A while back I read my friend Tao’s Facebook note detailing an exciting culinary adventure. While visiting Dubai, he found a restaurant called Okyru-Gwan that serves North Korean food. It’s operated by the state of North Korea, and the other branches are in Beijing and Cambodia–expansion to the United States seems unlikely. Despite the small size of the peninsula they share, North Korean food is apparently different from food in the South, and as a foodie I envied Tao’s opportunity to sample such an exotic product, and was dismayed that the only apparent place to find it was at an institution that serves as a source of foreign currency and money laundering for Kim Jong-Il.
Then a few weeks ago I read a great article in everyone’s favorite local D.C. publication, the Washington City Paper. They reviewed a restaurant owned and operated by North Koreans. The owner is a North Korean woman who formerly worked as a spy before defecting (her story is quite thrilling, so I encourage you to read the article), and now lives in Northern Virginia. Not only does her restaurant serve authentic North Korean food, it employs many North Korean refugees. I knew I had to visit Pyongyang Soondae. Not only would I get to eat a new food, and in so doing travel to a new and completely restricted place, but I would thumb my nose at Kim at the same time by supporting the economic activities of North Korean refugees.
Let me diverge from the restaurant review for a moment and discuss an anxiety I feel when eating food from cultures that typically do not dine as sumptuously as Americans: Is it wrong to enjoy large, protein-rich meals prepared in the style of Ethiopia, Laos, or North Korea when actual people in those countries rarely eat protein abundantly, and millions are starving in North Korea? Perhaps conveniently, I’ve concluded ‘no’. Few would say that tourism to Laos or Ethiopia and observation of their history and culture is wrong, even if most residents of those countries couldn’t share that experience, perhaps because foreign tourism directly benefits a local economy. At a place like Pyongyong Soondae, where our own waitress had escaped North Korea, eating there, in some small way, supports the livelihoods of those who represent by their very survival a courageous opposition to tyranny. Second, there’s the common reaction of “you had North Korean/Ethiopian food? What is that, dirt and worms?” Such trite jabs are ultimately mistaken–while the current populations of those countries may be impoverished, their culture and history are still rich, and their pride in their civilization is not diminished. I’m a big fan of No Reservations, and you can see on the show how his hosts in poorer countries pull out all the stops and prepare veritable feasts for Bourdain and his crew. Every country has some version of the Greek xenia–the guest-host relationship–and all over the world guests are feted precisely to impress them with the special offerings of a family, a heritage, or a country. On a more abstract level, I like to think of ideas as engaged in an evolutionary game of survival. We want our values to be shared, because the more adherents the more powerful (and perhaps the more validated) the idea, and because with greater numbers our ideas can survive the attrition of time. So in that way, I don’t think it’s callous to enjoy the cuisines of poor countries, because we pay tribute to them in broadening our horizons, and with our appreciation we strengthen the fitness of their culture. Anyway.
After reading the article, I invited a few friends to travel with me to North Korea, via Alexandria, Virginia. The restaurant Pyongyang Soondae seems to be in the first floor of a house, and the name on the sign is still the old name: Chung Jin Dong. The dining area is small, with perhaps half a dozen tables, the brown-lacquered card table kind that I’m used to finding at a cheap Chinese eateries in Flushing (e.g. Golden Mall). Though spare and lacking the propagandist opulence of Tao’s Okryu-Dwan in Dubai, it had the character of an authentic, home-style Asian restaurant more concerned with representing the food than impressing and attracting outsiders. The walls were decorated with photographs of Korea and pictures of the owner, Ma Young-Ae, engaging in various human rights activities opposing the regime of Kim Jong-Il. There’s an excellent one of her delivering a speech against the backdrop of the nation’s Capitol. Another wall shows her with dignitaries, including Hillary Clinton. Even if North Korean food were identical to South Korean food, it would be hard to forget where you are eating, and what the employees went through to share their cooking and hospitality with you in America.
The menu was entirely in Korean, so bringing someone who can understand the language might be helpful. Our waitress was able to describe the main components of the dishes, however, in English, and by pointing at pictures. With minimal information, we ordered “the sausage, the pheasant dumpling, the seafood pancake, the non-spicy duck, and the pork.” I later learned that another waitress also spoke Chinese, having escaped and lived in Dongbei (northern China/Manchuria) for several years before going to South Korea, and then the United States. In fact this is pretty common since the way out for refugees is invariably not across the heavily-patrolled DMZ but across the Yalu River, parts of which are shallow enough to slip through patrols and ford without a boat. So maybe having a Mandarin-speaker with you could work as well as a Korean, for ordering purposes.
The meal began with a typical Korean offering of cold fermented pickled vegetables, or kimchi. Kimchi is colloquially used among Americans to refer to the popular pickled cabbage variant, but there was also radish, jalapeno, and (I think) mustard greens.
Our first order to arrive was the sausage plate (I apologize for the lack of transliteration–there was none on the menu.). In Western countries breadcrumbs (or the even cheaper rusk) are often used as a stabilizer in sausage to keep them dense, and moist. There’s an old joke that British sausages have more filler than meat. It was cool to see that these black blood sausages substituted Asian starch products for stabilizers–vermicelli and rice!–though there also seemed to be more wheat than meat. Of course, this is probably a cultural artifact reflecting a lower emphasis on meat rather than a quality issue, and I rather enjoyed the toothsome bites and strong, garlicky flavor. Also on the plate came thin slices of boiled stomach and liver. These were completely unseasoned, but awakened by the slightly tangy and spicy shrimp sauce that accompanied the plate. I’d definitely recommend ordering this since I’ve never had it elsewhere, and it’s literally the signature dish of the restaurant–soondae means ‘sausage.’
The boiled pheasant dumplings came out hot, with a standard soy dipping sauce. These dumplings were clearly home-made and hand-made, unlike the ones you’d find at a lot of Asian places these days. Aside
from the unconventional filling of pheasant and chives, the filling was not packed into a meatball. They tasted a bit like chicken dumplings, though leaner and less greasy in your mouth. I thought the flavor was a bit subtle, perhaps too subtle for me, and dichotomously overwhelmed by the sauce or a bit lacking without.
The stir-fried duck came out sizzling on a hot metal plate. This reminded me a lot of South Korean beef bulgogi because of the metal plate, and because of the traditional vegetable elements: mushrooms, whole gloves of garlic, onions, carrots (like a Korean mirepoix). But of course, I’ve never had it with duck before. I thought the soy-based marinade and seasoning of the duck was really great, and balanced well by the vegetables. The skin on some pieces of duck was crispy, and the fat had been nicely rendered out, something I can never accomplish with a stir fry. There are slices of jalapeno in the dish, but I didn’t find it particularly spicy.
The seafood pancake was probably something we could have found in many South Korean establishments, and indeed at Korean supermarkets, but I thought this was my favorite dish of the night. The pancake (jeon) is basically a mixture of water, flour, and eggs mixed into a batter and pan fried. This pancake also contained carrot, green onion, shrimp, and baby octopus. The outer crust of the pancake was nice and crisp, the inside was more soft and pancake-y (that’s a technical foodblogging term), but the carrot and octopus inside provided a surprise crunch. I’m a big fan of textural contrasts in food, so I was really excited by the idea of using octopus in this way to complement the carrot.
The table at this point was completely overloaded with dishes, between the myriad of kimchi places, sauces, and entree plates (oh and they also brought out bowls of miso soup). There was already a backlog of
food to taste when the pork dish was brought out. This was a stir fry of sliced pork belly (so twice-cooked pork) with a medley of onions, carrots, peppers, and garlic. Though it appeared covered in a vibrant orange sauce, I didn’t find this particularly spicy either.
Since my main activity when traveling, aside from museums, is experiencing the local food, I think of eating as traveling with one’s stomach, and North Korea has the same forbidden appeal as Cuba, and Mecca. What’s different between North Korean and South Korean food? I definitely noticed that the food, as others have written, is not as spicy or strongly seasoned. At a local Korean tofu place in Fort Lee, near where I grew up in North Jersey, the broths are bubbling red cauldrons of cayenne, but here the color belied more nuanced flavorings. Some of the dishes I’ve never seen or had at South Korean restaurants, in particular the blood sausage and pheasant dumplings. The one dish I forgot to order, regrettably, is another classic North Korean offering: Pyongyang naengmyun, a cold buckwheat noodle soup with slices of cucumber, slices of beef, and ice cubes floating in the broth. As detailed in the City Paper article, there was more of an emphasis on pork, poultry, and seafood in North Korean cuisine and less on beef, which you see commonly in South Korean dishes like bimbambap, bulgogi, or barbecue flanken short ribs. Might have to go back for this. Finally, I found more offal here, and since I firmly believe in using all parts of the animal and routinely enjoy/seek out offal, this was a big plus.
Taking the restaurant holistically, I’d definitely recommend giving this place a try. The service is great, the food is genuine and well-made, and the rare-experience and memory-value make Pyongyang Soondae a destination trip!