North Korean defector serves up hope in her restaurant

Lee Ae-ran escaped North Korea, where she saw hunger firsthand, in 1997. She and her family lived through a devastating famine in North Korea during the 1990s, during which hundreds of thousands to millions of North Koreans died of starvation.

When she and her family were able to reach South Korea, Lee could not escape the subject of food. She studied food and nutrition and became the first woman defector to earn a doctorate in her field. “In North Korea even now, regardless of one’s social status, there is still great difficulty in terms of access to food. The sense of survival is still at risk for so many people in the country,” Lee says.

Night street scene in Seoul, South Korea (Shutterstock)
Nakwon-dong, a neighborhood in central Seoul, South Korea, where Lee’s restaurant is located (Shutterstock)

After becoming the first North Korean defector to run for a seat in South Korea’s National Assembly, Lee opened a restaurant in Seoul. Her place, Neungra Bapsang, serves dishes from and inspired by North Korea. For her, food is a bridge to greater understanding. “All of the employees at my restaurant are defectors, so that they can have that employment experience,” Lee said. “It’s very difficult for them to find jobs.”

‘Unification begins at the table’

Cookies on a plate (Shutterstock)
Yakgwa cookies (Shutterstock)

Lee does not believe there is a set “North Korean” or “South Korean” cuisine, but rather a spectrum of regional specialties.

The buckwheat noodles of Pyongyang naengmyeon, a delicacy associated with North Korea’s capital, traveled south when families split during the Korean War. Lee serves these and other dishes inspired by North Korean flavors. With only natural ingredients, Lee strives for a fresh, light taste.

Her food diplomacy has touched thousands of lives. Defectors sometimes drop by and ask for dishes not on the menu — a small slice of home.

“Unification begins at the table,” reads a sign on the wall.

Every year, she provides honey-and-sesame yakgwa, traditional Korean cookies, to South Korean and American troops as a gesture of friendship.