Koreans love eating out _ as every long-time Seoul resident knows from his or her own experience. Going to a restaurant is one of the most common leisure activities in this country. In this regard the North is not much different. Of course, decent restaurants are much more difficult to come across: Communist economies have never been particularly successful in meeting consumers’ demands in this area. Nonetheless, this does not mean North Korean cities do not have good restaurants. Perhaps, the very scarcity of such places, combined with the generally bad diet, make eating out there an even more remarkable experience.
For the last 25 years two major restaurants have defined the Pyongyang’s culinary life ㅡ Okryugwan and Chongryugwan.
Okryugwan (the Jade Stream Pavilion) is located on the left bank of the Taedong River. It commenced operations in 1960, and has since remained the major landmark of the North Korean capital. This large building, in a mock traditional style, boasts a number of dining halls including some special banquet rooms, and can seat up to 2,000 visitors. Obviously, the penchant for large-scale eateries has been common to all Communist regimes (the Soviet restaurants of the era also tended to be of truly mammoth size).
Okryugwan has an officially recognized standing as the major guardian of traditional Korean cuisine, functioning as a type of living museum of culinary arts. Recently it was reported that, together with a local college, it sent special research teams to the countryside. The teams were to gather data on traditional Korean cuisine in order to introduce new dishes onto the Okryugwan menu (I just wonder whether it was a good idea to look for new recipes at the time of famine).
Chongryugwan (the Pure Stream Pavilion) is almost equally famous. It opened much later, 1980, in a new building shaped to resemble a ship. The Chongryugwan sits on the banks of the Potonggang, a minor but capricious tributary of the Taedong River. It has two levels: the ground floor, occupied by a large dining hall, and the upper floor, used for small dining rooms and banquet halls.
Both restaurants specialize in traditional cuisine, with special attention given to cold noodles, a quintessentially North Korean dish. Generally, the cooking traditions in the North and South are slightly different, but South Korean visitors usually have a high opinion of the food in both of these famous restaurants.
Both Okryugwan and Chongryugwan are sometimes described in the South as ‘mass restaurants’, and this description is true. Open to the average North Korean, they are not reserved for bigwigs or dollar-paying foreigners alone. However, this does not mean anyone can wander in off the street and enjoy a bowl of cold noodles at whim. In order to get access, North Koreans initially had to get tickets, and these tickets were notoriously difficult to acquire. One had to have connections or endure hours in long queues. Only in recent years has the ongoing “dollarization’’ of the North Korean economy changed the situation: if one has money then tickets are available (that’s a big ‘if’ of course).
In the countryside there are local analogues to the two Pyongyang heavyweights. Each major North Korean city has its own `special’ restaurant. Usually, their names include the characters ‘kak’ or ‘gwan’. Both words are of Chinese origin: they can be roughly translated as ‘pavilion’ and ‘hall’ and have been a part of the names of the restaurants in East Asian countries for many centuries
Apart from Okryugwan and its less successful rivals, North Korea has a number of smaller eateries. They are not as numerous as eateries in the South, but in major cities they are not so difficult to find. In the past there used to be a clear-cut difference between the hard-currency restaurants, which were off limits to commoners, and establishments for the not-so-well-heeled. However, the recent few years have seen a gradual blurring of this once impassable border.
North Korean specialities are noodles and, of course, dog meat. Incidentally, the latter is not called ‘dog meat’ (kae kogi) in North Korea. Once upon a time, Kim Il Sung decided that such a name was too unceremonious, and had it renamed ‘sweet meat (‘tan kogi’)!
The restaurant industry was one of the first in which private enterprise was reintroduced. This happened at a surprisingly early stage, in the late 1980s, when state control of the economy was still sound. In recent years, these private eateries have sprung up in very large numbers, reflecting the steady disintegration of the Stalinist economy.
According to a pro-Pyongyang newspaper in Japan, in 2005 there were 500 restaurants in Pyongyang. Most of them charge prices well beyond the reach of the average North Korean, and cater to the tastes of the three major groups with money: foreign ex-pats, black-market dealers, and officials. These groups are large enough to sustain a number of quite sophisticated eateries.
There is sashimi to be eaten in the Galaxy, there is ostrich barbecue at the Arirang, and there is a micro-brewery where 5 people can feast on the locally produced dark ale and good noodles for a mere $15! A bargain, of course, at $3 per person ㅡ but, after all, the $3 is exactly how much the average North Korean worker is paid for one month… Some people have this money, of course. How? That is another story…