BANGKOK — I’m sitting on a stranger’s blanket spread across a small patch of grass with a severe buzz from rapid-fire soju shots with every person I meet. It’s May 1, 2014, in Pyongyang, North Korea, and it seems everyone in the capital city has come to Mt. Taesong to dance and sway to the shrill of operatic recitatives celebrating hard work and self-reliance for Labor Day. Families huddle around bottles of moonshine and from small grills sizzle assorted meat and vegetables.
A stranger invited me to indulge in a drink and snack on some grilled beef he was cooking. Depleted from dancing with too many elderly women, it was exactly what I needed. So there I was, eating slightly charred bulgogi cooked in convivial spirits by a man who Western media would have you believe probably wanted to see me as well-roasted as his beef. In that moment, politics were transcended with a snack.
It’s also the first thing I ordered at the newly opened Pyongyang Okryu Restaurant in Bangkok.
The small restaurant sits right off Ekkamai in an unassuming cul de sac. It’s owned by the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, but it’s operated by a family of three, the father being Mr. Kim. He’s lived in Bangkok for 10 years. His son tends to the dining room while his wife runs the show.
Kim introduced himself and explained the policy on taking pictures in his establishment. The policy is: You don’t. Not here, nor at any of the various North Korean-operated chain restaurants located around Asia and the Middle East.
“People say things on the internet,” he said. “They’ll take a picture and write. You know.”
Being a journalist, I do know. The most common suggestion is that these restaurants launder North Korea’s dirty money. South Korean media claim they must remit hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to Pyongyang.
But it was difficult to see anything more going on with the Kim family than a focus on making Naengmyeon, or Cold Noodles, so I checked my politics at the door and sat down with an open palate and mind.
On my first visit, the dining room was filled with a table of two Americans, a Japanese man, and a pair of South Koreans. All were enjoying the fare and an absolutely bizarre show put on by a trio of oddly alluring North Korean women dancing and singing. The only thing that differed were the drinks coming to the U.S. table. We went for the beer instead of the the North Korean-made mushroom liquor and soju.
An extraordinary assembly of diners considering North Korea’s official contempt for their neighbors to the east after half a century of Japanese rule and ire for meddling American interventionists, most notably in what is viewed as a “domestic dispute” more widely known as the Korean War. A war technically still going on.
With diners from three nations the DPRK allegedly detests getting drunk and pigging out, I wasn’t the only one to check my politics. No one seemed to give a shit about troubled pasts at Pyongyang Okryu.
The first course lands on the table, a neatly organized display of head cheese. The presentation, perfectly aligned, looks like a battalion of soldiers made from trimmings of head flesh that have been compressed and fused together with gelatin. While the taste wasn’t totally unpleasant, it didn’t live up to the expectations that Mr. Kim set forth during the ordering process, “This one is popular with foreigners. I think you’ll like it. The taste is smooth.”
It wasn’t my favorite Korean dish.
Mr. Kim’s son did warn us about the green peppers that we ordered, though. He wasn’t kidding when he said they were painfully spicy. “Eh, we eat Thai food every day, we can do spicy” we said to assuage his concern.
These peppers, slathered in the indispensable Korean condiment gochujang, must have been grown with roots stretching to the ninth circle of hell. After taking a hefty bite, all I could think about was an ice cold Ponghak, a deliciously malty brew I’d learned of in Pyongyang. Unfortunately Mr. Kim said a lack of demand in Bangkok didn’t warrant importing it. I convinced him to work on it. Unlike Thai chilis, the spicy from these dastard peppers can’t be combated by Singha. They need a sweet and strong hero like Ponghak to defend diners’ mouths.
At 8:45 the service staff disappeared, only to re-emerge first as sequin-clad dreamgirls and later wearing traditional hanbok dresses. An accordion and synthesizer tunes filled the room as myself and the two other parties went quiet. The first of the performers waddled, with the most abnormal duck-like gait, onto the stage and proceeded to robotically unfold her arms in a way that seemed to take cues from popping and locking.
Another woman entered from stage right, only she wasn’t dancing. She was armed with a microphone set to maximum reverb. If you’ve never experienced taejung kayo before, then get ready for a mix of operatic, soaring vocals to the tune of well, you’ll just have to hear it for yourself. The themes of the song often reflect ideas popular in North Korea: economic independence, self-sustenance and hard work. Finally a third performer joined the stage and produced a fan as the trio lined up to perform a Buchaechum routine.
The audience awkwardly built up to a golf clap when the performance ended. The ladies exited the stage, leaving only the LED rope lights and LCD monitor displaying beautiful natural scenes around the DPRK to look at.
I glanced around the room to see if the service staff has gone back to work after the performance to order some more food. Nothing. And then a familiar tune, played on not so familiar instruments filled the air. A solo performer waltzed across the stage.
A rare glimpse inside a North Korean-operated restaurant in Saigon earlier this year. Photo: Simon Duncan
“Every night in my dreams….”
No. Was this…Titanic?
“I see you, I feel you. That is how I know you go on…”
Sure was. She was belting out “My Heart Will Go On”, and that song came alive in a way that I’d never heard it before. The massive reverb and perpetual smile plastered on the singer’s face made for an eerie rendition that’s hard to forget.
Then the beef landed.
It’s marinated in sesame oil, brown sugar, soy sauce, and a mixture of garlic, pear and ginger. The hefty portion is designed to be eaten communally, so, like in Thailand, order for the table, not for yourself. It’s generally cooked medium rare, so make sure to specify your preference when you order.
I was hoping for some sort of Proustian moment where the taste of the bulgogi transported me back to having a ball on Mt. Taesong for Labor Day a year before. But I got nothing. There was no mystery, no magic, no transcendental experience. It was just beef – tasty Korean beef.
But I did reach a conclusion. Mr. Kim said something while he was explaining his photo policy that I didn’t want to hear. He said Pyongyang Okryu is “just a business.” And he’s right. It’s just a restaurant serving food from a country that’s shrouded in mystery. The food isn’t a mystery, we all know what beef tastes like. I wanted this restaurant to strike a frenzy of socialist feels directly into my heart, but it didn’t. It was just like eating at any other restaurant, except slightly more bizarre.
Though I’d likely expected too much, I was not disappointed. The atmosphere, glimpse of North Korean culture and interaction with Pyongyang-native service staff was neat. Where else can you have a chat with a young woman from one of most isolated cities on earth?
Mr. Kim has been here for a decade; his son was educated in Singapore, his speech peppered with Western slang. He uses Gmail and eats a big dinner with his staff every night. He’s a normal guy. And at Okryu, you get that sense.
The dinner reaffirmed the aphorism my North Korean guide returned to every time we gawked at fearsome propaganda on that 2014 tour of the Hermit Kingdom: “Governments are governments. People are people.”
People are people. And people have to eat. Even North Korean people. So why not eat with them at Pyongyang Okryu Restaurant?
Pyongyang Okryu Restaurant is located in Ekkamai on Soi Sukhumvit 63. There’s no Facebook page or website, but you can call them at 02-020-0220.