I never thought I’d get to try North Korean food in my entire life. More than that, I never thought I’d like it.
One of my last trips in China before we left was a sojourn to Shanghai (I think it was my seventh or eighth). There’s so much to eat in Shanghai that you can go that many times and still not experience everything.
My husband and I were staying in a hotel paid for by his employer so we hadn’t chosen it, and overall, the accommodation was typically Chinese: Beautifully styled foyer with average rooms. The windows hadn’t been cleaned for years and that killed the view a bit.
But attached to this hotel was one of the most unique and unusual places I ever ate: The Pyongyang Cafe.
Pyongyang, for those who don’t know, is the capital city of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which in English we tend to call North Korea to avoid confusion with the People’s Republic of Korea (which we call South Korea).
North Korea shares a land border with China’s Jilin Province (where the very best sushi rice in China–jilin rice–can be found). It is clear that China has a fatherly demeanour toward North Korea; they are separate countries but China’s relationship is usually cordial toward its right-hand neighbour.
The separation of Korea into two separate states was caused by Japan annexing them in 1910 (two years before the birth of Kim Il-Sung), followed by, after the war, the North being given to the guardianship of the USSR while the South was given to the US.
There are a lot of parallels between the Koreas and my own home, the island of Ireland, the first casualty of colonialism, where, here in the North, some people can’t even agree on what country we are in or which state it belongs to. So we don’t talk about politics much here and no one talks about politics in China, either. I imagine that’s how people get along in North Korea, too.
I have visited South Korea and its American influences are very clear but it has largely formed its own culinary identity. Given that North Korea very clearly has a separate identity to the South, I didn’t know what to expect from the Pyongyang Cafe. Would the food be austere and dull, like how we are told food used to be in the former USSR? Did they eat the same types of animals in North Korea as they ate in China? Or would it be closer to the cuisine of other East Asian countries? Or something completely different?
I was so intrigued by all this, I got quite excited as we headed to the restaurant for our evening meal. For the first time in my life, we were eating somewhere and I had no idea what sort of food to expect. At all. Even when we ate in a Tibetan restaurant once in Nepal I expected to see rice, chicken and beef on the menu, the same as in almost every other restaurant around the world.
In beautiful traditional North Korean dress, the hostess greets diners as they enter the restaurant.
The menu featured such exciting dishes as steamed sea urchin (38RMB), former bacon salmon (168RMB) and braised shark’s fin with shredded chicken (128RMB). I chose the Miso Soup (35RMB) which was completely different to any miso soup I had ever eaten in my life.
Unusually for anything I ate in China, the food looked exactly like the picture in the menu which was a pleasant surprise.
The base soup was similar to the Japanese dish of the same name, but aside from using fermented bean curd (miso) as the soup base, the rest was a novel creation. This dish contained clams (shell on) and other seafood I didn’t recognize because I’m not knowledgable about seafood, but I might guess mussels were in there. There were a range of vegetables such as carrots and green leaves. And delicious cubes of beancurd floated in amongst the rest of the soup.
It arrived with gleaming sticky rice (cooked to perfection) and this was a substantial main dish, not at all like the miso soup sachets that sit miserably in the supermarket waiting for you to “just add water”. This was a complete meal and it was eye-opening to me to discover just what I could have been doing with miso paste all these years!
I definitely want to try and recreate this dish at home in Belfast.
The range of foods on the menu were fascinating. A lot of seafood, the North Korean cuisine seems to incorporate a much wider range of choices than the cuisine of most other countries I’ve eaten.
The experience in the restaurant was also good. The servers were efficient and warm; their English was good. The food was cooked to the right temperature and was brought quickly. The lighting and music were ambient, seating was comfortable and the menu was in three languages: North Korean, Chinese and English. Overall, it was a fascinating insight into one aspect of the culture of a country we will probably never visit now that we have a baby.