All photos courtesy Liberty in North Korea (LiNK)When David Lee steps before several dozen guests to introduce his once-in-a-lifetime take on North Korean cuisine, he sounds almost sorry. After all, as the executive chef of Barn Joo, a (South) “Korean-inspired gastropub” in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, Lee admits he makes “pretty Americanized” versions of his own national dishes, and his attempt at North Korean fare will inevitably have to take some liberties, too. Born in South Korea, Lee couldn’t visit his estranged countrymen to the North if he tried, let alone taste what they’ve been eating lately.
But tonight, somewhat unbelievably, everybody in Barn Joo’s private dining room can. Joo Yang, a 23-year-old defector and the evening’s guest of honor, has brought along some smuggled ingredients from her home country’s black market. She’s here courtesy of Liberty in North Korea, the nonprofit for which this dinner is supposed to raise a bunch of cash. With a team spread across Asia and the United States, LiNK is committed in part to challenging perceptions of the country—typically colored by nuclear rhetoric and Kim family nonsense—and drawing attention to the 25 million human beings still tethered to its soil.Tonight’s menu is probably their most creative project yet. LinK’s Sarah Lee (no relation to the chef) speculates that this may well be “the first meal of its kind in North America,” which is probably true by token of the authentic dishes alone. Take into account those that are a more hepcat, Manhattan-gentrified take on a cuisine largely still locked within what is still the world’s most notorious police state, and this might be the first meal of its anywhere.Joo Yang reassures Chef Lee that his food reminds her of home—a compliment he receives like a badge of honor—but he is correct that one of Manhattan’s hippest South Korean restaurants is an incongruent place to try the food of their frequently famished kin. “SoulCycle” buzzes by my ears more than once, and one sheepish diner at my table only grazes on the assorted platters, explaining she is technically in the middle of a juice cleanse. A modelesque, Slavic-looking waitress offers me a glass of “our North Korean drink,” a dose of Pyongyang-made soju cut by the type of ginger beer not likely found much outside of artisanal stores in Brooklyn.
At a cafe the next day, Joo Yang tells me a bit about what mixology is like in North Korea proper. While she spent the last few years of her teens alone in North Hamgyong province after her parents and two younger siblings successfully defected in 2008, she subsisted partially off of the illegal alcohol trade, procuring the strictly contraband machinery needed to produce homebrew soju, and making an acorn moonshine in her otherwise empty home. Eventually, after the secret police claimed the house on suspicion of her family’s true whereabouts, she moved her operation to the warehouse where she spent her final year in the country.“You don’t sell your alcohol direct to the consumer, but to a middleman,” she says. “That person buys from different producers, so if you make alcohol you start to become known locally… You kind of develop your own little brand name, like, ‘Oh, the soju Joo Yang makes is good; it tastes good.’”
As I’m downing the last fizz of the delicious cocktail at the North Korean gala, out come the “defected” foods of the night. Their presence is a logistical marvel as much as moral quandary; why should we be making edible curios of actual food lifted from a country that hasn’t had enough to eat in two decades? Joo Yang assures me these ingredients are among the nation’s most common, however, and that the 27,000 refugees now living in South Korea have created a large market for authentic northern flavors—“the taste of it, the feel of it”—no matter how much more nutritious and robust their South Korean counterparts might be. The plates before us, then, are perhaps just one drop of gochujang in a sea of kimchi—especially as the genuinely North Korean items are limited to the single-bite hors d'oeuvres.
And every one of them does, in fact, contain distinct cultural information. To circumvent the upper-class cost of pork in North Korea, there is injokogi, an oil-sapped compression of soybeans that creates a flattened protein substitute quite similar in taste and texture to tempeh (North Koreans like to add hot pepper paste to re-moisten and spice). Served in triangular swatches, the artificial meat follows a comparably chili-burned bean and corn compound with an almost tofu mouthfeel. The diners around me share smiling analogies to different vegan restaurants around town, though the innovations we’re eating came not from a multi-billion dollar industry built around moral convictions and dietary guilt, but instead sheer, starving necessity.Joo Yang explains to me the onset of the Arduous March’s famine aspect in 1994, and the revolutionary shift in perspective it engendered among the nation’s Millennials. Born a healthy, even chubby child just a few years prior, she says it was quickly apparent that a lean life laid ahead. Her family hastened to the countryside, where they could at least forage the mountains for roots and other digestible miscellany. Relatives soon followed, until there were 13 of them living in a single home. It was in these cramped quarters that she, like her peers across the country, began to develop an epochal disbelief for the widely espoused Kim regime dogma of nationwide support—strangely resistant to revision, even once the crucial government rations ceased altogether in the mid 90s. Joo Yang tells me that those closest to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were in fact hit the hardest.
“Those people got preferential treatment and extra rations for so long that, when all of a sudden everything stopped, they were the least prepared to survive,” she says. “It was especially difficult for those in the cities.” Throughout the remainder of the decade, it was common for people to die in the streets or their sleep. In just four years, an estimated quarter million to 3.5 million Koreans died, out of a population of just 22 million—a famine body count unprecedented in the 20th century for a literate, urbanized society. Much of Joo Yang’s mother’s side didn’t make it.
A major theme of the night is corn, a crucial rice substitute North Koreans developed for its cost and nutrition efficiency. It’s central to the last of the smuggled samples—the remarkable corn ddeok ball, a resourceful rendition of rice cake lacking any rice at all—and the first of the more interpretive mains, a summer corn soup. The segue is almost comical: anchored by organic jumbo crabmeat from the Union Square farmers’ market down the street, and buoyant up top with parsley confetti and an olive oil Rorschach, it’s more reminiscent of Martha’s Vineyard chowder than any survivalist broth. Less apocryphal than anachronistic was the delicious mullet, which was once an abundant treasure in Pyongyang’s increasingly lonely Taedong River; Kim Il-sung was lamenting its loss of diversity, thanks to industrialization, as early as 1964.
Moreover, ours were stuffed to the gills with beef, a gravely forbidden delicacy in modern North Korea. Joo Yang tells me that, because of their agricultural utility, killing a cow is an act punishable by public execution. She once knew someone who was slaughtering cattle and selling the meat for proportional reward, and when the authorities noticed that person went into hiding inside the Yang household. The amateur butcher attempted to defect shortly thereafter, but Joo Yang isn’t sure what happened to her.It wasn’t impossible to use cows to get food more indirectly, however. When I ask Joo Yang how her family survived during those harshest years, she smiles, remembering a story she’s never shared before. She was just eight years old when she stayed to watch over the house with her grandmother while her parents and two younger siblings left to try and earn some money for food.“Basically, my mother and father put a bunch of tools and things for sale on a government cow… and they just wandered away with it, trying to make some money. They started at our house and walked in a giant circle out of town, by foot, which lasted 15 days. That was one of my most difficult memories—I don’t really have that many memories of being really, really hungry, but that time in particular…”Fifteen days later her family returned, successful—they were able to bring back a lot of white rice, especially rare during the famine. Their homecoming happened to coincide with Seollal, the Korean New Year, which traditionally calls for the enjoyment of sweet ddeok, a celebratory rice cake.
“But everyone in the neighborhood was starving,” she says. “So my father took all the rice, made it into ddeok, and shared it with the entire neighborhood—especially the elders,” who had been suffering the most. Joo Yang, in revisiting the moment, struggles to admit that as a desperate child, she had a hard time accepting her father’s decision. But their neighbors all hailed him a great man, and her family felt a new appreciation among the community. She could better understand it a little bit later in life.
For dessert, coincidentally, we are served sweet ddeok as well. In chef Lee’s hands, of course, it takes a more decadent form: a dense, mapled hockey puck of pancakey sugardough, flecked with black and white sesame and a pine nut pendant. They come so abundant in their saucers that, compensating for the diet-conscious demurs around my table, I swallow three or four to minimize the waste—a task their deliciousness abets.Waiting that fortnight for her parents to return, at age eight, was the nadir of Joo Yang’s life. She was alone with her grandmother, who was blind, so she had to handle a lot herself. All they had to eat were soybeans, which quickly made Joo Yang sick; she vomited regularly for days on end, but continued to force them down in absence of an alternative. Gradually her own vision blurred, yellowed, faded in and out. At one point, she got so disoriented that she stumbled over her grandmother’s face, as she had been sleeping on the floor. On the very worst night of those 15, Joo Yang says she learned what it feels like to die—and, barely, come back again.After we’ve all finished eating, she rises from her table to give a little speech. She touches briefly on many of the things she’ll elaborate in our subsequent conversation, and on how listening to pirate foreign radio as a child helped her to fathom the outside world. She mentions what it was like living alone for three years after her family defected, and all the lies she told and things she sold to get by. She talks a bit about finally escaping across the Tumen River herself at age 20, only to be imprisoned by Chinese patrolmen, and ultimately liberated by a bribe from a South Korean nonprofit.She says all of these things with a tentative but promising grasp of English, sometimes speaking instead through an interpreter. As she concludes, Joo Yang urges us to support the North Korean public in any way we can, emphasizing her deep faith in their potential as a people. Perhaps well convinced by all that she has just shared—perhaps for shame of the sweet flavors still settled on our lips—everyone seems to know what she means.Joo Yang now lives in Seoul, where she is preparing to enter college, appears on a popular variety program about defectors called Now On My Way to Meet You, and interns for Liberty in North Korea.Follow Jakob Dorof on Twitter.