Taste of North Korea
No, I haven’t been to North Korea… yet! But let me tell you about this restaurant I found in Laos…
There are not many countries which maintain active diplomatic ties with North Korea. Well, among them is Laos, and while in Vientiane, I took the opportunity to dine in Pyongyang Restaurant (평양식당), a branch of a worldwide chain run by Kim Jong-un’s government.
Metal chopsticks, jars of ginseng liquor, quiet and compliant waitresses wearing chosŏn-ot (traditional Korean clothing; I regret not having a photograph decent enough to share with you!) – I really felt like being teleported to Pyongyang. The menu is pretty extensive, with all the Korean classics as well as some Chinese fare. What is the most North Korean of North Korean dishes? Cold noodles, obviously. I didn’t hesitate even for a second and ordered it promptly.
North Korean pronunciation is raengmyŏn (랭면),
while the Southerners call it naengmyeon (냉면).
Both are readings of Chinese 冷麵,
meaning plainly „cold noodles”.
In modern Mandarin the characters
are simplified to 冷面 and read lěng miàn.]
Cold noodles originated in the North. After the Korean War, many northerners (re)introduced it to South Korea. The dish is also popular in China. I have eaten Cold Noodles while living in both countries, but I will never forget those tried in Laos, even if mostly because of the location and circumstances.
Thin starch noodles are thrown into ice-cold broth together with a boiled egg and topped with pickled veggies and slices of Asian pear. Just after putting the steel bowl on my table, the waitress started to cut the noodles with scissors. I halted her and kindly asked to wait a second so I can take a photo. It came with chili paste so after mixing, the crystal clear soup turned red. I would describe two predominant sensations as immense sweetness and striking coldness. Soothing, especially that the weather was sweltering that day.
Mung bean pancakes are another specialty associated with the city of Pyongyang. This restaurant’s name for it was „Nodujijim”, 록두지짐 (which could be also Romanized as Lokdujijim), literally „green bean fry”. If you are looking for it in South Korea or on Wikipedia, look for „bindae-tteok” (빈대떡). Just don’t be surprised that it looks diametrically different from what you see on my photograph here. Bindae-tteok is always so greasy! At least in South Korea… This one is so dry and, well… elegant.
„Pyongyang” is a quite a big restaurant chain, with more than one hundred locations around the globe! The lion’s share of them is found in China, mostly near the border with North Korea but also in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Besides China and Laos, you can also find them in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nepal, Russia, Thailand, UAE and Vietnam. The restaurants are operated by the government of North Korea and the revenue is a significant injection of foreign currency the regime so desperately needs. Enjoy your meal?