Sat, Feb 16, 2019 - Page 5 News List

Hundreds join N Korea cookfest

NOURISHMENT:The three-day competition is part of Pyongyang’s push to promote the higher-yield and more profitable potato as a staple to solve chronic food shortages

AFP, PYONGYANG

Dishes made using potato flour are displayed during a national cooking competition in Pyongyang on Wednesday.

Photo: AFP

Lined up in cavernous rooms at a state restaurant in Pyongyang, North Korean chefs carefully assemble their dishes, watched by crowds of onlookers at a cooking competition in a country that suffers chronic food shortages.

From samsaek gaepitok, or three-color stuffed rice cake — delicately formed green-and-white parcels of red bean paste — to yak kwa, fried wheat biscuit glazed with honey, or courgette stuffed with meat, attention to detail is key to catching the judges’ eyes.

About 300 cooks are competing in 40 different dishes over three days at North Korea’s national cooking competition, with the winners receiving cookbooks and equipment .as well as diplomas and medals.

Onlookers — mostly women in warm winter coats — gathered around each station in the unheated venue, some of them filming the contestants at work on their mobile phones for future inspiration.

“The reason why Korean food is excellent is that it is characterized by its clear and fresh flavor, without any mixed feelings,” said judge Han Jong-guk, a pastry chef by trade.

“For example, fish dishes taste of real fish and chicken tastes like real chicken. This is the main characteristic of Korean food,” he added.

However, the reality is that beyond the restaurant’s granite columns and the privileged lifestyles of the capital’s residents, North Korea is unable to feed itself.

Ahead of his second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Vietnam at the end of the month, US President Donald Trump has dangled the prospect of the isolated country becoming an economic powerhouse if a deal could be reached over its nuclear weapons.

While the 1990s famine known as the Arduous March — when hundreds of thousands of people died — is in the past, North Korean agricultural yields are well below global averages and its population remains severely undernourished.

“Chronic food insecurity and malnutrition is extensive,” the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization said in its 2019 Needs and Priorities document this week.

No less than 43 percent of the population — 10.9 million people — are affected by food insecurity, it said, while one-third of children do not receive the minimum acceptable diet, and one in five suffer from stunting caused by chronic malnutrition.

“Each year, the domestic food production does not meet needs by approximately 1 million tonnes,” it added.

As well as the shortage of arable land -—- the country is largely mountainous — and periodic natural disasters, North Korea also lacks modern agricultural techniques and fertilizers, the UN said.

Kim’s answer is: potatoes.

Unlike rice paddies inundated with water, potatoes do not have to be grown on flat land and Pyongyang is pushing the humble spud as a staple food.

Kim has visited a potato powder factory several times, pictured on one occasion last year lying back with officials on a mountain of tubers, the underground stems of potatoes.

According to the Korean Central News Agency, Kim said that North Koreans should be told about the product’s “advantages and effectiveness ... and the methods of making various potato powder foods should be widely propagandized to them”.

The Pyongyang cooking competition is part of the recipe.

In one room, groaning tables were laden with dishes made from potato powder — pizzas, dumplings, noodles, even chocolate cake.

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