The North Korean gourmet experience

Reading Time: 4 minutes
Pyongyang Okryu4_Arno Maierbrugger
Pyongyang Okryu restaurant, Bangkok

The day before North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shot another few ballistic missiles over the Sea of Japan on July 19 in what, his state media claimed, was a test for a nuclear strike, I, admittedly, supported his evil deeds indirectly.

I dined at Thailand’s meanwhile one and only North Korean restaurant, Pyongyang Okryu, in the upscale neighbourhood of Bangkok’s Ekkamai district and spend 1,450 baht, or a bit over $40, there, which are probably already on their way into Kim Jong-un’s coffers.

The restaurant is a branch of the state-owned Pyongyang restaurant chain that comprises about 130 restaurants and operates mainly in China and Southeast Asia, and also in Mongolia, Bangladesh and Russia under the name of Okryugwan, or Okryu. Its most important purpose is to help the North Korean government earn badly needed foreign currency and, presumably, to serve as money laundering dens based on the model of Chinese restaurants in Western countries in 1980s and 1990s.

Pyongyang Okryu boardThe Pyongyang restaurant, normally  popular with Japanese and South Korean guests and the odd tourist, in the recent past seems to have an irresistible appeal to curious news writers, and channels and papers from CNN, Handelsblatt, Chosun Ilbo to Bangkok Post can’t hold themselves back from reporting from the outpost of the “Stalinist hermit Kingdom.”

The majority of the reports paint a picture of a place where overawed and tight-lipped waitresses serve a handful of customers Korean food in a 1980s-style surrounding decorated with “pictures of North Korean landscapes” and “with closed curtains to avoid curious glances from outside”. Taking photos “is strictly forbidden” and staff would call police if customers wouldn’t adhere to the rule, an agitated Handelsblatt reporter claims, being quick to add that the restaurants prices were “high for Bangkok standards” to fill Kim jong-un’s wallet faster.

The fact that drinks are kept in a Coca Cola-branded fridge is swiftly mocked as “reconciliation with capitalism.”

Pyongyang Okryu2_Arno MaierbruggerCNN, for its part, reports that a “big digital screen” blares (what else?) North Koreans singing robust patriotic songs and troops are seen marching, calling the impression, theatrically, a “window onto the tense and rarefied life of those near the top of North Korea’s brutal hierarchy.”

And so on. One stereotype here, one prejudice there, and another cliche follows, which is, in fact, poor journalism.

First of all, the Pyongyang Okryu is not a museum for Stalinist practice, it’s simply an eatery, and not a bad one at that. What’s wrong with a Coca Cola branded fridge which is, anyway, a copy made in Communist China – how to ideologically assess that one? They also have American Standard toilet seats in the restaurant’s bathroom. What sort of reconciliation is that?

Possibly they would have their restaurant look like a bit more pleasant for capitalist hard currency spenders? It is, in fact, exactly the opposite of a “reconciliation with capitalism”. The place is, what it is: for culinary pleasure and gastronomic adventure. A little glimpse into their culture and culinary heritage. They don’t try to re-educate their customers. There are no curtains at all to conceal what happens inside. There were a normal amount of guests for a late dinner on a weekday.

Next thing: Yes, there is a sign that says no photos, no videos. But by no means staff gets aggressive or threatens with police when pictures are inevitably taken. Probably they just want to stage themselves as being mysterious and cryptic. Don’t underestimate them. They are smarter than you think.

Pyongyang Okryu door_MaierbruggerChosun Ilbo writes that most waitresses at foreign Pyongyang Okryu restaurants are graduates of Jang Chol Gu University of Commerce in Pyongyang, an elite business school, quasi the Oxford of North Korea, or at least attended professional culinary school in Pyongyang. And they don’t get a regular salary but work for the state, expenses paid.

They are friendly and attentive. They greet like well-educated service personnel should greet: Politely, but unobtrusively. They look elegant and move around elegantly in their not-so-modern, but stylish dresses and medium-height high-heels. They are slim and well-tended. They are organised, they work quickly and precisely. They speak enough English for a normal restaurant service transaction but would not talk much else.

Why would they? If you were a restaurant waiter/waitress and your country would have been labeled as a rogue state by pretty much the rest of the world, would you feel obliged to confirm every half-wit Westerner’s prejudices by answering with party jargon? Maybe they are just bored of that?

Pyongyang Okryu MenuThey don’t want to talk about what others perceive to be a miserable life. They want to hear praise for their food, their soju, and their North Korean desserts. They know they are citizens of a pariah state. Just leave it at that. Or go to North Korea and start a revolution.

And compare the North Korean waitresses with the grumpy, uneducated, inattentive, passive, lazy, smartphone-typing and Thai-only speaking Thai service staff at an average Bangkok restaurant. Then you actually long for having a North Korean restaurant right in your street. Waitresses without smartphones!

Next thing, the Pyongyang restaurant is immaculately clean. You feel that you probably could eat directly from the floor. Where else do you find that in Bangkok? There is a medium-sized flat TV that displayed a Russian opera event when I was there. No North Korean army parades. No kitsch North Korean landscape paintings. Not even pictures of the Kim dynasty. Not even the otherwise obligate flag or the normally must-have Kim Il-sung sticker on the left lapel.

And yes, there are a lot of plastic flowers and faux plants in the restaurant, a fact bemoaned by the Bangkok Post writer. Have you ever realised the amount of plastic flowers in almost every establishment with some sort of decoration in Bangkok? Real flowers die in the soaring heat in less than a day here. They also don’t really endure air conditioning. It’s not a North Korean thing. Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing started off with plastic flowers.

BillThe restaurant is also not expensive “for Bangkok standards.” Restaurants in Bangkok catering to the growing middle-class are already on a level of European eateries or above. You’ll spend significantly more on a seafood plate in Bangkok than you would in Lisbon, for example. Dining outlets in and around Ekkamai are all at around the same price level. That said, the Pyongyang Okyro offers lunch specials for as little as 99 baht ($2.70). Get your facts together!

After all, the food. It’s simply excellent. It is fresh, delicious and served appetisingly.  Fish, pork, beef, chicken, duck, seafood, vegetables, noodle and soup dishes, and the ubiquitous kimchi. Tasty classic North Korean food, more intense and less sugary then its South Korean counterpart, simply delightful. Totally enjoyable.

Interested? Cross the border from South to North Korea in this photo blog.

North Korea food_fried duck_Arno Maierbrugger
North Korean food: Fried duck
North Korea food_Steamed shellfish_Arno Maierbrugger
North Korea food: Steamed shellfish
Pyongyang Okryu3_Arno Maierbrugger
A red Coca Cola fridge in the back: Capitalism!
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[caption id="attachment_28640" align="alignleft" width="850"] Pyongyang Okryu restaurant, Bangkok[/caption] The day before North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shot another few ballistic missiles over the Sea of Japan on July 19 in what, his state media claimed, was a test for a nuclear strike, I, admittedly, supported his evil deeds indirectly. I dined at Thailand's meanwhile one and only North Korean restaurant, Pyongyang Okryu, in the upscale neighbourhood of Bangkok's Ekkamai district and spend 1,450 baht, or a bit over $40, there, which are probably already on their way into Kim Jong-un's coffers. The restaurant is a branch of the state-owned Pyongyang...

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Pyongyang Okryu4_Arno Maierbrugger
Pyongyang Okryu restaurant, Bangkok

The day before North Korean leader Kim Jong-un shot another few ballistic missiles over the Sea of Japan on July 19 in what, his state media claimed, was a test for a nuclear strike, I, admittedly, supported his evil deeds indirectly.

I dined at Thailand’s meanwhile one and only North Korean restaurant, Pyongyang Okryu, in the upscale neighbourhood of Bangkok’s Ekkamai district and spend 1,450 baht, or a bit over $40, there, which are probably already on their way into Kim Jong-un’s coffers.

The restaurant is a branch of the state-owned Pyongyang restaurant chain that comprises about 130 restaurants and operates mainly in China and Southeast Asia, and also in Mongolia, Bangladesh and Russia under the name of Okryugwan, or Okryu. Its most important purpose is to help the North Korean government earn badly needed foreign currency and, presumably, to serve as money laundering dens based on the model of Chinese restaurants in Western countries in 1980s and 1990s.

Pyongyang Okryu boardThe Pyongyang restaurant, normally  popular with Japanese and South Korean guests and the odd tourist, in the recent past seems to have an irresistible appeal to curious news writers, and channels and papers from CNN, Handelsblatt, Chosun Ilbo to Bangkok Post can’t hold themselves back from reporting from the outpost of the “Stalinist hermit Kingdom.”

The majority of the reports paint a picture of a place where overawed and tight-lipped waitresses serve a handful of customers Korean food in a 1980s-style surrounding decorated with “pictures of North Korean landscapes” and “with closed curtains to avoid curious glances from outside”. Taking photos “is strictly forbidden” and staff would call police if customers wouldn’t adhere to the rule, an agitated Handelsblatt reporter claims, being quick to add that the restaurants prices were “high for Bangkok standards” to fill Kim jong-un’s wallet faster.

The fact that drinks are kept in a Coca Cola-branded fridge is swiftly mocked as “reconciliation with capitalism.”

Pyongyang Okryu2_Arno MaierbruggerCNN, for its part, reports that a “big digital screen” blares (what else?) North Koreans singing robust patriotic songs and troops are seen marching, calling the impression, theatrically, a “window onto the tense and rarefied life of those near the top of North Korea’s brutal hierarchy.”

And so on. One stereotype here, one prejudice there, and another cliche follows, which is, in fact, poor journalism.

First of all, the Pyongyang Okryu is not a museum for Stalinist practice, it’s simply an eatery, and not a bad one at that. What’s wrong with a Coca Cola branded fridge which is, anyway, a copy made in Communist China – how to ideologically assess that one? They also have American Standard toilet seats in the restaurant’s bathroom. What sort of reconciliation is that?

Possibly they would have their restaurant look like a bit more pleasant for capitalist hard currency spenders? It is, in fact, exactly the opposite of a “reconciliation with capitalism”. The place is, what it is: for culinary pleasure and gastronomic adventure. A little glimpse into their culture and culinary heritage. They don’t try to re-educate their customers. There are no curtains at all to conceal what happens inside. There were a normal amount of guests for a late dinner on a weekday.

Next thing: Yes, there is a sign that says no photos, no videos. But by no means staff gets aggressive or threatens with police when pictures are inevitably taken. Probably they just want to stage themselves as being mysterious and cryptic. Don’t underestimate them. They are smarter than you think.

Pyongyang Okryu door_MaierbruggerChosun Ilbo writes that most waitresses at foreign Pyongyang Okryu restaurants are graduates of Jang Chol Gu University of Commerce in Pyongyang, an elite business school, quasi the Oxford of North Korea, or at least attended professional culinary school in Pyongyang. And they don’t get a regular salary but work for the state, expenses paid.

They are friendly and attentive. They greet like well-educated service personnel should greet: Politely, but unobtrusively. They look elegant and move around elegantly in their not-so-modern, but stylish dresses and medium-height high-heels. They are slim and well-tended. They are organised, they work quickly and precisely. They speak enough English for a normal restaurant service transaction but would not talk much else.

Why would they? If you were a restaurant waiter/waitress and your country would have been labeled as a rogue state by pretty much the rest of the world, would you feel obliged to confirm every half-wit Westerner’s prejudices by answering with party jargon? Maybe they are just bored of that?

Pyongyang Okryu MenuThey don’t want to talk about what others perceive to be a miserable life. They want to hear praise for their food, their soju, and their North Korean desserts. They know they are citizens of a pariah state. Just leave it at that. Or go to North Korea and start a revolution.

And compare the North Korean waitresses with the grumpy, uneducated, inattentive, passive, lazy, smartphone-typing and Thai-only speaking Thai service staff at an average Bangkok restaurant. Then you actually long for having a North Korean restaurant right in your street. Waitresses without smartphones!

Next thing, the Pyongyang restaurant is immaculately clean. You feel that you probably could eat directly from the floor. Where else do you find that in Bangkok? There is a medium-sized flat TV that displayed a Russian opera event when I was there. No North Korean army parades. No kitsch North Korean landscape paintings. Not even pictures of the Kim dynasty. Not even the otherwise obligate flag or the normally must-have Kim Il-sung sticker on the left lapel.

And yes, there are a lot of plastic flowers and faux plants in the restaurant, a fact bemoaned by the Bangkok Post writer. Have you ever realised the amount of plastic flowers in almost every establishment with some sort of decoration in Bangkok? Real flowers die in the soaring heat in less than a day here. They also don’t really endure air conditioning. It’s not a North Korean thing. Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing started off with plastic flowers.

BillThe restaurant is also not expensive “for Bangkok standards.” Restaurants in Bangkok catering to the growing middle-class are already on a level of European eateries or above. You’ll spend significantly more on a seafood plate in Bangkok than you would in Lisbon, for example. Dining outlets in and around Ekkamai are all at around the same price level. That said, the Pyongyang Okyro offers lunch specials for as little as 99 baht ($2.70). Get your facts together!

After all, the food. It’s simply excellent. It is fresh, delicious and served appetisingly.  Fish, pork, beef, chicken, duck, seafood, vegetables, noodle and soup dishes, and the ubiquitous kimchi. Tasty classic North Korean food, more intense and less sugary then its South Korean counterpart, simply delightful. Totally enjoyable.

Interested? Cross the border from South to North Korea in this photo blog.

North Korea food_fried duck_Arno Maierbrugger
North Korean food: Fried duck
North Korea food_Steamed shellfish_Arno Maierbrugger
North Korea food: Steamed shellfish
Pyongyang Okryu3_Arno Maierbrugger
A red Coca Cola fridge in the back: Capitalism!
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