North Korean Restaurant in Seoul
When it comes to cuisine, North Korea has a bland reputation in comparison to its southern neighbor. Bland may be better described as subtle, being able to distinguish delicate flavors prancing on your tongue, appreciating each layer, savoring high and low notes of every bite. Bland can be a pleasant departure on a menu of fire-peppery dishes.
Something should be said for minimalism and simplicity in a nation’s food palate if for no other reason than to offer variety to suit a diversity of taste.
A slew of dining options from the north are popular in Seoul. But one seemed to be more inviting, given the seal of approval from foreign visitors as a part of the Delicious Seoul campaign of Great and Affordable Restaurants.
Step inside Nampo Myun Oak, a replicated hanok and visitors take a journey back through time for a truly authentic experience. On the left, notice stone clay pots planted in the ground with dates posted on the lids. Inside, radish is kept cool, fermenting for two-week to onemonth intervals depending on the season. Once ripe, it will be served for the signature dongchimi.
The cozy interior features dynasties-old memorabilia and furnishings. Private rooms and floor seating are sectioned off with shoji-style sliding doors. And hanging on the wall are Hanguel autographs of entertainers and a former mayor of Seoul who resides in Korea’s executive mansion, the Blue House.
On the tables, dongchimi, a water radish kimchi soup, is compliments of the house — or in this case hanok. While some Korean soups are noisy brown or spicy red with mysterious ingredients, this soup couldn’t be any clearer.
A small helping serves a chilled vinegar-tinged broth, just a few chunks of white radish and a single blade of leak. It’s refreshingly quiet and surprisingly satisfying down to the last slurp. The delicate flavors will come to mind during your next serving of a tangy lemon-infused glass of ice water with a hint of honey on a July afternoon.
The restaurant’s main attraction is the Pyongyang naengmyeon, which enticed Rev. John Chong of Seoul and some of his parishioners on a cold Saturday evening. “We had beef at another restaurant, so we came here for the cold noodles,” the Episcopal priest old Groove magazine, adding that his favorite restaurant once again delivered.
Paper-thin slices of pickled cucumber pile on shoestring dices of Asian pear and flimsy wedges of red-pepper radish. The sweet-sourspicy trio rests artfully on a nest of buckwheat noodles lowered in dongchimi pot liquor. The half boiled egg topping the naengmyeon is enough protein to make this a hearty meal.
Pyongyang-style naengmyeon should not be confused with the other North Korean cold noodle dish that hails from Hamhung, says chef Park Seung Jun. Buckwheat noodles have a softer texture and are easier to chew than the Hamhung style made from a whiteor sweet-potato starch, he explains.
Traditionally, South Korea’s food preparation reflected its warmer climates and the necessity to preserve food. North Korea wasn’t bound by adding all those additives to its menu, so the results emphasize the food instead of overpowering spices.
First-time diner Seo Jang-sup, who works in the neighborhood, wanted to see if the restaurant lived up to its crowd-drawing appeal. “These days Korean food is very salty,” says Seo, who recognized a difference in taste between this Korea and the other Korea. “We care more about our health.”
Seo and his colleagues dug into a skillet of “not too salty” bulgogi (24,000 won, serves two to three) and a banchan of black soybeans, seasoned tofu, seaweed and kimchi side dishes.
The exceptional duk mandu will have you thinking twice before you order the pork dumplings from a cheap street vendor again. The mandu soup manages to pack flavor so rich that it taste more expensive than the 8,500 won it cost per bowl.
The Abok Jengban — a dish of cow belly beef, mushroom and jejube — is among the most requested order for patrons, says Chef Park. The ample spread of meat and veggies (55,000 won to 65,000 won for two to five guests) is to be dipped in a boiling broth.
The establishment, whose owner’s parents are from North Korea, has been serving the family recipes in Seoul for 45 years. During the week, the crowds include employees from all the local businesses in the area; on the weekends, the tourists keep them busy.
There’s a Hanguel sign that translates: “Here the customers are served like kings.” If it’s good enough for royalty …