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North Korean cold noodle master brings northern tastes to Seoul

A bowl of Pyongyang cold noodles served in broth and a brass bowl at Moon Yeon-hee's Sulnoon restaurant in Seoul, South Korea, Aug. 5.
Anthony Kuhn
/
NPR
A bowl of Pyongyang cold noodles served in broth and a brass bowl at Moon Yeon-hee's Sulnoon restaurant in Seoul, South Korea, Aug. 5.

SEOUL — Italy has its pasta salad, and China its cold sesame noodles. But there are few places where cold noodles are held in as high esteem as in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea.

Naengmyeon, as it's called, is enjoyed both in the sweltering heat of summer, and the frigid depths of winter, and on both sides of the heavily fortified border between the two Koreas.

This dish for all seasons originates in North Korea, and while many noodle chefs in the South trace their roots back to the North, very few of them have actually made and served the dish in Pyongyang.

Restaurateur Moon Yeon-hee is the third generation of her family to do just that. Moon was born and raised in Pyongyang, and her family ran a restaurant in Pyongyang's Koryo Hotel, the country's second largest.

Moon Yeon-hee in her restaurant, Sulnoon, in the Seocho district of Seoul, South Korea, Aug. 5. She is the third generation of her family to have made Pyongyang cold noodles in the North Korean capital, before defecting to South Korea in 2016.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR
/
NPR
Moon Yeon-hee in her restaurant, Sulnoon, in the Seocho district of Seoul, South Korea, Aug. 5. She is the third generation of her family to have made Pyongyang cold noodles in the North Korean capital, before defecting to South Korea in 2016.

Moon's parents were born in Tokyo and were among thousands of Koreans who returned to North Korea in the 1960s to 1980s.

Moon herself defected to the South in 2016. Three years later, she and her mother opened Sulnoon, a noodle restaurant in Seoul's upscale Seocho district. Autographs of celebrities who have dined there hang on the walls, as does a painting of ducks, frolicking in a snowy winter landscape.

The painting is reminiscent of the restaurant's name: Sulnoon means snow on the first day of the Lunar New Year, which North Koreans often celebrate with a bowl of cold noodles.

"There are lots of Pyongyang naengmyeon restaurants in South Korea, but we are the only place that's following the original North Korea recipe," Moon proudly claims.

Moon explains several things that distinguish Pyongyang-style naengmyeon from southern versions.

"Most places in South Korea use only beef for broth," she observes. "We use three kinds of meat — chicken, pork and beef — that create this complex aroma of meat." She stores the broth at a uniform 35-37 degrees. The chicken stands in for pheasant, which is sometimes used in broth in the North, but which is too expensive in the South.

The noodles are an earthy brown color, made with whole buckwheat flour, and potato starch added for cohesion. Toppings include slices of beef and pork, pickled radish, cucumber, egg and pear, and are served in a traditional brass bowl.

Also on Sulnoon's menu are pan-fried mung bean pancakes, braised beef short ribs and steamed dumplings stuffed with pork and vegetables.

Moon Yeon-hee and restaurant staff at Sulnoon stuff meat and vegetable filling into dumplings, before steaming them, in Seoul, South Korea, on Aug. 5.
Anthony Kuhn / NPR
/
NPR
Moon Yeon-hee and restaurant staff at Sulnoon stuff meat and vegetable filling into dumplings, before steaming them, in Seoul, South Korea, on Aug. 5.

While Moon takes pride in recreating the authentic taste of Pyongyang's signature dish, she does not even try to approximate the experience of dining in a Pyongyang cold noodle restaurant. And there are several reasons why she might not want to.

For one thing, she says, because the government sees the dish as an important culinary symbol of the capital, all Pyongyang restaurants that specialize in cold noodles must be state-run.

"Pyongyang naengmyeon is the pride of Pyongyang," she explains. "And when foreign dignitaries visit North Korea, that's where we bring them to show how huge our Pyongyang naengmyeon restaurants are."

The most famous of these eateries is the cavernous Okryugwan, established under directions from North Korean founding dynast Kim Il Sung in the 1960s. Kim's grandson, current leader Kim Jong Un, brought a chef from Okryugwan to prepare cold noodles for a summit dinner with his southern counterpart, Moon Jae-in, in 2018.

Then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in (third left), wife Kim Jung-sook (second left), North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (third right) and his, wife Ri Sol Ju during a lunch at the Okryugwan in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Sept. 19, 2018.
/ Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool/Getty Images
/
Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool/Getty Images
Then-South Korean President Moon Jae-in (third left), wife Kim Jung-sook (second left), North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (third right) and his, wife Ri Sol Ju during a lunch at the Okryugwan in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Sept. 19, 2018.

Moon Yeon-hee says a table at Okryugwan often can't be had at any price.

"There's a quota of 5,000 bowls of naengmyeon they must serve every day," she explains. "So they distribute tickets for 500 or 100 bowls of noodles to factories and organizations. And people go to eat in large groups."

A veteran of the Pyongyang cold noodle scene, Moon has seen the inner workings of the state-run noodle emporiums. At Okryugwan, she says, officials and VIPs have their noodles prepared in a separate kitchen.

By contrast, ordinary diners, Moon says, often get less than what they're supposed to.

"That's the hidden side of North Korea," she says. "There's a set amount of meat that should go into making 500 kilograms of broth, for example, but workers there don't use all of it. They need to make a living, so they smuggle some of it out."

And Okryugwan's assembly-line-style production often can't get the noodles to the huge groups of diners fast enough, meaning they often reach diners stuck together in one lump.

All of this is an unappetizing prospect for Pyongyang's donju, or wealthy entrepreneurs. These nouveau riche now spend dollars, yuan and euros at private cafes and fast-food restaurants that have cropped up in the capital in recent years, serving burgers, sushi and pizzas.

"The main customers are party officials and their children and people who do business under the protection of the party," Moon says, referring to the North's ruling Workers' Party. "People who import things from Russia and China and sell them in North Korea. Those people are as well-off as South Korea's middle class."

The donju expect top quality for their money, and that, Moon says, is why they choose the Koryo Hotel when they want naengmyeon.

With their new restaurant firmly established in Seoul, Moon and her family are now hoping to serve up their cold noodles in new lands. They're considering opening a new eatery in Los Angeles next year.

NPR's Se Eun Gong contributed to this report in Seoul.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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