Visitors look at food made using potato flour during North Korea's national cooking competition in Pyongyang. Photographer: Ed Jones/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.
Around 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 characterised by its clear and fresh flavour, 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.
"Naengmyeon" cold potato flour noodles are displayed during North Korea's national cooking competition in Pyongyang. Photographer: Ed Jones/AFP
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 the country's 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.
CHIPS WITH EVERYTHING
Leader Kim Jong Un'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 official KCNA news agency, Kim said that North Koreans should be told about the products "advantages and effectiveness and the methods of making various potato powder foods should be widely propagandised to them."
Potato flour balls are displayed during North Korea's national cooking competition in Pyongyang. Photographer: Ed Jones/AFP
In one room, groaning tables were laden with dishes made from potato powder — pizzas, dumplings, noodles, even chocolate cake.
Competition organiser Kim Kum Hun, of the central committee of the Korea Cooks Association — who says his favourite food is steak — is an enthusiast.
"Of course rice is our main food but bread and potato powder can be our staple food too," he said.
Potatoes, he explained, yield 20 tonnes per hectare, while rice produces less than 10 tonnes.
And culinary official Kim dismissed concerns over a country affected by food shortages holding a cooking competition, insisting on the inevitable victory of socialism.
"Those who are surprised to see a cooking festival here say that because they don't know our people well," Kim said.
"Even if we are under sanctions or not given rice, our lives are not affected. We can live by the might of self-reliance."
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