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Frontier Foods: Cold Noodles and Cabbage Along China’s Border with North Korea

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Chanting masses of uniformed soldiers, intercontinental ballistic missiles on trucks cruising through public squares, Kim Jong Un inspecting who knows what. These are the familiar scenes that play out in sanctioned media coverage from the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), otherwise known as North Korea.

Yet in China, from the eastern city of Shanghai to the northern city of Dandong, which borders the DPRK, diners can expect another well-documented scene to play out in restaurants specializing in North Korean food and kitsch ambiance.

Behind blacked out windows, beautiful young hostesses allegedly picked for their loyalty to the ruling Kim Dynasty perform song and dance routines as diners feast on a range of Korean dishes in addition to tried and true Chinese classics.

korean waitress dprk dandong restaurant

A waitress performing at a North Korean restaurant in Dandong (image: courtesy Young Pioneer Tours)

“The North Korean restaurants in China are mostly aimed at attracting both mainland Chinese people and South Korean guests, which is why you’ll see dishes from both nations included on the menu on top of classic North Korean servings,” Rowan Beard, a North Korea tour manager for Young Pioneer Tours, tells RADII. “It’s quite common to see items on the menu such as kung pao chicken or mapo doufu from China, or fried chicken with cheese and hobakjuk [pumpkin porridge] from South Korea, for example.”

Dining at one of the numerous DPRK-operated restaurants in China, such as a popular chain named after the capital city, Pyongyang, is a surreal experience. This is particularly true in Dandong, Liaoning province, where many of these establishments are located within walking distance of the Yalu River, part of the 1,420-kilometer-long line separating the two nations.

The modern-day border between China’s Dongbei region — a term that denotes the country’s three northeasternmost provinces — and Korea is a relatively new invention, however, considering the two regions’ long, shared history. Both sides saw centuries of invasion and territory reallocation as far back as 109 BCE, until the border we see today along the course of the Yalu and Tumen rivers was negotiated around 1949.

Millennia of contact have resulted in a considerable population of ethnic Koreans now residing within the PRC, mainly in the border provinces of Liaoning and Jilin. Jilin is also home to the Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, the only minority prefecture in northeast China, where ethnic Koreans make up roughly 35% of the population.

“About 56% of Tumen’s population are ethnic Koreans,” says Wei Changli, a resident of the county-level city of Tumen in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. “There are Korean restaurants and activity centers in each of the eight counties and cities of Yanbian.”

china korean border dandong

A view from Dandong across the Yalu River of Sinijiu, DPRK

For foodies, this considerable Korean population has resulted in wide availability of quality edibles from both portions of the Korean peninsula, as well as fusion dishes and Korean-inspired Chinese food.

“In terms of food, there are barbecues, Korean soybean paste soup, tteok, cold noodles, all sorts of kimchi and a great variety of other snacks,” says Wei, who has lived the majority of his life in Tumen, which borders the North Korean town of Namyang in North Hamgyong province, on the other side of the Tumen River.

“Korean food prevails here, but there is a mix of Han Chinese and Korean flavors,” Wei tells us. “There are some restaurants offering both cuisines, while others specialize only in Korean food; the latter accounts for more than 30% [of all restaurants here].”

In Yanji, the prefectural capital of Yanbian, Korean cuisine is found in abundance, and the famous Pyongyang cold noodles are so popular in the city that they have become localized as “Yanji cold noodles,” according to China Daily.

Related:

Mian’splained: An Illustrated Guide to Chinese Noodles, Part One

Wei’s adult daughter, Ivy, tells us that locals in Yanbian do not necessarily view Yanji cold noodles as a Korean dish but instead a part of the “Korean Chinese” (Zhongguo Chaoxian zu 中国朝鲜族) nationality’s food culture. She adds that the foodstuff is popular among all nationalities in the area, not just Korean people.

The presence of ethnic Koreans in Jilin’s border areas has also resulted in many common Dongbei regional dishes receiving subtle — and sometimes not so subtle — tweaks. When speaking about the influence of Korean cuisine on the classic Dongbei fare in Yanji, Beard notes that many dishes are spiced up to offer a taste that appeals more to ethnic Koreans, including di san xian (地三鲜) — stir-fried potatoes, sweet pepper and eggplant — and culiang la pi (粗粮拉皮)cold noodles and veggies.

Of course, this adaptation also goes the other way, with Korean dishes sometimes altered to better appeal to the tastes of Chinese locals. Many of the Korean dishes served in DPRK-operated restaurants are prepared slightly sweeter and less spicy than what you’d normally find south of the border.

Much like in Yanji, many small, locally-run noodle shops in Dandong — which is situated across the Yalu from the North Korean city of Sinuiju — offer various Sinicized renditions of the famous Pyongyang cold noodles.

radii dandong street cold noodles

Dandong street cold noodles (image: courtesy Young Pioneer Tours)

Traditionally made with buckwheat flour noodles in Korea, we’ve come across variations of Pyongyang cold noodles in Dandong that utilize Chinese glass noodles and even wheat-based noodles — something that would be unheard of in the DPRK.

“There is a cold noodles dish in Dandong that is certainly based off of Pyongyang’s version but I’ve seen it prepared in so many different ways […] the noodles aren’t as compacted together as authentic Pyongyang cold noodles, which is extremely important to the Koreans,” says Beard. “The chopping technique used on the cucumber, how the pork has been prepared and cooked, as well as the broth varies [in Dandong].

“I love experiencing new cold noodles in China because there are so many different versions. In North Korea, they stick to the same cookbook and they do it very well.”

The culinary similarities go beyond noodles, however, and include ingredients and cooking techniques. One notable example is Napa cabbage, or da bai cai (大白菜) in Chinese, an ingredient that is pungently prepared in both the Koreas and China.

napa cabbage kimchi korean food

Korean kimchi made with Napa cabbage (image: Wikicommons)

Kimchi is closely tied to the national cuisines of both the DPRK and Republic of Korea (ROK) — or South Korea — and is made by fermenting Napa cabbage and other vegetables to create a sour, tangy or spicy dish. In northeast China, the cabbage is pickled to create the iconic Dongbei-style suan cai (酸菜) — not to be confused with the myriad other varieties of suan cai around China and Asia at large — which has a sour taste. While both foods are prepared using different methods (fermenting is a chemical reaction between naturally present bacteria and sugars, while pickling involves an acidic liquid), there are notable similarities in their taste.

In northeastern China, this pickled cabbage is used in pork dumplings, stews and stir-fried with vermicelli noodles and meat. In Korea, kimchi is also used in traditional mandu (dumplings), which also often use pork.

Barbecue is also incredibly popular throughout northeast Asia for both seafood and terrestrial mammal meat. Although there are regional differences, people in Korea often using lettuce or cabbage to wrap their cooked meats, while Chinese people tend to use skewers while cooking and eating.

korean barbecue china

Korean-style barbecue

Beyond spicy cabbage, cold noodles and barbecue, China and the Korean peninsula also share a love for northern China’s iconic zhajiangmian (炸酱面) noodles, a dish that’s even found its way to Japan.

“Zhajiangmian is quite popular in both North and South Korea,” notes Beard.

“In my experience, when I tell Koreans [from either portion of the peninsula] it’s an old dish from Beijing, they don’t believe me or claim that theirs is better.”

While most commonly associated with Beijing, Shandong and Tianjin, zhajiangmian is also popular in Dongbei, where its sauce is sometimes prepared with doenjang — a Korean-style fermented bean paste — instead of sweet or yellow soybean paste. This culinary tweak is the result of influence from the region’s ethnic Korean population.

While the DPRK is the Korean state that borders northeast China, that does not mean that influences from South Korea are not present there. Quite the contrary, in fact: In Dandong, Tumen and other border cities, food tracing its roots to the southern portion of the peninsula can be found in abundance, including South Korean-style bibimbap, hobakjuk and kimbap.

When speaking with Wei, he notes that in the past, dietary habits in Jilin’s border areas were largely influenced by the North Korean state and its diaspora, although the growing number of people from Yanbian visiting South Korea for work has begun to change that. Today, dishes from South Korea are generally more abundant.

From Korean-influenced zhajiangmian, to Yanji’s claim to Pyongyang’s legendary cold noodles, culinary exchange between China and the Korean peninsula goes deeper than its kitschy North Korean restaurants — and is altogether worth dipping into.

All images unless otherwise specified: Matthew Bossons

Matthew Bossons
    Matthew Bossons is a Guangzhou-based writer and editor with a passion for history, untold stories and good beer. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, Bossons has worked as a journalist in China for over half a decade and has had work published in major Chinese media outlets as well as international publications.