Cold War Cuisine’s Incongruous Outpost

One of the Dear
Leader's Beijing eateries tries to go upscale

 

Can a solid North
Korean restaurant, formerly within sprinting distance of the
communist country's embassy in Beijing, make it in the bright lights
and skyscrapers of the city's flashy commercial center?

Until recently, the
Silver Bank Pyongyang Restaurant was the place to go for a fusty,
Cold War culinary experience. With a menu alternating between
delicacies like abalone, and homespun favorites like hand-ground
porridge, located in a wood-paneled, metal-tabled dining hall and
served by smiling North Korean waitresses, it had all the charm of
the pleasantly incongruous. But last month, the restaurant decided
to move a few kilometers to the southeast to the Central Business
District, and it is now perched on the second floor of a building
called the China Garments Mansion. "We're going for a more
high-class experience," said the restaurant's Chinese
translator.

But while the service
staff is the same and the food equally fantastic, though pricier,
some of the charm got lost in the shift. The new Silver Bank has no
main dining hall. Rather, the entire restaurant consists entirely of
20 private rooms, some seating as many as 40 people. But without a
central space, sightings of North Korean diplomats cautiously picking
at their noodles are rarer. The new private rooms feel silent and
eerie, no matter how loudly we talk. The leather chairs seem like the
type often found in pricey Beijing developments named after European
capital cities. Like the old restaurant, a karaoke screen saver
played silently on the TV panel in the wall, cycling through images
of Korea: grand arches, surging waterfalls, pristine forests. A
painting in a golden frame dominated an entire side of one wall. In
it, giant crags, lapped by waves, rose majestically out of the ocean.
It was an impressive painting, one that reminded me of the 18th
century American flag, featuring a coiled rattlesnake, ready to
strike, with the words: "DONT TREAD ON ME" (sic), but it
scared me.

The old Silver Bank had
a particular fondness for a simpler version of the rural. One table
consisted entirely of a tree trunk. The old restaurant's facade had
the incongruous atmosphere of a wooden hut dug into the side of a
mountain. The upstairs featured ornamental wooden shutters that
unfortunately opened onto a brick wall. And visitors could enjoy a
before-dinner stroll around the tree-lined embassy and look at
pictures of Kim Jong Il inspecting a factory that produces chickens.
The exquisite food only seemed to complement these little traces of
absurdity.

The grilled duck struck
the perfect balance of fatty and tender, and rolled in lettuce and
garnished with a slice of garlic it hit the right mixture of crispy,
oily, and pungent. Each ingredient, from the stone pot rice to the
stir-fried Korean mushrooms, was fresh.

Meat and seafood
featured heavily, partly because seafood offers a healthy markup
(lobster and clam dishes cost hundreds of yuan), and partly because
meat is a delicacy in North Korea. On my trip to the country, we were
told that North Koreans couldn't understand vegetarians, "because
why would people give up the most expensive luxury that they, as
Koreans, could afford?"

As in other desperately
poor countries, the elite eat well while the poor subsist. The most
common response I receive when I invite people to dine with me at
Silver Bank is "They have food in North Korea?" And I say
yes, because if they didn't have food they'd all be dead, though some
had, of course, succumbed to that very problem.
{mospagebreak}

Now the old Silver Bank
location is a Chinese hotpot joint. I asked the hostess what
happened, and she demurred. "Come eat here!" she said. I
asked her if it went bankrupt. "Yes, bankrupt," she
laughed, and told me again to eat at her restaurant. I called the
North Korean embassy and spoke with a diplomat. After a laborious
initial conversation punctuated by sighs and grunts, he relaxed
considerably when he realized I was only asking about Silver Bank.
When it was around the corner, he would go often, and he even
chuckled at the memory.

Silver Bank is not the
only North Korean restaurant near the embassy. Haedanghwa (a type of
rose) is a well-lit space located across the street from a Taoist
temple. "The scale is bigger," said the diplomat. "And
the girls, they sing, and they dance..." he chuckled again.

Haedanghwa still
receives a steady flow of North Korean businessmen and Chinese
locals. Its main room, like Silver Bank, is decorated without any
reference to politics. The Kims have even been banished from people's
lapels. But Haedonghwa, with its limp noodles, sad tofu and sterile
dining room, lacks the hearty feel of Silver Bank.

There are more than a
hundred overseas North Korean restaurants in East Asia, mostly in
China. While South Korea sports kitschy North Korean restaurants
opened by defectors, many of the overseas North Korean restaurants
are government-run and regarded as a way to earn precious foreign
currency.

Thailand, Laos, and
Vietnam all have North Korean restaurants. Opened in 2002,
"Pyongyang," in Cambodia, is probably the first government
run restaurant opened in a non-Communist country. Cambodia and North
Korea have had strong ties ever since Kim Il Sung offered asylum and
a palace to a fleeing King Sihanouk. The manager of the Cambodian
branch of the International Tae-Kwon Do federation owns the
restaurant, though no information is available about who owns the
restaurants in Beijing.

Unlike any other
'ethnic' restaurant I have been to in Beijing, all of the waitresses
are from the home country. They're thought to be graduates of top
universities in Pyongyang, and to have paid substantial bribes to get
this job. All of the waitresses are graceful, beautiful, and
attentive.

It's not an easy job.
One waitress said that she gets two days off a month, and during her
days off she is not allowed to be alone outside of the compound.
Smiles grace all of their faces, though they will frown and mutter
"I'm not too clear on that," if asked any question that
could be construed as sensitive. They don't seem to mind Americans --
we were all treated with the same courtesy that cruise ship employees
bestow on their guests. However, I did once invite a
Mandarin-speaking black friend to dine with me, and the waitress
could only stand there motionless, gaping at him.

North Korean luminaries
and businessmen frequented the restaurant, though I never saw anyone
senior enough to visit by himself: North Koreans travel in groups,
partly to keep an eye on their companions. On a few occasions we
would be graced with visits by North Korean national sports teams. I
inquired about what I assumed were a group of high school students,
but the waitress replied that was in fact the national ping pong
team, and most players were in their twenties.

One alcohol-fueled
night two years ago a friend and I spotted four North Korean
businessmen in the room next door. We bought them bottle after bottle
of some of the best soju this side of the DMZ, and joined them for
karaoke. While they couldn't speak English, they did know how to
sing.

"My Heart Will Go
On," we all sang, swaying. Then they sang that independent
anthem, "My Way."

 

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