A visit to Pyongyang – almost

30 Mar

North Korea is still a big mystery to me.  I have read books about its history and peered across the 38th parallel, but that makes me far from an expert.

A couple of weeks ago we met friends for dinner.  As these friends are Chinese, we take turns choosing the restaurant and paying – this time it was their turn.  The night before we were supposed to meet my friend sent me a note asking if Korean food was ok.  We both like Korean food and so agreed to meet at a subway stop and then walk to the restaurant together.

The napkin - in Korean and Chinese

The napkin – in Korean and Chinese

I didn’t recognize all the characters in the name, so didn’t pay much attention, but when we got there we realized it was a North Korean restaurant.  We were in for an interesting night!

Taking in the atmosphere while our friends ordered

Taking in the atmosphere while our friends ordered

The waitresses were all from North Korea and they were dressed in the traditional long formal Korean dress – a combination of a qipao and a kimono.  At the beginning we took a couple of photos but they quickly asked us to put our cameras away.  It appeared that some things are still not free in North Korea – even when you are in China.

Doing some research – it appears that the North Korean government provides the waitresses and they are from families with “good backgrounds” and all college educated – so a step above a typical waitresses in China.  The owner of the restaurant is a Chinese national, but if any of the waitresses “disappears” – then the North Korean government will immediately pull all the waitresses and bankrupt the owner.  Typically they would take 50% of the profit from the endeavor.  Pretty surreal.

The kimchi was among the best I've had and the rice drink in the glass behind was phenomenal.

The kimchi was among the best I’ve had and the rice drink in the glass behind was phenomenal.

The food was similar to food that I have had at many other Korean restaurants.  The kimchi was excellent and they had a special drink that was made of rice.  It was non-alcoholic and reminded me a little bit of Mexican orchata – but a slightly different  flavor profile.  The beef they cooked for you instead of having a grill on the middle of the table which meant that you weren’t overwhelmed by the smoke which was also a nice touch.

Yes - I did wear flowers in my hair, but I did not join the conga line (though our friend did)

Yes – I did wear flowers in my hair, but I did not join the conga line (though our friend did)

After eating – we waited for the highlight of the evening – the performance by the waitresses.  They had changed out of their traditional clothes and were wearing more modern outfits as they serenaded us for a good 30 minutes.  It was a surreal experience – the entire time they performed they had these plastic smiles pasted on their faces and the song choices were random – to say the least.  There were songs in Korean and Chinese and at one point they started passing out flowers and formed a conga line.  I enjoyed it – but it was just plain strange.

The only shot we got of the entertainment - there was an accordion player, electric guitars and singers

The only shot we got of the entertainment – there was an accordion player, electric guitars and singers

At one point as I was clapping Li looked at me and said, “You really shouldn’t clap to this song.”  He then explained that the song was cheering the entry of Chinese soldiers into the Korean War (which meant against the Americans).  I didn’t know, but I did stop for the duration of that event.

Our discussion during dinner was very wide ranging and included the question – “If Mao’s son hadn’t died – would China look like North Korea now?”  It was an interesting question that my friends and Li debated for a long time.  I just listened.

After having some time to digest the meal (mentally and physically) I am not sure if I had known it was a North Korean restaurant that I would have gone, but having had the chance it did give me a glimpse into another world that I would very rarely see.   What do you think?

Would you have gone?




12 Responses to “A visit to Pyongyang – almost”

  1. The Polyglut March 30, 2014 at 4:59 pm #

    I think I would have gone, if only to say that I’d done it. North Korea is a fascinating country (albeit for all the wrong reasons!) and to have just a glimpse of it must have been quite surreal.

    • gkm2011 March 31, 2014 at 7:47 am #

      It gave me the feeling I was watching a play – none of the actors let you see what they were really like. The end result was more of sadness than anything – though it was a fun evening,

  2. CrazyChineseFamily March 31, 2014 at 2:34 am #

    This really looks surreal. Didnt imagine that such restaurant exists 🙂

    • gkm2011 March 31, 2014 at 7:45 am #

      Me either – was really unique – though I understand there are more of them in other cities as well. An experience.

  3. glen van alkemade March 31, 2014 at 5:34 am #

    Heck yes I would go. Just clean that fish for me in the kitchen, before bringing it to my table.

    • gkm2011 March 31, 2014 at 7:46 am #

      They did for this restaurant. Maybe the live fish is more of a Chinese thing.

      • glen van alkemade April 1, 2014 at 10:34 am #

        Years ago at a South Korean restaurant in Chicago, i ordered a grilled fish, and they brought me a grilled fish. The whole fish. Straight from the tank to the grill to my plate. I was horrified. i couldn’t deal with it. the waitress explained that in Korea the fish is served whole to assure fresheness or something. She offered me chopsticks to clean it with. I had to step outside for air. when I returned, a friend had dismantled the fish with a nial file or something and hidden the entrails under a tureen.

      • gkm2011 April 3, 2014 at 7:01 pm #

        Whole fish is very common, but I thought you were talking about bringing the fish in the bucket before it is cooked – that is a Chinese thing!

  4. sarahinguangzhou April 3, 2014 at 5:46 pm #

    This is fascinating. I particularly like that they employ college educated wait staff and take steps to make sure they don’t decided to disappear.
    I went up to the DMZ once and took a photo of the North; that’s as close as I plan to get to it really. But yes I’d be fascinated to go in a N Korean restaurant. There’s one in London somewhere, but it’s really expensive I think.

    • gkm2011 April 3, 2014 at 6:59 pm #

      It was a little pricey for Shanghai but not bad – about 700 RMB for 4 people. Next time you’re in Asia…

  5. buildingmybento April 10, 2014 at 12:48 am #

    The rice drink, it was probably called shikkye.

    Also, if you ever want to visit Pyongyang, I can give a bit of advice;)

    • gkm2011 April 11, 2014 at 5:28 pm #

      Thanks! If I do decide to go will look you up!

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