Dining like the Koryo kings of yesteryear in Kaesong, DPRK
Some of the most frequently asked questions about my trip to North Korea are “Was there enough food? What did you eat? How was it?” One person even asked me if there was a McDonald’s. When I replied no, there is no McDonald’s in North Korea, they were incredulous. “Really? Not even a McDonald’s?” Yes, many Americans find this hard to believe, but there are some areas of the world that remain free of the ubiquitous golden arches.
One of my favorite things about traveling is eating. I tend to walk a lot wherever I go, and thus must repeatedly gorge myself on questionable, yet delicious, street food such as shawarma served by toothless Azeri men using knives that probably haven’t been washed in several years. Or, if I’m in Tbilisi, stopping at every single cafe just so I can declare which one makes the tastiest khachapuri. But Pyongyang is not like this. There is no Michelin Guide for North Korea and you won’t find Anthony Bourdain wandering the back alleys of Pyongyang with camera crew in tow. Your eating experience in North Korea is, much like your entire itinerary, carefully planned out with no diversions or options allowed. There is no choice of dining establishments – you eat at the restaurants you are taken to. When you get to the restaurants, there are no menus to order from – you eat what is put in front of you. This was quite a departure from my usual experience.
Soju, a Korean liquor. Tasted a lot like vodka.
Our breakfast was always served in the large ballroom of our island communist resort and casino. At the center of the ballroom, laid out on tables covered in crisp white linen, was a large spread of kimchi (yes, even for breakfast), various sandwich meats, and baskets of bread. One morning a platter of donuts mysteriously appeared. Something new! And they were the worst donuts I had ever eaten – thick, and dense, with no sweetness whatsoever – but it was something different, so I gladly welcomed them.
At the far end of the room was an omelet station, where a chef wearing a surgical mask would prepare an omelet with your desired ingredients, as long as you didn’t want anything in it besides onions and tomatoes. They weren’t bad at all, but were a little undercooked. One member of our tour group tried to convince the chef to flip the omelet one more time to have it well done, but his flipping a skillet pantomime was just met with a blank stare and a few words of unintelligible Korean, so he warily accepted the undercooked omelet.
Lunches and dinners presented a bit more variety than breakfast. We often returned to the hotel for lunch, which was held in either “Restaurant No. 1” or “Restaurant No. 2”. I much prefer this utilitarian naming convention to the ridiculous hotel restaurant names you encounter in the U.S. As if “LakeView Restaurant” is supposed to convince us that we’re not stuck in some hotel in the middle of the desert? Right.
When we weren’t at the hotel, we dined at a restaurant somewhere in Pyongyang. I don’t recall any of the names, so unfortunately cannot review each of them on Yelp, but nearly every restaurant seemed to be a replica of the others, with perhaps a slightly different decor and choice of videos playing on the TVs scattered throughout the restaurants. Our favorite was the video of soldiers and missiles parading through Kim Il-Sung Square set to a soundtrack of military music. When a waitress replaced it with a series of horrible North Korean music videos, we pleaded with her to return to the more martial fare.
As for the quality of the food, some of it was good, some of it was bad. Irregardless, at each meal we were served an embarrassingly large quantity of food. Just when you think you’ve finished your last course, the servers bring another one to the table, as if to say “Look! There is no food shortage here!” Of course, we weren’t fooled. They were just trying to put on a good show for the tourists, as this cornucopia is not standard throughout North Korea. In reality, North Korea suffers from severe food shortages. It is estimated that in the mid-1990s up to 1 million people died of starvation. North Korea cannot feed its population, and must rely on aid from the West. At the time of our visit, 8.7 million North Koreans, or nearly 40 percent of the population, was in urgent need of food assistance. But little of the aid delivered to North Korea actually makes it to the Korean people. Most of it is siphoned off by the military and ruling elite while the rest of the population is forced to subsist on 1-2 meals per day if they are lucky. The thought often occurred to me that the rice in my bowl was likely taken from a bag emblazoned with a U.S. flag and stamped “A gift from the American people.”
Many of our meals consisted of kimchi, rice, bread, some sort of fish swimming in a mysterious, unpalatable sauce, and a boiling pot of water commonly known as a “hot pot”. Along with the hot pot we were given a platter of raw meat, veggies, and noodles and instructed to add them to the pot at various times, but left to guess when this concoction was actually ready to be eaten. “Jesus,” I thought every time I poked at the questionable meat floating in boiling water, “I sure hope this is done.” (If you couldn’t tell already, I’m not much of a cook, and only prepare meat with my foolproof George Foreman “Champ” Grill.) Eating the actual hot pot was a feat in and of itself. We were provided with thin metal chopsticks which weren’t very conducive to grasping the slippery noodles. I often just gave up, completely demoralized at my lack of chopstick skills. Finally, the North Koreans had humiliated the American Imperialist.
One day, for lunch, we were served Chinese food instead of Korean food. The main course was deep fried duck (uh, I think) swimming in gallons of oil served with sides of rice and tempura fried onions, which I was drawn to immediately. Onion rings! I quickly devoured all of them.
What’s underneath the oil-soaked napkin?
Ah, fried duck
The best meal we had during our trip was at the Pyongyang No. 1 Duck Barbecue Restaurant. I’m not sure if the “No. 1” is there to denote it from other Pyongyang Duck Barbecue Restaurants (a chain, perhaps?) or to simply declare it the best barbecue duck restaurant in Pyongyang. Regardless, it definitely served the tastiest food we had in North Korea.
We were seated in groups of 4-5 people per table. Built into the center of each table was a small gas grill, which we would soon be covering with raw duck. As with previous restaurants, the servers kept bringing us a ridiculously large amount of food. If they noticed that one of the many plates of duck on our table was half gone, they would bring out yet another full plate for our table. When we told them that we didn’t need it, as we already had plenty, they looked at us perplexedly. The BBQ sauce served with the duck was actually quite good, and the Texan at our table, who is well-acquainted with BBQ sauce, gave it his approval.
Admittedly, by our third day in Pyongyang, visions of Taco Bell Grilled Stuft Burritos began swimming through my head. Oh god, if only I could get some nacho cheese and sour cream. And maybe one of those caramel empanadas. Or a slice of pecan pie topped with vanilla ice cream. I think I saw a Dairy Queen in Beijing. We’ll be there in a couple of days. Thankfully, as a stop gap measure, I had brought along plenty of snacks. I have this habit of loading my backpack with beef jerky, trail mix, and Snickers bars whenever I travel to a communist or formerly communist country. It dates back to my first trip abroad in 2002, when I studied abroad in Russia for a summer and my mom, apparently under the impression that Russia a) had no food; or b) had food, but you would have stand in line for hours to get it, filled my luggage with these items. Of course, I discovered upon arriving in Russia that there was plenty of food, no lines, and you could even buy a Snickers bar there. Nevertheless, I brought all of those snacks with me to North Korea, and was very glad that I did. There are no Snickers for sale in North Korea.