SEOUL — Jessie Kim flits from stove to stove, having a taste and nodding her approval at one, adding a dab of seasoning at another.
As a dozen students of her monthly cooking class are busy at work over sizzling pans, the bubbly 28-year-old with cherubic cheeks and a high ponytail takes a plate and fussily arranges rice balls wrapped in tofu skin on a bed of lettuce with flower-shaped carrot slices.
“There, for Instagram,” she pronounces once she’s satisfied.
Where she’s from, there’s no Instagram, no internet, barely any smartphones. To fuss about plating would have been an unfathomable luxury, as would the idea of cooking for fun.
“I didn’t know I liked cooking when I was in North Korea,” she tells the class. “Once I got here, I realized it was the thing that makes me the happiest.”
Kim started cooking for herself at age 10 after her mother fell ill; she began buying and selling food to earn a living at age 13. And she says she was among the fortunate — when she was a young teenager, a toddler next door died of malnutrition.
Here and now for Kim is South Korea’s capital city of Seoul, where she arrived in 2014 after fleeing her home in Hyesan, on the northern border of North Korea, via China. Here in her new home, Kim is a college student, cook and budding entrepreneur: She teaches cooking classes, does catering and makes YouTube videos of North Korean recipes.
Here, she’s found, people associate the home she left behind with missiles, with its oft-caricatured leader, with abject poverty. But the same as everywhere, people back home cooked and ate. They got creative with what little they could afford, shared with loved ones and celebrated special occasions with special meals.
Kim wants her new compatriots to think about and empathize with the people behind the politics and propaganda of North Korea. So she’s inviting them to join her in the kitchen.
There are ties that seven decades of separation can’t sever — and food is one. Like the language and people, North Korean food is largely familiar to South Koreans, despite the heavily militarized border separating the two. In both places, rice and kimchi are staples; garlic, fermented sauces and red pepper flakes are foundational flavors.
But the tough beige strips of tofu skin that Kim features in one of her cooking classes — with the texture of beef jerky and the appearance of a fire hose — is widely consumed in North Korea and unfamiliar to most in the south.
The strips are injo gogi — literally, “artificial meat” — a food born of hunger. It’s made from the residue of soybeans after they’ve been pressed for oil, typically used as animal feed elsewhere in the world. It took hold in the 1990s in North Korea, a meat substitute and much-needed source of protein during a catastrophic famine in which hundreds of thousands died of starvation.
When Kim was growing up, it was widely available, but it didn’t come cheap. It was more expensive than white rice per kilogram, she tells the class. She’s found one place that sells it in South Korea, a restaurant and market run by fellow North Korean refugees in Incheon, a port city about an hour west of Seoul.
For today’s class, Kim is preparing injo gogi two ways: injo gogi bap, wrapped around rice balls, and injo gogi saengchae, shredded and tossed in a vinegary sauce. The tough strips, she demonstrates, need to be reconstituted with water, then wrung out.
“It’s a really unique flavor,” she says, shredding a piece and popping it into her mouth. “You can’t eat this in North Korea if you don’t have money.”
The key to the rice balls, she says, is her sauce — a fiery red concoction people seem to love so much that she’s thinking of bottling it for sale. She fires up a frying pan to demonstrate: She sautées diced green onions in a generous amount of vegetable oil, then adds red pepper powder, sugar, soy sauce, green chile, perilla leaves, garlic, ginger and salt.
Among the students is a family of three with a young daughter, two pairs of mothers and daughters and a graduate student studying North Korea. Some carefully take smartphone videos of each step, others jot notes in spiral notebooks.
Kim waves her hand over the pan to waft the scent her way, savors the smell, then dips a spoon into the sauce.
“Mmmm. Everything I make is delicious,” she exclaims in delight. “My grandmother used to say, ‘You taste food with your eyes, ears, nose and mouth.’”
From a young age, Kim was quick with numbers — easily outdoing her father, who taught accounting, she says.
She can still rattle off the price in North Korea of a kilo of potatoes, a bottle of soju, a sack of rice, and how much they fluctuated between the harvest season and the leaner spring months. She can tell you how much weight potatoes kept over winter will lose by the spring as they dry out, and how to store wild deer snared in the mountains so it doesn’t become shriveled without the benefit of a walk-in freezer. (The secret is to carefully dribble water into its stomach and leave it to freeze outdoors.)
These are the tricks of the trade Kim taught herself after her mother died when she was 11; not long after that, she quit school in order to peddle alcohol, potatoes, wild herbs and game. She bought and sold goods — mostly food — between her grandmother’s rural village and nearby Hyesan, and later between North Korea and China, which was just on the other side of the Yalu River.
Jangmadang, as the black markets are known, are illegal under North Korea’s communist system but largely condoned in lieu of a public distribution system that all but collapsed during the famine. Once, Kim was caught and her goods were confiscated.
Cooking for herself was mostly an afterthought. Efficiency was paramount; she made and ate whatever could be whipped up and scarfed down quickly.
By the time she was 19, she’d begun wondering about the world she’d seen in South Korean and Chinese dramas smuggled in on CDRs or on USB sticks.
“Once you’re no longer struggling for food and clothing, you start thinking about what else,” Kim said. “I started thinking I wanted to live a free life.”
The North Korea that’s shown by the government and on TV, people think that’s all there is, and can’t see past that.
During the lunar new year holiday in February 2011, she slipped across the frozen river into China with just the clothes on her back. She told only an aunt where she was headed; she couldn’t bear to tell her father that he might never see his only daughter again. In Jilin, in northeastern China, she worked odd jobs for two years until she found a broker. She paid him to take her along an established smuggling route by land across China to Southeast Asia, where she sought asylum at a South Korean embassy.
She arrived in Seoul in late 2013. After two years in China, she was thrilled by the kimchi served in the cafeteria during the government-run intelligence debrief and resettlement training.
A few months later, she moved into a government-provided apartment to begin her new life in Seoul. That day, she tried shabu-shabu for the first time. In time, she discovered fast food, sushi, Thai cuisine and a seemingly endless variety of cheeses. She said she was amazed by the produce available in supermarkets year-round. Food in her new home, she found, was an embarrassment of riches.
In late November, the latest session of her cooking class was on kimchi. She arrived lugging two boxes of nappa cabbage, 12 giant radishes she’d julienned the day before and a large vat of seasoning made with red pepper powder, garlic, ginger, shrimp paste and puréed apple.
“Do you know what the trick to a tasty dish is?” she asked the class.
“MSG,” someone cheekily piped up.
“It’s not scrimping on the ingredients, putting in plenty of everything,” Kim said.
In North Korea, she said, the sign of a well-off household was the color of its kimchi. Gochugaru, or red pepper powder, isn’t cheap — so the redder the kimchi, the better off the home.
In the years since getting to South Korea, she has earned her GED and enrolled in college, where she is studying Chinese foreign affairs and commerce. Increasingly, she found herself missing dishes she grew up with that she couldn’t find in Seoul: potato starch noodles, potato pancakes, injo gogi. Even the dishes eaten in both places didn’t taste quite the same. She started inviting friends — North Korean, South Korean, foreigners — over to her tiny apartment to cook for them.
Last summer, with a couple of friends, she entered a competition to pitch start-up ideas, put on by a foundation supporting North Korean refugees. She proposed “Jessie Kitchen” — cooking classes and a catering service, after the English name she chose for herself, aimed at teaching people about life and culture in North Korea.
It wasn’t just about the food, she told the judges.
“The North Korea that’s shown by the government and on TV, people think that’s all there is, and can’t see past that,” she later said. “I’m hoping that at least the people who encounter me and ‘Jessie Kitchen’ aren’t duped by Kim Jong Un’s showmanship, and really think about who it is that we should be focusing on when we look at North Korea.”
She won. In July, she started teaching cooking classes and launched a YouTube channel; she’s posted seven videos so far and has a couple hundred subscribers. The very next month, she served one of her signature dishes — dububap, or tofu stuffed with rice — at a reception held for Angelina Jolie at the U.S. ambassador’s residence.
Kim and her collaborators say they want to expand the business to a point where they can hire other North Korean refugees, many of whom struggle adjusting to life in capitalist South Korea.
“We’re hoping the story within the food resonates with people,” said Byun Seung-jae, 23, a South Korean college senior who is working with Kim.
As the class wrapped up, Byun, who does the web design and marketing, rolled up his sleeves and began washing the piles of dirty dishes.
Along with the leftover food, neatly packed up in to-go boxes with white and lavender “Jessie Kitchen” stickers, Kim sent off the students with one final message.
“I hope you remember, we’re here happily making this food, but just an hour or two from here, food isn’t a laughing matter,” she says. “I wanted you to know the ordinary North Korea.”