On a reporting trip to North Korea’s capital city, Pyongyang, last month, I had the opportunity to sample several examples of North Korean cooking, including cold noodles, barbecued meat and a whole lot of kimchi. For a country that’s often associated with starvation, North Korea takes a tremendous amount of pride in its cuisine. (The country was racked by famine from 1994 till 1998; experts say that malnutrition remains common, but starvation is now rare.)
I was particularly surprised by the city’s emerging snack culture — North Korea’s communist government has turned a blind eye to some commerce in recent years, and the city’s streets are peppered with small kiosks selling simple pick-me-ups, some in elaborate packages.
I decided to give them a try. Here are my verdicts, rated from one (inedible) to 10 (would eat it every day).
Puffy snack 튀기 과자
This is a classic case of false advertising. On the shiny bag, the chips look flavorful and puffy, kind of like meat-flavored Cheetos. But look inside, and the chips are small, pale and bland, more reminiscent of plastic foam packing peanuts than the beloved American snack.
I’d keep eating these if no one stopped me, but wouldn’t enjoy them (or buy them again).
Final verdict: 4/10
Carbonated sweet water 탄산단물
It’s carbonated. It’s sweet. And it’s water. This North Korean cola knockoff has none of Coca-Cola’s pizzazz or layered complexity. It’s a bit cloying, and a bit flat — one step below the knockoff colas that you find on U.S. supermarkets’ lower shelves.
And if you’re wondering about the (appropriately) uninspired name: My colleague Victoria Kim, who covers L.A.’s Korean community, tells me that North Korea refuses to use most foreign, particularly English, words. They’ll never use transliterated words like “soda,” as South Koreans would.
Final verdict: 5/10
Fruit cookies 과일 과자
Like the bulgogi snacks, the packaging here doesn’t comport with reality. The cookies are dry and pale, and suspiciously lack visible chunks of fruit. I’d heard North Koreans don’t like extremely sweet things, so these came as a surprise. They taste eerily like Froot Loops (which, in my book, is not such a bad thing).
Final verdict: 6/10
Banana cotton candy 바나나 목화 사탕
The moment you open the bag, the marshmallows’ banana smell hits you like a freight train. That said, their flavor is much more mild — not unlike Circus Peanuts candy. They’re airier than American marshmallows and probably wouldn’t roast well.
Final verdict: 2/10
I didn’t like these at all. They’re chewy, sticky and a bit gritty. They taste like sesame, but with strong, earthy overtones. They stick to your teeth long after you’ve swallowed, like the world’s most disappointing Rice Krispie treat.
Final verdict: 1/10
Altogether, North Korea's snacks were surprisingly impressive — ubiquitous in Pyongyang, well-packaged and, while clearly not tailored to a Western palate, somewhat tasty. They made for an interesting culinary experience. But I won't exactly be rushing back for more.
Overall verdict: 3.6/10
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