I’m uncertain about the ethics of visiting North Korea, which by all accounts is a country ruled by a cruel, repressive and very strange regime. I don’t think I’d want to put my money in their pockets, but on the other hand it would be a fascinating place to see. So I am also uncertain about the ethics of visiting the Pyongyang Restaurant in Kathmandu, which is run by the North Korean Embassy in Nepal. But I was deeply curious about the restaurant after reading Thomas Bell’s account of it in his book Kathmandu. It is commonly known to be a hotbed of spies, and prevents its North Korean employees from leaving the premises (there’s even a guard at the door).
I was puzzled the first time I heard about the Pyongyang restaurant in Kathmandu. An embassy running a restaurant!? But in fact North Korean embassies across the world operate restaurants as a way of bringing in valuable foreign currency: there are branches of Pyongyang or the alternately-named Okryu-Gwan in China, Thailand, the Netherlands and the United Arab Emirates. It’s not just in Nepal that the restaurants are tied to espionage, but the Kathmandu branch is especially notorious. As Neal Ungerleider reported for Fast Company magazine:
The restaurants have also been also tied to the murky world of intelligence and espionage. A North Korean man defected to India through the Kathmandu restaurant. The man was reportedly the former manager of the Kathmandu Okryu-Gwan and fled to India with a large amount of cash taken from the restaurant.
It was a Friday night, but only two other tables in the large restaurant were occupied. One by a small group of Nepali men, the other by a lone Korean man. There were more waitresses than customers, all clad in hot pink skirt suits and platform heels so high and pointy that they could hardly walk. They were all young, extremely fair skinned and well made-up, and had immaculate bouffant hairdos. They looked like they belonged in a dimly-lit lounge on a 1980s cruise ship.
We were shown to our table by a smiley, friendly girl with good English. She asked us where we came from: me, New Zealand and my friend, India. Once she had gone, my friend–who had been here before–leaned across the table and whispered: “They always ask that! I’m sure they’re writing that down in their book.” It was the first of a few comments over the course of the meal that we felt we needed to whisper:
Do you think there are any spies in here now? Do you think they’ve bugged the walls? Why would they be interested in us? Why are we whispering? We’ve got nothing to hide!
Our service was friendly, presumably partly because my friend and I were both very clearly not from South Korea. But Seulki Lee’s recent(ish) review of the restaurant in the Nepali Times mentions that the waitress asked her if she was from South Korea. When she replied in the affirmative, she was spoken to harshly and given a run-down on the rules, which included absolutely no photographs of the menu, or anywhere inside the restaurant. Very interesting indeed
The ambience was… well, there was no ambience, really. At one end of the room was a raised stage that is sometimes used for traditional dance performances, but wasn’t that night. There was no music. The lights were bright, and the idyllic pastoral landscape paintings on the walls were, I presume, an accurate depiction of North Korea. A couple of private karaoke rooms with couches were not being used. I went to the toilet (which was amazingly clean, especially by Nepali standards) and thought I heard a Korean cover of a Justin Bieber song being played faintly in the background. But it may have just been wishful thinking, or else the noisy dance bar next door.
This building in Bakundole, Kathmandu, that looks rather like an ordinary apartment building, is the North Korean Embassy in Nepal. They have a restaurant elsewhere in town, which is apparently used to pay their embassy staff. I’ve never been, but will make it a high priority to! #Nepal #Kathmandu #iaminnepal #nepalnow #northkorea #sonderon
I can count on two hands the number of times I’ve tried Korean food. One of those was a memorable little Korean restaurant in the dark, winding lanes of Varanasi, where I happily devoured bibimbap after two months of North Indian food. I generally love Nepali food, but the tastebuds do need something a little different after months of heavily spiced and salted pulses, legumes and rice. So I was excited to try North Korean, which I presumed would be the same as South Korean.
That assumption is not entirely true. A specialty of North Korea–and of the Pyongyang Restaurant–is a cold noodle dish, raengmyeon. As Seulki Lee wrote in the Nepali Times:
Raengmyeon is a dish made with long, thin handmade buckwheat, kudzu or potato noodles in a tangy iced broth. The dish became popular throughout the Korean peninsula after the 1950-1953 Korean War, as refugees from the North brought their tradition southward.
I didn’t try this specialty because it’s made with meat broth, and I’m veg. Another difference between the Korean cuisines of the North and the South, according to Lee, is the taste of the kimchi.
The food at Pyongyang was nicely presented, but it wasn’t quite to the liking of me or my friend. She ordered chili chicken, which she said was very tough and more like a bar snack than an entire meal. At around Rs400, you’d expect a proper meal. She also ordered a lime soda until she realised that they were Rs260, a crazy price for a simple drink. Even in upmarket places in Kathmandu, lime sodas don’t cost more than Rs180. I ordered vegetable cabbage rolls, basically spring rolls wrapped in cabbage leaves, sitting in a peppery sauce. They were fine, but the peppery sauce was rather potent as well as glutinous, and I couldn’t finish the large plate. Both dishes had a strong Sichuan pepper taste, which is an acquired taste that neither my friend nor I have acquired. It reminds me of an unpleasant mouthwash, or the sort of thing your dentist would give you before probing into your gums. I’m not much of a fan of Chinese or Russian food either, and the food at Pyongyang was reminiscent of both. Not surprising considering the geography of the country, I suppose.
The food isn’t particularly cheap. Main meals were around Rs400-500, or much more for fish. But Pyongyang is located in the back streets of the upmarket Durbar Marg area of Kathmandu, round the corner from the Yak & Yeti Hotel, so for this part of town the prices aren’t extravagant. I probably wouldn’t go again, unless coerced into a karaoke session (OK, I wouldn’t need to be coerced very hard). I still feel a bit funny about the ethics of visiting though, especially after reading this:
According to media reports, foreign branches of the restaurant are required to send home at least $30,000 annually in addition to paying their own expenses. While returns sent by the restaurants back to the mother country remain relatively small, they still play an important role. While North Korea’s primary method of raising foreign capital is weapons sales, it is also generally believed that the North Korean government has a major hand in Japan’s pachinko industry.
Do I recommend Pyongyang Arirang Restaurant? I’ll leave that up to you to decide. .
Top image: Jocelyn & Cathy (Creative Commons/Flickr)