Seven places to try North Korean food in Seoul
In most English news these days, when the words “food” and “North Korea” are used in the same sentence, they’re probably not talking about Pyongyang’s restaurant scene. While focus shouldn’t waver from the food shortages and famine, it’s important to remember that North Korea’s food culture and history is rich and varied. Seoul is home to dozens of restaurants owned by defectors or the descendants of Koreans from the North, and it’s not all naengmyeon and mandu—you’ll find stews, seafood and even royal cuisine on these menus. As North Korean Traditional Food Institute founder Lee Ae-ran points out, it’s more accurate to talk about Korean food in terms of regions, not in terms of the sharp division between the North and South. So is there a North Korean cuisine? Perhaps not in strict terms, but what you’ll taste at these restaurants is influenced by the history and geography of the north—go and se for yourself.
01. Dongmu Bapsang (Comrade’s Table)
Chef and owner Yu Jong-cheol worked at Pyongyang’s famed restaurant Okryugwan for 11 years before making his way to the South some ten years ago. It wasn’t easy—he even worked as a construction worker for some time. After holding cooking classes and pop-ups, he and his wife finally opened a place of their own at the end of 2015. It’s a small, unassuming storefront on a Hapjeong side street, with dark-paneled wood walls, natural light and simple furniture—not the kind of place to bring a rowdy group of 12, but definitely a hidden gem you’ll want to show off to your friends.
The menu at Dongmu Bapsang is a blend of high-end and everyday fare. On one end of the spectrum, you’ll find ori gukbap (duck and rice soup), a simple, belly-warming meal, and North Korean sundae (blood sausage), with glutinous rice in place of the glass noodles found down south. But for something really special, order the sinseollo, an elaborate Joseon royal court recipe considered a luxury throughout the peninsula. Orders must be placed at least one day in advance, and it’s easy to see why: Tiny meatballs, gingko nuts and pine nuts dot a layered landscape of shrimp, abalone and thinly sliced, delicately battered and cooked meats, all arranged over a bed of glass noodles. Though the brass pot may look deceptively small, it easily feeds two to three (you won’t need a side of rice). As for banchan, Chef Yu’s kimchi is especially interesting—he uses puréed radish in place of fermented fish, resulting in a light and sweet pickle. BY: SONJA SWANSON
▲ Venue name: Dongmu Bapsang (Comrade’s Table)
▲ Address: 10, Yanghwajin-gil 10, Yanghwajin-gil, Seoul
▲ Opening hours: Tue–Sat 11:30am–9pm (break time 3–5pm, last order 8:20pm)
▲ Transport: Hapjeong Station (Line 2, 6), exit 8
▲ Price: Sinseollo 70,000 won, ori gukbap 7,500 won, naengmyeon 9,000 won
02. Neungra Bapsang
Owner Lee Ae-ran is a force of nature. Once a food engineer in Pyongyang, she defected to the South, where she became the first female defector to earn a PhD, studying food and nutrition. Her restaurant, Neungra Bapsang, and her nonprofit, the North Korean Traditional Food Institute, provide jobs for female defectors and help them adjust to life in a capitalist society. She has an incredible energy, and you’ll often see her mingling with guests and greeting familiar faces. And as for the food? “Diners in the south are obsessed with taste,” she tells us. “So restaurants use too many sweeteners and seasonings. Here, our goal isn’t taste; it’s nutrition. If you use good ingredients, the taste takes care of itself.”
The food is, of course, delicious. A good choice for spring is the dong-dal-naeng jeongol, a casserole-like pork-based stew with two kinds of fragrant spring greens. It bubbles away on a portable stove and its heat and mild spice are tempered by the addition of doenjang and nutty perilla seed powder. The gamja mandu are another popular menu item—these dumplings have a thick and almost-translucent wrapper that’s pleasantly chewy to bite into, especially while they’re still warm (tip: eat them with the perilla leaf they come served on). If you order the mung bean pancake, which is especially golden brown and crispy here, take a bite with a piece of the pleasantly sour white kimchi on top. Perfection.
▲ Venue name : Neungra Bapsang
▲ Address : 2F, Donghwamun-ro 5-gil 42 Jongno-gu, Seoul (Jongno 3(sam)-ga Station (Line 1), exit 1)
▲ Opening hours: Open 11am–10pm
▲ Transport: Jongno 3(sam)-ga Station (Line 1), exit 1
▲ Price: Don-dal-naeng jeongol (M) 17,000 won, (L) 30,000 won, gamja mandu 7,000 won
Named after the hometown of owner Yun Hu-ja’s parents, Hadan is all about simplicity and quality. White walls surround low wooden tables and floor cushions, and the pared-down menu features just five items: mandu-guk (dumpling soup), mandu jeongol (a large, brothy dumpling stew), nokdu jijim (mung bean pancakes), maemil naeng kalguksu (buckwheat cold knife-cut noodles) and jokbal (braised pork trotters). When asked about the mandu, since it’s written on the sign outside, Ms. Yun sighs: “Yes, the media always like to write about it because people think ‘North Korea’ and they think ‘mandu.’” But it’s clear that her pride lies in the buckwheat cold noodles, her own recipe inspired by the cold, clean flavors of the north. Her noodles are made in small batches by hand every day, 50 to 100 grams at a time, and the buckwheat gives them a little extra chew. Pair this with a savory mung bean pancake for a meaty, crisp contrast. This is not to say the mandu aren’t good—they have surprisingly thin skins for their plentiful fillings and have the mild flavors of mom’s home cooking. If you can’t find room in your stomach for dumplings, order a pack of 16 for 15,000 won to take home.
Restaurants who make their own kimchi is becoming more of a rarity these days, but Hadan goes a step further and makes their own soy sauce as well. It seems the hard work is paying off: They’ve been open for over 20 years now, and are beloved by neighborhood locals and out-of-towners alike—at 1pm on a weekday, we found ourselves waiting for seats to open up. Avoid peak hours or be prepared for a bit of a wait.
▲ Venue name: Hadan
▲ Address: 14, Seongbuk-ro 6-gil, Seongbuk-gu, Seoul
▲ Opening hours: 12pm ~ 8pm (break time 3pm–5pm, last order 7:20pm)
▲ Transport: Hansung Univ. Station (Line 4), exit 6
▲ Price: Naeng kalguksu 8,000 won, mandu-guk 8,000 won, nokdu jijim 7,000 won.
Mention Pyeongraeok to any long-time Seoul resident, and you’ll get a flash of recognition and then probably hear the words “Their chogyetang is famous.” Open since 1950, the now-remodeled Pyeongraeok is a two-story affair in the old downtown area. Its signature dish, chogyetang, is a cold noodle bowl with generous portions of stewed chicken, cabbage, cucumber and sweet, crunchy pear. The broth base is made with beef, and the addition of dongchimi (radish water kimchi) broth gives it a briny, slightly sour kick. There’s a touch of mustard fire as well (there are seasonings on your table if you want yours spicier). While people tend to crave these refreshing noodles most in the heat of summer, Pyeongraeok’s chogyetang is popular year-round. But let us warn you: It’s huge. The minimum order is two servings, which comes out in a bowl big enough for three. It also comes with a side of extra chicken, dressed in a spicy red chili paste-based sauce. As is the tradition in Korea, the best cut of chicken is the flavorful, tender dark meat, which you’ll find plenty of here. Try to bring a group so you can also try the mandu and mung bean pancakes. Perhaps the best part of experience, however, is the yuksu (beef broth) served as a drink—servers come around carrying giant kettles of this warming brew and you’ll want to top up when they do.
▲ Venue name: Pyeongraeok
▲ Address: 21-2, Mareunnae-ro, Jung-gu, Jung-gu, Seoul
▲ Opening hours: Daily 11:20am–10:00pm
▲ Transport: Euljiro 3-ga Station (Line 2), exit 11
▲ Price: Chogyetang 11,000 won per person (min. order of 2), naengmyeon 8,000 won