A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa: Sticky Rice Cakes Filled With Red Bean Paste

A River In Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea is a memoir written originally in Japanese and translated to English. Though at this point 19 years old, the book is still very poignant today. When published in 2000, Ishikawa was forced to use a pseudonym. In 2018 the book was republished with his true name on the cover.

Currently rated 4.26 stars on goodreads, I rated this book 5 stars. This book is incredibly raw. I cried multiple times throughout the story of Ishikawa’s life.

Born in Japan to a Japanese woman and a Korean father, life was already stacked against Ishikawa. Since he was half-Korean he wasn’t entirely accepted by Japanese society. His father wanted to return to Korea very badly. After the Korean War, North Korea began advertising to foreign-living Koreans of the utopia that North Korea had to offer, Ishikawa’s father relocated the family from Japan to North Korea. They left everything they knew and moved to a land they did not, where people spoke a language they did not, and lived in abject poverty.

This book details the struggles that Ishikawa faced during his life in North Korea and how he was able to escape, though it took leaving his family behind. I don’t really feel like I’m spoiling the book by telling too much – this is a story of truth about the inhumane treatment that is still occurring in walled off North Korea. There is no happy ending to the book. My guess is that even 19 years after its original publication, there still is no happy ending.

Because North Korea continues to remain walled off from the rest of the world, we obviously don’t hear many stories of people who live there. This book is an exception to that rule and is one that I highly encourage people to read.

I had a hard time when I was reading this book about the food. I didn’t want to make light of the lack of food situation in North Korea and I wanted to be respectful of both the story and of the people who live everyday in how I presented this book. Food mentioned in this book included:

  • Corn husks and kernels
  • Rice and Korean pickles
  • Dog meat
  • Rice balls with sweetened red beans
  • Rice cakes, meat, fish, and sake
  • Chinese cabbage boiled in water and thickened with cornstarch
  • Corn rice
  • Glutinous rice, sesame seeds, azuki beans, and regular rice
  • Daikon radishes
  • Thumb-size peaches, apples, and potatoes
  • Seaweed, pork, eggs, and daikon radish leaves
  • Soybean paste

Much of the food referenced in the book is either from times where there were celebrations (births and weddings) or memories and dreams of desires. When Ishikawa talks about the food eaten on a regular basis it was something like the rice gruel he explained: “Chop up the radish, including the leaves. Mix it all with a few grains of rice you’ve scrounged up. Add a lot of water to make a rice gruel.”

The recipe I made for this book is one that was mentioned several times throughout. He writes of his mother announcing that she wanted a rice ball coated with sweetened red beans. His father knew this would be impossible because of the cost of the rice, sugar, and beans. Mom responded, “‘Don’t worry! . . . I couldn’t eat a rice ball even if I tried. I don’t have enough teeth. My rice-ball-eating days are over.’ And then she just laughed.”

These are for Ishikawa’s mom who tried to keep up her spirit even in the face of impossible hardship. These are for Ishikawa’s mom who could not work in North Korea because she was not Korean, but who tried to help keep her family afloat by picking weeds to cook. These are for Ishikawa’s mom.

Sticky Rice Cakes filled with Red Bean Paste


4.5 oz glutinous rice flour
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup red bean paste
1/4 cup toasted sesame seeds
1 tbsp vegetable oil


  1. In a large bowl add the glutinous rice flour. Slowly add the water to the flour, mixing together with a fork. Once the water is all added, the dough should come together like a soft play-dough feel.
  2. Dust a work spot with rice flour. Divide the dough into six even size balls.
  3. Flatten each of the balls into a circle approximately 1/4 inch thick and 2 1/2 inches in diameter.
  4. Scoop a little more than 1 tbsp of the red bean paste and form it into a ball. Place one on the middle of each disk. Form the dough around the red bean paste and then flatten each side with your palms.
  5. Place the sesame seeds on a flat plate. Press each cake into the sesame seeds on each side.
  6. In a non-stick pan heat the vegetable oil. Once hot fry the cakes for approximately 3 minutes per side.

Makes 6 rice cakes.

This recipe and book recommendation are being shared with Foodies Read, Novel Food, Weekend Cooking, & Year of the Asian Reading Challenge.

As to the #YARC2019 challenge, March’s theme is challenge. Though we don’t have to read books that fit the theme and truthfully, I didn’t go out searching for one that did, I think A River In Darkness is the epitome of the challenge theme.

And I’m still on track for the Philippine tarsier badge.


3 thoughts on “A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa: Sticky Rice Cakes Filled With Red Bean Paste

  1. I really love red bean paste, so I bet I’d like these rice cakes. I don’t know a lot about Korea, but this book sounds important and still timely.


  2. Thank you for introducing me to this book. I like your presentation and the way you approached choosing and making a recipe inspired by it. I like how you dedicated the rice cakes to the author’s mother. Thank you for contributing to Novel Food 🙂


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s