Remco Van Daal, owner of the Pyongyang Restaurant in Amsterdam, has repeatedly said that his restaurant is not about politics, it is about culture. Before we get any further, I want to confirm this view. The restaurant walls hold a myriad of paintings, waitresses wear delicate silk Hanbok of varying colours and patterns, along with friendly smiles, and they showcase second-to-none singing and dancing talents. In short, the restaurant does a good job at portraying the image and culture of the DPRK normally presented during a tour to the country, albeit in Europe.
“In my 40 years as a taxi driver, I have never even heard of this address!”, said my driver as I handed him the address I had printed. It is a 10 minute drive from Sloterdijk train station to Osdorp, a residential suburb of Amsterdam. Outside the restaurant, which was set far back down a concrete track hidden between two buildings on the main road, three beautiful North Korean women in stunning Hanbok stood smiling and waving, waiting to help the diners. They greeted me in Dutch, and I replied in English, a language they were far more comfortable conversing in. I later asked the waitress if she was studying Dutch, to which she replied that she had only learnt basic phrases. This is unlikely to be a problem given the Dutch peoples’ impeccable English fluency.
I was seated in front of the karaoke machine which played a variety of North Korean songs, displaying lyrics at the bottom and various (and aged) images of the DPRK in the background. This was the first opportunity to appreciate the art which covered every once-blank bit of wall. Particularly stunning was the image of a young lady in a park which at a distance was so elaborate that it looked like a photograph. Other images which would be familiar to the keen Korea watcher were Mount Kumgang, a Pyongyang cityscape painted in 2008 showing a finished Ryugyong hotel, and a young girl with a soldier outside of the May Day Stadium. The young girl was in her tiny hanbok, smiling and holding the soldier’s hand, to which the waitress proudly declared “Military first – Songun”. Other paintings included Kimjongilia, which the waitress informed me can grow to 30cm in width, and tulips to represent the Netherlands, which are very much appreciated by Dutch men apparently.
I was then presented with two menus; a shorter 5 course with the option of paying for Pyongyang cold noodles and priced at €49, or the 9 course menu without the noodles, but with a more interesting variety, though this choice will set you back €79. This is without drinks, which consists of the standard choice of soft drinks, wines or Heinekken – no North Korean beer currently. Once the menu decision is made, it is left on the side of the table so you can identify your meal, which proves useful. The waitress was also keen to explain the components of the dishes and exactly how to mix them or eat them. This was interesting culturally and added to the overall experience.
The first dish of the nine was a shredded potato dish (which I had substituted for the original mushroom dish) with dipping sauce served on a big brass dish and proved to be one of my favourites and a good way to begin the meal. After I had ate, the waitresses approached the karaoke machine and two of them proceeded to sing two songs, one being perhaps the most famous Korean song, Arirang. They harmonised beautifully and had wonderful singing voices. They danced a traditional folk dance in the instrumental parts and stepped slowly in time to the music whilst they sang. I asked the waitress where she had learnt to sing and dance so well, to which she responded that in Pyongyang she had joined singing and dancing clubs in school which were, of course, free of charge.
Afterwards came Chobab which, for the less culturally aware, is sushi. There were three pieces which had a strong and unique taste, and it came with seaweed sticks and a delicious thin beef and radish soup. All three of the waitresses then took to the front to sing the “cheers” song, with a glass of wine in hand toasting both each other and the diners. Two wore yellow hanbok, one more plain, the other with flowers, and the third wore a pink hanbok with flowers. I asked my waitress if she had bought her Hanbok in Pyongyang and if it had been expensive, to which she said “yes, and not very!”. The waitresses never stopped smiling, and it never for a second appeared fake or forced; they were happy to serve and happy to show off their culture. Afterwards, a fourth waitress who had previously kept mostly behind the bar came to play two songs passionately on the piano next to the karaoke machine.
The Vermicelli chapchae was another highlight of the meal as it was very flavoursome and well presented with almost oragami-like cucumber slices. I had two kimchi dishes; one with the mung bean pancakes and sea bass which was, although one of the lightest parts of the meal, also one of the most memorable due to the fine tastes. The first kimchi was not as tasty as the cabbage kimchi as it had less of the traditional chilli flavour and the texture was a little bit hard. Nonetheless, it was enjoyable to try it. Other highlights for me were the steamed beef with insam which was cooked to perfection and very fragrant; the bulgogi served on hot stones which the waitress taught me to fold in the lettuce leaf with the addition of peppers and kimchi; and finally the pear and strawberry compote which came with 3 other items (pumpkin jelly, rice cake and black bean jelly) for dessert. The Bibimbab was very spicy indeed. When my waitress asked, with a cheeky smile, “do you like spicy food?”, I said yes, blissfully unaware. Be prepared for this spicy, but still very good, dish.
The presentation was wonderful; you could see the hard work which went into each dish and that the chef had treated each like creating the art which surrounded me on the walls. We were provided with hot towels for our hands and faces and were able to sit and let the food digest as long as we wished, as I asked for the bill instead of being presented with it.
I was given a book to read all about the production of the food and the restaurant chains in China. The book’s text was in Korean, Mandarin and English, and had some lovely photographs, facts and addresses of the restaurants in China. My waitress even had her photo in the book from when she worked in China for 3 years. From then on, we realised we could converse in Mandarin which was much easier for her and gave her a chance to tell me more about her life.
She had been in Holland for 6 months after working in China for 3 years. In China there is far more seafood and she said she preferred Holland to China as it is cleaner and the air quality better. She told me that she misses North Korea every day, but this year she will get holiday from work to visit. She then pointed to her own house on the landscape painting of Pyongyang (an apartment near the Taedong river). I asked her if she had seen the statue of Kim Jong-il to which she replied she had seen it only on the internet. She also showed me the cosmetic sets they had set up on a table in the corner of the room. They are one of the things the restaurant imports directly from North Korea. She didn’t try to sell them to me, but only told me how great ginseng is for preventing cancer and keeping healthy.
The waitresses called a taxi for me and made me some lovely tea while I waited. All four waitresses came outside to say goodbye, smiling even more, waving, shouting thank you and goodbye. I felt genuinely sad to leave them; they were some of the kindest people I had ever met and were eager to please and serve, eager to share their knowledge and were so interesting to talk to.
If you are ever in Holland and want an experience won’t forget in a hurry, go to the Pyongyang Restaurant in Amsterdam. Here you can speak easily to the North Korean staff and may learn things that you would miss even on a trip to the DPRK. It is North Korea away from the rockets and threats of war.
Nicolle Loughlin reviewed the Pyongyang Restaurant in July 2012. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.