Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes
Kimchi: fermented vegetables with a variety of seasonings;
there are well over 100 versions
Dining in North Korea is unique to much of the world.
While dining etiquette at the table itself are similar to that of South Korea, many
social protocols are very different. First, and the most obvious difference, is
that in North Korea you will not be allowed to eat at a local's home and if
you could, it is highly unlikely you'll get such an invitation since many locals
are fearful of foreigners and are unlikely to take such a risk. More so, most locals
won't even be willing to dine with you in public at one of the country's
If, on the off chance you do get to dine with locals, wait to be shown a seat as
seating arrangements may be pre-arranged or dictated by social standing. The oldest
person present should begin dining, so wait until invited to begin eating or until
everyone else is already eating. If you are being served drinks, which may or may
not be the case, fill the glass of those around you and let them fill your glass
(although women should not fill other women's glasses). If drinks are served
with food, it tends to be either tea or water, rarely is it an alcoholic beverage.
Throughout the course of the meal, if you decide to take a drink or even speak to
those around you, put your chopsticks down.
Even if you aren't eating with locals, but are in public at a restaurant, you
should follow some rules so you aren't disrespectful to the restaurant staff.
Of course, if a restaurant allows you in the door as a foreigner, you are most likely
with a government tour guide and the restaurant is used to foreigners so you can
probably get away with some poor manners although this will not be accepted well
by neither the wait staff nor your government-issued host. If you're given a
small plate, it is essentially a "discard tray," on which you should place
bones, shells, etc. The chopsticks are obviously for eating the food and you may
want to become accustomed to using these before arrival as touching food with your
hands is off limits. If served both rice and a spoon, eat the rice with the spoon.
Unlike many Far East countries, don't bring the rice or soup bowl up to your
mouth, but leave these on the table itself. When you do finally finish eating, place
your chopsticks back on your chopstick rest and eat everything you've taken,
even the last grain of rice.
If you're lucky enough to get into North Korea and
get to sample the local foods, you'll surely notice that there is no such thing
as fast food or "ethnic" foods as little to no outside culinary influence
has entered North Korea since about 1950.
In regards to tipping after a meal, check with your tour company to get their recommendation.
Generally this is not an issue since you will be with your guide for all meals and
he or she will pay as meals are generally included with the cost of most tours.
If you get lucky enough to eat at a local's house, offering pictures of you,
your family, and your city are considered very generous; do not give them money.
Celebrations & Events
Most traditional Korean foods associated with celebrations
are served for important personal events, including birth, weddings, funerals, and
other important personal events. However, due to the current government and the
inaccessibility to households during these events, it is unknown what traditions
still exists or have been abandoned. The South Koreans
celebrate the following events with the attached foods:
At birth foods are generally served in sets of three as that is considered a lucky
number. These foods include rice and sea mustard soup among others. These same foods
are also served on later celebrations like the Coming of Age Ceremony (gwan rye),
but at this festival rice wine, rice cakes, kimchi, noodle soup, and additional
foods are served to celebrate this event.
At weddings rice wine, rice cakes, chicken, and numerous other traditional dishes
are served. At funerals alcohol and the head meat of a pig or cattle is served;
red chili pepper is also served at funerals as it is believed to expel ghosts.
The North Koreans only drink what is available in the
country and that reaches back to their traditional drinks, including ginseng, ginger,
and fruit drinks. Some beers are available as is soju, a local alcohol.
Sikhye may also be found in some locations; this is a sweet rice drink.
Since many countries ban trade with North Korea so the
alcoholic options are severely limited. A traditional Korean alcohol is soju,
which is a liquor distilled from rice.
The tap water in North Korea should not be consumed
because it is not safe. Be sure to also avoid anything with ice as it may have been
made from the tap water. Salads and fruits may have also been washed in the tap
water so be careful with those foods as well.