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Food, Dining, & Drinks in North Korea

WARNING: North Korea is unstable, please read this travel warning before going!

Historic Diet

Korean Food - Kimchi
Kimchi

Korean food is based on what the people had available years ago. This was essentially just barley and millet, local vegetables, some meats, and beans. With this combination the grains and vegetables were the most common aspects of the diet and truly formed the diet's base. Meats were a rare supplement and fish was more common along the coasts, but still only formed a supplement to the historic diet. Despite these generalizations, the country's climate is fairly complex for the small land area it occupies and each part of the country grows different foods better depending on the mountains, water exposure, and ocean currents. As a more mountainous region, in comparison to South Korea, the North's historic diet was hardier as fewer crops grow at higher elevations.

Culinary Influences

Hundreds of year ago, due to the Chinese entering the peninsula, rice was introduced and overtook barley and millet in popularity, except in mountainous towns where rice didn't grow well. Pork and seafood also grew in popularity at that time, as did beef, although beef has never become overly popular.

Later, in the 500s with the introduction of Buddhism to the Korean peninsula, meats almost entirely fell off the menu, but have since returned, although not in significant quantities in the north. What this change did though, especially due to Korea's location as a peninsula, is increase the amount of fish and seafood consumed in the diet.

Shockingly, since the 500s few significant changes have taken place. As was traditional, even today there are few national dishes (although exceptions exist) as regional dishes dominate locals' homes. Meals are commonly served in multiple small meals as opposed to large entrees and often include at least one soup or stew, which are every popular in North Korea.

Unlike many countries though, North Korea is extremely isolated and is saddled with a number of trade embargoes, preventing new foods from entering the country. Fast food is unheard of today and due to their lack of arable farm lands, their diet is severely limited, particularly in times of drought. Meats are expensive and are nearly inaccessible except for the government's elite. North Korean cuisine today is fairly authentic to their historic roots as it continues to be very susceptible to climate changes and hence, availability.

Staple Foods

Noodles: are commonly made from wheat, rice, or buckwheat
Rice: a common side or base with many dishes

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Kimchi: fermented vegetables with a variety of seasonings; there are well over 100 versions

Dining Etiquette

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 few restaurants.

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.

Drinks

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.

This page was last updated: March, 2013