Clumsily levering one sticky mouthful after another into my mouth, chopsticks ineptly aligned between my blanched fingers, two questions come to me. Was it ethically sound to dine at the Pyongyang Restaurant in downtown Phnom Penh? And was there anything worth eating there?
The first question would be answered in the negative by any North Korean defector I have met. Imagine if North Korea had opened up to an army of young backpackers sometime in the 1990s and Cambodia was still a rarely-visited pariah state, ruled over by Pol Pot or one of his cronies. To tuck into Cambodian cuisine in Pyongyang would be to bankroll the Khmer Rouge, pure and simple.
On the second question, it should be said that however arbitrarily the peninsula was carved in half back in 1948, patrons of DPRK-run restaurants need not worry that their money is buying nothing that isn’t readily available in their hometown. ‘Northern’ cuisine is no marketing ploy. As in China, differentials in climate and topography have always marked Korean diets.
And so, my mouth watering, I thanked the waitress for the Pyongyang Restaurant’s menu. It offered Onban, alternately a beef or chicken dish of soup, rice and side dishes, sometimes served with dumplings but always including rice, mushrooms, glass noodles, pancakes and eggs.
Other options included jeongol stew and kimchi dishes. As expected, the menu offered Pyongyang’s most famous meal, the Mul Naen-myun ‘cold noodle’ dish. Pictures displayed the large stainless bowls in which the tangy vegetable broth simmered, prepared with boiled beef slices and boiled egg. Mul Naen-myun was traditionally popular in the capital and Hamhung, both cities near upland areas where the buckwheat used to make the noodles was cultivated.
Indeed, eating habits have long differed in the north, much of which is buckled into windswept mountain ranges. For the most part, North Korea’s rice and corn cultivation in the fertile South Hwanghae Province, near the southern border. Pyongyang, subject to punishing winters, tended to emphasize meat, bean and peas dishes with staples including tofu, rice porridge and pork dishes. As in the south, northern dishes use various broths and condiments, including bean paste, sesame oil, garlic, ginger and chilli paste.
With limited experience of all these, I erred on the side of conservatism, ordering myself a helping of Korea’s celebrated spiced cabbage. It has been noted that kimchi tends to become more tart and spicy the further south you travel on the Korean peninsula. Perhaps so, but northern kimchi has traditionally been soaked in ginger, garlic and chilli brine, and stored in jars, all the better to last the winter. My helping, coupled with the dehydrating effect of the Phnom Penh night, soon had me gasping for water.
But for the few dollars exchanged, I thought I’d gotten value for money. Other customers might beg to differ. With the ‘Pyongyang’ restaurants proliferating across Asia, online reviewers alternate between those agog at having had a rare peep into an off-limits culture and those disgruntled at the high prices charged for the privilege. Meanwhile, the occasional reviewer rails against the others for having visited the restaurant at all.
My favourite review is from an irate Belgian, charged $80 for a three course meal in Siem Reap, northern Cambodia. Cold noodles, but ‘excellent’ dumplings and kimchi gave way to sashimi and “low and behold, what came out was slices of completely frozen fish, still frozen to the plate.” Demanding that this repast, soon melting into fishy sludge, be returned and replaced, the waitress was unsympathetic: “Siem Reap is far from the sea, so this is what you get!” (Siem Reap is next to a huge lake).
So, it would seem, the ethos of ‘Juche’ (translating literally self-mastery) applies to the customers as much as to the staff: put up and shut up, Mister. With an attitude like that, it scarcely seems surprising that the first attempt to set up a restaurant in The Netherlands earlier in the year was short-lived.
But these are early days. The soldiers, sailors and pilots, saluting and goose-stepping across Kim Il-sung Square might soon have new comrades: white hatted chefs, soup ladles and meat cleavers at the ready.
But why stop at restaurants? In the past, the DPRK has attempted to play the capitalist game by setting aside corralled ‘special economic zones.’ In areas like Rason and Kaesong, foreign companies and joint-DPRK ventures can do their bit for the regime’s balance of payments without the risk of the ‘polluting’ effect of consumerism being let loose on the general population. That might lead them towards subversive ways of thinking.
But a more ‘surgical’ approach is evident in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and elsewhere. Rather than have a couple of large zones on North Korean soil and have to import foreign workers, potential pollutants, or allow local workers, potential apostates, into the zones, why not have lots of little ‘zones’ sucking up revenue from various locations overseas?
Whatever diversification might be expected in the coming years, joint-DPRK stores, massage parlours, karaoke clubs and hotels perhaps, certainly come with risks. There could be further defections or even litigation from aggrieved local partners, if the Amsterdam venture was an omen of things to come.
But never mind. Eggs must be broken to make the simmering omelette of many a northern dish.