At the inter-Korean summit in April, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un sat down with South Korean president Moon Jae-in, the first time since the Korean War a North Korean leader had set foot inside South Korea. Because of the decades of instability between the two nations, there was little hope for a positive outcome in the lead-up to the historic summit. On the day, the image of the two leaders sitting together with their aides looked much like previous unsuccessful attempts at peace talks, but then Kim broke the ice with a joke. “Hopefully, President Moon can enjoy this Pyongyang naengmyeon that’s come from so far away,” he said. “Ah, actually, I can’t say it’s that far!”
The comment was a reference to the fact that North Korea’s capital city of Pyongyang was a little over 100 miles away from the leaders’ neutral meeting spot within the Korean Demilitarized Zone, or the DMZ. It was also a nod to Pyongyang naengmyeon, a cold noodle dish made of buckwheat noodles in a chilled broth. And with this injection of levity into the historic proceedings, “noodle diplomacy” on the Korean peninsula was born.
South Korean diners immediately catapulted Pyongyang naengmyeon into the spotlight. The cold noodles from North Korea’s capital trended higher on Twitter that day than the summit itself, and restaurants specializing in it catered to long lines of customers, with some unable to keep up with demand. BBC News spoke to diners in Seoul who ate the noodles specifically to celebrate the summit. Sungjoo Han told the news outlet, “There was a long line when I arrived there. No seats available in the restaurant so I had to wait to eat the noodle. I believe everybody came to the restaurant for the same reason.”
Pyongyang naengmyeon is one food that South Koreans have always identified with the North. Korean cold noodles fall into two categories, but both arguably trace their roots back over 700 years, to the Goryeo Dynasty, in areas that are now North Korea. The first type is bibim-naengmyeon, also often called Hamhung-naengmyeon. This is a chewier, denser cold noodle mixed with sauce, named after the North Korean city of Hamhung. The second and more popular option is mul-naengmyeon, cold noodles served in a chilled broth. Pyongyang naengmyeon fall into this category, and although there are some South Koreans who call all mul-naengmyeon Pyeongyang naengmyeon, Pyongyang naengmyeon more commonly refers to the cold noodles from North Korea’s capital city, made with a broth of beef stock and dongchimi (radish water kimchi).
North Korea’s culinary legacy is largely defined by food insecurity. In the 1990s, it suffered a widespread famine that was estimated to have killed up to 3 million people. Severe droughts and flooding, in addition to poor government management, devastated the mostly mountainous country. Current accounts of food shortages and malnutrition are not as frequent as they were 20 years ago, but the North Korean government’s inability to feed its population still persists. According to a 2017 United Nations report, 10.5 million people — representing 41 percent of the population — are believed to be undernourished.
Foreign tour guides in North Korea are among the few outsiders who see the nation’s cuisine firsthand. They say Pyongyang naengmyeon is essentially North Korea’s national dish, an everyday staple found in most dining establishments and is the signature dish of Okgru-wan, the most famous restaurant in North Korea. “Cold noodles is a big thing in North Korea,” says Rowan Beard, a tour manager at Young Pioneer Tours, which specializes in bringing international travelers to North Korea. “It is a big part of their diet.”
Rayco Vega of KTG Tours, another group that promotes North Korean tourism, notes that convincing visitors to try cold noodles sometimes takes coaxing. “They think it’s leftovers or cold noodles that were cooked before,” Vega says.
But the dish has made its way outside of North Korea, and today there are Pyongyang naengmyeon restaurants in Seoul. After the Korean War in 1953, some restaurants run by displaced North Koreans became hubs of community for those from the North, where a taste of home could include vital news about loved ones. In addition to family-run establishments, North Korean restaurants that generate money for the North Korean state also operate all over the world, and also serve Pyongyang naengmyeon. From Dubai to Cambodia, the restaurants hire North Korean employees who also sing and dance to entertain customers with music from their homeland.
And since the April summit, the dish has taken on new popularity and new meaning; one Korean chef even envisions bringing noodle diplomacy stateside to New York City.
With his eponymous restaurant Jungsik, in Seoul, chef Jungsik Yim pioneered what he calls “new Korean” cuisine, which applies a contemporary perspective to Korean food. In 2011, he opened a New York City location, which went on to become the only two-Michelin-starred restaurant in America serving Korean cuisine. For the chef, the inter-Korean summit was the marker of a new chapter for the two Koreas. “In Korea, the symbol of peace is naengmyeon now,” he says.
Yim’s personal obsession with Pyongyang naengmyeon began three years ago. He had tried the dish before, but it never left an impression on him. “It tasted like nothing, actually,” he recalls. “Because North Korea is a poor country, they don’t have money to put more ingredients... they don’t have more money to put more salt, more sugar, pepper. So their kimchi is very light. Their naengmyeon is very light.” But after a request from his wife, it only took one visit to the renowned Seoul restaurant Eulmildae to spark his new culinary fixation. “I felt the taste... and after that, I got addicted.”
Yim began eating at Pyongyang naengmyeon restaurants around Seoul at least three times a week, eventually deciding that he wanted to open his own Pyongyang naengmyeon restaurant. He’s since perfected his recipe with regimented late-night cooking sessions at home and quarterly pop-ups held in Seoul and New York. And in January of this year, Yim opened the first location of his Pyongyang naengmyeon-focused restaurant, Pyung Hwa Ok, inside one of the busiest airports in the world, South Korea’s Incheon International Airport.
Pyung Hwa Ok aptly translates to “House of Peace,” and the idea that North Koreans and South Koreans can come together over food is central to the restaurant. The chef wanted an inclusive, but small, menu with dishes commonly eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner on the Korean peninsula. “We decided to ask, ‘What’s representative food from North Korea? What’s representative food from South Korea?,” Yim says. His answer is naengmyeon from North Korea, and gomtang, a beef soup with brisket that’s often mixed with rice, from South Korea.
The chef opened his second location of Pyung Hwa Ok in the Gangnam area of Seoul in May of this year and is set to open his third location in a different part of Seoul by the year’s end. But one of Yim’s more radical endeavors is his plan to bring North Korea’s noodles to America with a New York City branch of Pyung Hwa Ok in 2019. At New York’s first potential restaurant dedicated to North Korean cuisine, Yim plans to create an entirely new menu attuned to New Yorker’s palates — while keeping it true to its simplicity. At his restaurants, he says, he wants the purity of the ingredients — noodles, broth, and dongchimi — to shine.
Currently, Sam Won Garden, a Korean barbecue restaurant in Manhattan’s Koreatown, is the only restaurant in New York that offers Pyongyang naengmyeon. General manager Jeff Cho says the recipe has been adjusted for the average K-Town customer who is used to stronger flavors, but he’s proud of the following the dish has gained among older Korean customers. “Some of the grandmas and grandpas are like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is what I used to taste,’” says Cho. “We’ve had a lot of remarks like that.”
Yim isn’t worried about the competition. In fact, he’s not necessarily after the K-Town customer. He wants to do things his own way, and that begins with securing the restaurant’s location. “Maybe Midtown or downtown. Anywhere,” he says. “But we’re not going to open it in Koreatown.”
Wherever it’s located, Pyung Hwa Ok will be the first place in America designed to share an aspect of North Korea beyond what appears in headlines. In South Korea, having a bowl of Pyongyang naengmyeon already allows people to celebrate the past while showing their support for a peaceful and reunified future. Yim sees Manhattan as the first step in spreading that message of peace globally. “New York City is a big gate,” he says. “[It’s an] easy and fast way to get people to know about North Korean food.”
Tae Yoon is a writer, born and raised in Queens, NY.
Editor: Monica Burton