Potato rice cakes are a top comfort food during harsh North Korean winters

Unification Media Group  |  2017-02-21 16:44

"As Heard in North Korea" articles contain the content of Unification Media Group [UMG] radio broadcasts into North Korea. UMG is a consortium created by Radio Free Chosun [RFC] and Open Radio for North Korea [ONK], shortwave radio stations targeting North Korea; The Daily NK, an internet periodical reporting on all aspects of North Korea; and OTV, an NGO-based internet television channel.

With the weather so cold lately, it seems like winter will never end. If South Korea is this cold, then imagine how cold it must be in North Korea. During such times, one can find comfort in delicious hot food. Potato rice cakes are a particularly popular choice and are selling very well in the markets of North Korea. Reporter Kang Mi Jin is here to tell us more.
 
Yes, it seems as if winter has been here forever. However, South Korea doesn’t have it so bad compared to the temperatures that dip below 20°C in North Korea. When the weather gets that cold, one would usually try to stay inside. Unfortunately, most North Korean citizens do not have this luxury and must continue working at the markets to scrape together a living. This is why they seek out hot meals as they sit outside in the cold all day. There’s a variety of hot street foods to choose from, and the most popular ones often sell very well. Today’s report focuses on how potato rice cakes are a vital source of comfort for North Korean citizens of Ryanggang and North and South Hamgyong Provinces.
 
I have heard so much about potato rice cakes from North Korean defectors. How do they make the potato rice cakes that are sold in the North Korean markets?
 
For the people who eat them, potato rice cakes are a delectable treat. However, for those who make them, the process is long and grueling. After first peeling the potatoes, one must grate them into fine strips and rinse them in water, replacing the water being used three times until it becomes clear. The grated potatoes then need to be mixed evenly with added starch, before shaping the potato mixture into fist-sized patties. The patties are then steamed slightly in a steaming pot until the outer layer is cooked. This takes around five minutes or so, after which one removes the dough patties and evenly mixes everything together again one last time. Once this is done, the potato rice cake dough is ready. 

Next is the filling. North Koreans like to use a variety of ingredients like beans and sweet red bean paste. However, vegetable filling is the probably the most popular. To make the vegetable filling, one has to shred cabbage and stir-fry it in an oiled pan. The filling is then added into the potato dough, which is molded into a traditional rice cake shape. According to individual preferences, some people add extra ingredients like red chili pepper flakes. Most North Koreans add red chili pepper flakes to the filling, probably on account of their preference for strong favors.
 
I once ate potato dumplings and the vendor who served me told me that once they get cold, they lose their taste. Does this also happen to potato rice cakes in North Korea?
 
Yes, it’s the same for potato rice cakes. But then you might wonder how they’re so popular in North Korea’s freezing cold outdoor markets. The answer is because they’re actually fried and sold on the spot at these markets. Add to that the fact potato rice cakes are not easy to make at home, and they become a welcome treat for those in the markets. There are other kinds of potato dishes too, like potato pancakes, but I’ve heard that potato rice cakes often sell out completely. So there are a lot of vendors who sell them at this time of year. Even people from the countryside will prepare potato rice cake dough patties, freeze them, and bring them to the city markets in sacks. This goes to show that a division of labor is occurring. The first step of the process involves production of the dough, which is made in the areas where potatoes are farmed and subsequently frozen before being transferred to the city. Wholesale merchants then take these potato rice cake dough patties and bring them to local vendors, who fry and sell the potato cakes to the general public.
 
I heard that potato rice cakes are even popular in areas where potatoes are not easily grown. Could you explain how they’re sold in these areas?
 
Once the ready-made dough is frozen, it’s good to eat until the spring - as long as it’s properly stored somewhere, like in a cellar or a warehouse. So even those living in remote areas can make the dough and bring it to the city to sell. Because potato rice cakes are popular in markets all over North Korea, potato rice cake vendors remain busy keeping up with the demand. Recently, I spoke with a woman from Ryanggang Province (Taehongdan County), who said that people from Kimchaek (North Hamgyong Province) and Tanchon (South Hamgyong Province) are making and selling several hundred potato rice cake dough patties every year because of the high demand. An average shipment of dough weighs about 100 kilograms, and is shipped to the city to be circulated by servicha (vehicles reappropriated for transportation and delivery services). This entire process can be a pain because of the cold weather, but the money makes it attractive.
 
The popularity of potato rice cakes and potato pancakes must mean that the vendors are pleased with the steady profits. In saying so, how much do these potato rice cakes cost in the markets of North Korea?
 
According to our sources inside North Korea, one potato rice cake sold in the markets of Ryanggang Province will generally cost 250 KPW. If a customer buys several at a time, the price is often reduced to 200 KPW each. I should add that the potatoes are originally farmed in Ryanggang Province, so it’s interesting to note that the price of one potato rice cake from Ryanggang Province is the same for one in North and South Hamgyong Provinces (250 KPW). 

This is strange because the prices should be different if you factor in the transportation costs. After looking into the discrepancy, I found out that the sizes are actually different; potato rice cakes sold in Ryanggang are a little bigger than those sold elsewhere. 
 
All this talk about delicious potato rice cakes is making me hungry! To conclude this interview, we’ll provide an update on prices at the jangmadang, as of February 2.
 
Market prices in North Korea are slowly rising. One kilogram of rice was 4500 KPW in Pyongyang, 4430 KPW in Sinuiju, and 4700 KPW in Hyesan. One kilogram of corn was 1200 KPW in Pyongyang, 1300 KPW in Sinuiju, and 1500 KPW in Hyesan. Compared to last week’s rice prices, there have been increases of 500 KPW in Pyongyang, 460 KPW in Sinuiju and 510 KPW in Hyesan. Corn prices have increased by 200 KPW in Pyongyang, 220 KPW in Sinuiju and 400 KPW in Hyesan.
 
The USD was trading at 8025 KPW in Pyongyang, 8020 KPW in Sinuiju and 8060 KPW in Hyesan. The Yuan was trading at 1200 KPW in Pyongyang, 1170 KPW in Sinuiju and 1180 KPW in Hyesan. One kilogram of pork was selling at 15,000 KPW in Pyongyang, 14,800 KPW in Sinuiju and 15,500 KPW in Hyesan. One kilogram of gasoline was selling at 8000 KPW in Pyongyang, 8100 KPW in Sinuiju and 8260 KPW in Hyesan. One kilogram of diesel oil costs 5500 KPW in Pyongyang, 5600 KPW in Sinuiju and 5900 KPW in Hyesan.

*Edited by Lee Farrand

 
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2017.04.25
Won Pyongyang Sinuiju Hyesan
Exchange Rate 8,040 8,032 8,100
Rice Price 4,900 4,890 4,910