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 part of the 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 on sliced meats, kimchi and tofu – a summer dish that is cooled with ice cubes.
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 adapted below. A spiced venison, North Korean style.
Spiced Venison North Korean Style
(Adapted by Laura Kelley from North Korean food website)
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)
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.
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.
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.
An interesting thing that I noticed about the ingredient list in these recipes 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.
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.
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:
- 사슴앞다리살은 토막으로 썰어서 기름에 지져 색을 낸 다음 밤, 버섯, 은행, 동글게 깎은 홍당무우, 생강을 두고 푹 찐다
Google translates this to read:
- 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.” The actual translation of which 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)