesame oil until it forms flakes.

North Korean Corn Noodles
North Korean Corn Noodles

An interesting thing that I noticed about the ingredient list is that only the smallest amounts are used, and there is little wasted.  A South Korean (or western) recipe might use more liberal amounts of flour for dredging and have lots of leftover flour on the plate.  Similarly, more oil would probably have been used.  Necessity may be the mother of invention, but economy often fuels adaptation.

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So, this North Korean food website opens a window into the world of food from the northern peninsula.  In terms of my speculation about the site offering information about what the elite might eat, we have, in the past, been treated to information about Kim Jong-il’s gustatory excesses by his personal chef, Kenji Fujimoto.  Fujimoto has the unusual honor of defecting from North Korea back to his native Japan, and then being invited back for a two-week visit ten years later by Kim Jong-Un.

Although he has since become something of a spokesman for improvements in living conditions in North Korea, after his defection, he told the world of Kim’s cellars stacked with rare wines and liquors from around the world, and of traveling widely in Asia on behalf of the Great Leader to procure unusual ingredients for the leader’s meals.  His travels to buy food for the first family included trips to Iran and Uzbekistan for caviar, Western China for Hami melons, Thailand and Malaysia for durian, papayas and mangoes, and Japan for sea urchins, other fish and seafood, and rice cakes filled with mugwort.  European trips were also made to the Czech Republic for beer, Denmark for pork, and France for Kim’s favorite Hennessy cognac.

Another Fujimoto tidbit of interest to foodies is how Kim’s rice was prepared.  Each grain of rice inspected before it was cooked, and that only, “perfectly shaped,” grains were permitted.  Then the rice had to be cooked over wood gathered exclusively from the sacred mountain, Mount Paektu.

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I hope that some of you will explore the website and try some of the recipes.  But I just wanted to warn you that it is almost exclusively in Korean and that Google translate leaves a lot to be desired.  More often than not, it offers comical translations that have little to do with food.  For example, direction number one on the Venison Bamjim recipe (not the one featured in this post) is written in Hangul:

  1. 사슴앞다리살은 토막으로 썰어서 기름에 지져 색을 낸 다음 밤, 버섯, 은행, 동글게 깎은 홍당무우, 생강을 두고 푹 찐다

Google translates this to read:

  1. Forelegs deer flesh colors to embellish the oil and then sliced ​​into pieces JESUS ​​night, mushrooms, banks, dongle to Clippings hongdangmuwoo, hooked steam with ginger.

I keep hearing Stephen Fry ironically reciting the bit, “dongle to clippings hongdangmuwoo,” in my mind and continue to foolishly chuckle.  The actual translation of this is, “Slice the carrots,” but somehow this eluded the great machine.

Another warning is that the site is often down and that it is simply impossible to connect at those times.  If neither of those obstacles put you off, good on you.  The site is fascinating and it is interesting to see what dishes and recipes are shared with the south and what are uniquely northern or influenced by neighboring countries. (Words, recipe adaptation and photos by Laura Kelley.)

Cool as Cucumber Kimchi

With temperatures warming up again and summer on its way.  Cucumber kimchi is a wonderful, light recipe for picnics, snacks and light meals.  Easy to make, unlike many kimchi recipes, cucumbers can be enjoyed right after preparation, or it can be allowed to ferment for a short period before eating it.  Read To learn more about kimchi, and also find a great recipe for cucumber kimchi, click HERE for my recent article in Zester Daily.

Zester - Kimchi

 

Communist Kimchi!

DPRK Kimchi recipe
DPRK Kimchi recipe

You may recall that in the Kimchi Chigae post I mentioned that I was developing a North Korean kimchi recipe. Well I worked the handwritten recipe with no ingredient amounts that you see here through three iterations – each less spicy than the last. And with some description and input from food and travel writer, Michael Y. Park, who brought the recipe out of North Korea, I did it. I recreated North Korean kimchi, or at least, according to Michael, I came very, very close.

According to Michael, communist, North Korean kimchi is, in general, less salty, less spicy, more watery and more fishy than the democratic kimchi in South Korea. Internet searches simply confirmed Michael’s observations, so his words were all I had to go on. My read of the North Korean recipe was that it had three major differences from South Korean recipes. The first difference was a long time – 24 hours – for salting/brining that preceded the seasoning of the cabbage. The second one was that fishy flavor, and the third was that after three days of fermenting, the jars were opened and topped with beef or fish broth and then re-sealed.

Now, my South Korean kimchi recipe, usually packs a bit of a wallop of spice, but has only a couple of tablespoons of salted shrimp or anchovies in it. The fish makes it a bit more savory, and helps to balance the red pepper and ginger, but it doesn’t impart a “fishy” flavor, so that was the first challenge. The second challenge was the 24 hour salting/brining that the North Korean recipe calls for. That seemed like a long time to brine cabbage, I usually only brine for about 3 hours maximum. Some South Korean recipes don’t brine the cabbage at all. I wondered just how much of the vegetable I would have left after 24 hours. Expecting to over fulfill the plan, I bought a lot of sprats. I chose sprats because they are small and cheap, and I could get them fresh.

For the first iteration of the recipe, I kept the ingredients the same as my S. Korean kimchi and used the North Korean salting procedure along with about 3/4 of a pound of fresh, cleaned sprats. This was good, not to fishy, and very spicy. I thought that if I decreased the spiciness and saltiness, the fish flavor would shine through more. So, I tried again. The second iteration of the recipe looks like this:

DPRK Kimchi – 2nd Iteration

Ingredients
2 Napa Cabbages, washed and cut in half (four halves)
1/2 cup coarse sea salt, divided into four 1/8 cup batches

Kimchi Seasoning
1 bunch of spring onions (6-8 onions)
1 leek
2-3 cups Korean radish, peeled and matchsticked (not daikon)
¾ -1 cup medium to large garlic cloves, peeled
1 piece of ginger – 4-5 inches by 1.5 inches
1/3 cup coarse red pepper powder (Gochu) (generously measured – i.e. “heaping”)
2-4 tablespoons coarse sea salt, or to taste
4-8 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
3/4 pound fresh sprats
Beef-flavored Dashida to taste

I tasted it about 10 days after adding the broth on day three of the refrigerated ferment. This recipe yields a savory, umami, gingery kimchi that is delicious, but not particularly fishy. Based on Michael’s description, I thought that it would still be too flavorful to be anything like North Korean kimchi, so I went back to the drawing board to try again.

DPRK Kimchi – 3rd Iteration

Ingredients
2 Napa Cabbages, washed and cut in half (four halves)
1/3 cup coarse sea salt, divided into four batches

Kimchi Seasoning
1/2 bunch of spring onions (4-6 onions)
1 leek
2-3 cups Korean radish, peeled and matchsticked (not daikon)
1/2 cup medium to large garlic cloves, peeled
1 piece of ginger – 3-4 inches by 1.5 inches
1/4 cup coarse red pepper powder (Gochugaru) (generously measured – i.e. “heaping”)
1-2 tablespoons coarse sea salt, or to taste
2-4 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
3/4 pound fresh sprats
Anchovy-flavored Dashida or Japanese Hon-Dashi to taste

Method
Cabbages were washed and drained. Then the leaves were salted. All four halves were placed in a covered container with no water. The next morning a significant amount of water had accumulated. The cabbage halves were shifted several times to allow those pieces on top some time in the brine. Cabbages were brined for approximately 24 hours.

When the brining is completed, the cabbage should be pliable as if it had been parboiled. Place cabbages in a colander and let drain. The, one-by-one, immerse the cabbages in a vessel filled with fresh water. Turn faucet on and allow water to run into vessel as you work the water around the leaves for a minute or two. When done, place cabbages in a colander and let drain. Do a second rinse and let cabbages drain as seasoning is prepared.

Trim the roots from the onions and leeks and remove any damaged greens. Wash both vegetables very well – especially the leeks. Trim onions into 3-4 inch segments, then cut in half lengthwise. Separate the leek greens from the base and quarter the base. Then trim the base segments into 3-4 inch strips and slice lengthwise. Trim the leek greens in a similar manner. Add match-sticked radish to the vegetable mix.

Peel the ginger, roughly chopped and place in the food processor along with the garlic cloves. Pulse these until very fine, but not quite a paste has formed. Add to the vegetable mix along with the gochugaru, sea salt and sugar and mix well.

Then clean the sprats. Rinse and pulse in the food processor until very fine. Add the ground sprats to the vegetables and seasonings and mix well. Cover and set aside for at least ½ hour.

After ½ hour, stir the seasoning mix. You could coat the cabbages with it, or let it sit for more time and become juicier. I usually let mine sit for an hour or two, stirring every half hour, before moving on to the next step. When ready to season, take up the halved cabbages, one-by-one and slide the seasoning between each row of cabbage leaves, coating the leaves evenly with the spices. When the cabbage coating is done, slide them into jars, placing an extra bit of the seasoning mix in the jars as well – no more than 1 or two tablespoons. You can cut the cabbages into smaller bundles if desired as well. Pack the jars more lightly than when making South Korean kimchi to allow for the addition of broth in three days time.

Rest the jars overnight at room temperature to get the fermentation going, then refrigerate to slow fermentation.

At day three, remove the jars from the fridge and allow them to rise towards room temperature. Make Dashida broth or Hon Dashi according to taste or use about 2 teaspoons of dehydrated stock to 2.5-3 cups of water. When the kimchi AND the broth are at or near room temperature, open the jars in the sink and allow them to bubble up. If necessary, remove some kimchi from the jars to leave about 1.5 – 2 inches of space at the top of the jar. Pour the broth into the jar and insert a spoon to make sure the broth penetrates to the center and bottom of the jar. Repeat another time or two, top off the broth and seal the jars. Wash and dry the jars and place back in the refrigerator at the earliest time possible. Wait 3 days to 1 week and North Korean kimchi is served.

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North Korean Kimchi - 2nd and 3rd Iterations
North Korean Kimchi – 2nd and 3rd (R) Iterations

As you can see the North Korean kimchi samples are much lighter in color than South Korean kimchi – owing to the much lower amount of red-pepper and possibly of salt in the Northern recipes. Interestingly, I found that between 3/4 pound and 1 pound of sprats did not produce a fishy flavor. All this fish just made the kimchi more savory and added a bit of an umami factor – especially to the 2nd iteration sample. The fishy flavor, came from the addition of the fish broth after a few days of fermentation.

When all was said and done, Michael held a Kimchi Smackdown in New York City to compare the taste of my North Korean kimchi samples with a family South Korean recipe and some store bought kimchi from Koreatown.  You’ll have to go to Michael’s write up of the Smackdown to see which kimchi won, but I will tell you that the “3rd Iteration” recipe above was the closest to the kimchi Michael ate over in North Korea.

Most of the tasters did NOT like the limp texture of the North Korean kimchis, but you can correct for this by salting or brining for less time than 24 hours. Try, say 3-4 hours instead and your kimchi will be much more crisp and crunchy. I like the 2nd iteration sample over the third and may even make it instead of my usual S. Korean recipe from time to time.

This was a fantastic experience which I enjoyed immensely – and would do again in a heartbeat.  It is wonderful to learn about another culture through their cuisine, and this was particularly interesting because of the lack of information about foods of the North.

In closing, I’d like to remind everyone that kimchi of any sort is extraordinarily good for you as well.  It is packed full of probiotic organisms, such as Lactobacillus species as well as millions of bacteriophage to get the gut going and keep them going.  A great deal of our front-line immune defenses are also in the gut, so a diverse population of microorganisms down there make for a stronger immune response (at least in part).

(Words and recipe development by Laura Kelley. Photo of Handwritten North Korean Kimchi Recipe by Michael Y. Park; Photo of North Korean Kimchi 2nd and 3rd Iteration by Laura Kelley. Thanks to Michael Y. Park for sending me the recipe and allowing me to take part in his Kimchi Smackdown, and thanks to Elliot, Seungah for hosting the Smackdown and Rahul for lending his tastebuds to the task. Special thanks to Ms. Kim Nesbit for her assistance and advice during recipe development.)

Kimchi Chigae

I love kimchi.  I have several jars of kimchi in my refrigerator at all times.  Kimchi of Napa cabbages and Korean radish, cucumber kimchi, and now, thanks to food and travel writer Michael Y. Park – kimchi from North Korea as well.

You see, Michael recently returned from a trip to North Korea with a handwritten recipe for North Korean kimchi in hand. He sent it to a few people, and in September, we are going to have a North-South Kimchi Tasteoff in New York.

To clear space in the refrigerator for incoming batches of North Korean kimchi, I had to part with some older ones.  A couple of these had gone sour, so I decided to make, a big pot of the delicious kimchi soup – kimchi chigae – out of them.  My husband was away on business for a few days, so soup was also a great way to cook once and eat several times during his absence.

Kimchi Chigae with Gim
Kimchi Chigae with Gim

Well-made kimchi is usually a balance between sweet, salty, sour, spicy and hot flavors. (See my basic recipe with information about variants – here)  Fermentation is temperature controlled and after no more than a day or so at room temperature, the kimchi is placed in a cool or refrigerated spot.  There are also special kimchi refrigerators that can be used to assist in the fermentation, with the correct temperature for the type of kimchi set by pushing a few buttons or turning a dial.

When a batch of kimchi has been allowed to ferment too long, either because it was kept warm for too long before refrigeration, or simply because it has been in the refrigerator too long, it goes sour.  Some Koreans call this sour kimchi, “crazy kimchi” and won’t eat it.  Being a practical people, the Koreans came up with a wonderful solution to this.  Namely, they make a delicious and nutritious soup out of the sour batches – kimchi chigae.

Another thing about this soup, like many Korean soups, is that it is on the table in a little more than a half-an-hour from start to finish. My recipe is a little more elaborate than the bare-bones traditional recipe, but I think it is worth it. The added ingredients give it a depth of flavor and savoriness not found in the more simple recipes. I hope you like it!

Laura’s Kimchi Chigae Recipe
2-3 tablespoons sesame oil
1/3 pound pork bellies sliced
1 medium-large onion, sliced
2 tablespoons sugar
1 small bunch spring onions (5-6 onions)
3 cups sour kimchi
5-6 cloves garlic, sliced
Water to cover meat and vegetables
1 tablespoon gochugaru
2 tablespoons gochuchang
2 teaspoons doenchang
1-2 teaspoons coarse sea salt, or to taste
A teaspoon of dashi (optional)
½ pack tofu, sliced

Dry roasted sesame seeds for garnish
Roasted seaweed slices (gim) for garnish (optional)

Slice the pork bellies into bite-size pieces. In a large sauce pan, heat the sesame oil and sauté the pork over high heat until it becomes opaque and starts to color. When done, remove from pan and set aside. In remaining oil, add the sliced onion and stir briefly but well. Add half of the sugar and stir again. Reduce the heat to low, cover and let onion begin to caramelize. Stir or shake only once or twice for 15-20 minutes. When the onion is soft and beginning to color, add the green onions and stir well.

Chop kimchi well so that diners will not have to struggle with large pieces. Add kimchi and any juice to the onions in the pot and stir well. Let kimchi and onions heat for a few minutes over medium heat stirring occasionally. Add cooked pork and sliced garlic and stir again. When meat and vegetables are warm, add enough water to cover and stir again. If making soup, add more water than if making a thicker stew. Cover and heat over medium-to high heat.

Add gochugaru, gochuchang and doenchang and stir well, taking care to break up the paste and stir into the soup. (One way to do this is to ladle a bit of soup into a small bowl and whisk or stir the pastes into the soup. When fully dissolved, return the soup to the bowl and stir well.)  Add salt, remaining sugar, and if using, a bit of dashi and stir again. Reduce heat, cover and let cook at a low-to-medium simmer for 20 minutes. When time has elapsed, taste the soup and if necessary adjust the flavors.

Slice tofu into bite-size pieces and add to the soup. Cover and let cook another 5-8 minutes. When done, let sit uncovered for 5 minutes before serving. Serve with rice, if desired.

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I hope you make and enjoy this soup.  I know I will as I continue to develop the recipe for North Korean kimchi. The first batch was very good, but I think it was had too much gochugaru and salt.  I’ll be making another batch with less of everything, except the fish, and perhaps try a few white- or water-kimchi varieties as well.

Michael will be writing about the North-South Kimchi Tasteoff at some point, and may give me permission to write about the recipe development at a later date.  Until then, if you would like to read more about his food adventures in North Korea, he wrote an excellent piece for Epicurious about his trip. (Words and development of traditional recipe for Kimchi Chigae by Laura Kelley; Photo of Kimchi Chigae by Laura Kelley.)