North Korean Cuisine

When I was cramming for Chinese class in 1987 I haunted the Cowell College library, a quiet place where most of the students didn’t know me and hence, couldn’t distract me. I had no trouble finding my own distractions though.

My favorite desk had a nice view outside and a stack of yellowing CIA Asia documents behind it, usually transcripts from North Korean media. When I was really bored, I’d reach out behind my back and grab a random report.

Invariably, they used Orwellian doublespeak about the glorious leader Kim Il Sung and his progeny. Back in the day Kim Il Sung was a resistance fighter against the Japanese, which did have a certain respectability. But things turned a bit extreme, and the nation is probably now the biggest cult of personality left in the world, now run by the glorious leader’s son, Kim Jong Il.

North Korea is indeed weirdness on earth. It’s got a replica of the Arc de Triomphe bigger than the original. The capital city has three lanes on the roads, one especially reserved for the car of the illustrious leader. The radios are all tuned to one station. The population is exposed to a high level of indoctrination, and many are starving due to chronic food shortages. There is staged tourism, and apparently there are two casinos there exclusively for tourists.

In the 60s and 70s Prince Sihanouk made a point of trying to balance all sides in the Cold War, when things were getting hot in Southeast Asia. When the Lon Nol coup happened in the 1970s Sihanouk was given a residence and refuge in Pyonyang as well as Beijing. To this day his bodyguards are North Korean, given to him by Kim Il Sung.

Flash forward to 2003. Driving along the airport road towards Angkor, a real head-turner (whiplash!) is the Pyonyang Cold Noodle Restaurant.

Why a North Korean restaurant in Siem Reap? There is no doubt some small trade between the two countries. And to further demonstrate that there are friendly ties (and perhaps open the door to future commerce), why not a small restaurant? Doubtless the staff chosen to work there have strong family ties with government officials, I’d wager.

Naturally this had to be checked out. We had the good fortune to have Thai, a Cambodian Korean speaking guide to help us navigate the menu and customs.

The food was good, with slight variations from standard Korean fare, perhaps a bit less spicy. The cold noodles are a treat, long enough that they’re cut with a pair of scissors at the table.

The real humor (and a sprinkle of pathos) came when the staff fired up the karaoke machine and started belting out songs. Some of them can really sing! (The repertoire included South Korean songs, Cambodian music, and Western Songs ?no North Korean Karaoke to speak of. But they’ll probably have North Korean hip hop in another five years, knowing the way of the world.)

Of course there were only three tables of customers in terms of audience. Karaoke feels contrived in the West, but here it is just a feature in the Asian cultural landscape. Maybe a few more glasses of Shoju (rice alcohol) and I’d get up and sing, but I had work the next day.

The place is frequented not only by occasional tourists but other Koreans in town. Siem Reap is a small town and there’s no demilitarized zone to navigate to get in the door. Rumor has it the waitresses are appreciated by the Korean men for their demure and traditional manner, perhaps a bit of nostalgia for the past.

Given the current massive famines, the North Korean administration has clearly failed in any sort of leadership role. But changing things will take some effort. More exposure to different cultures and different people couldn’t hurt as a small step in the process of sorting out the many problems at hand. (After all, it was when the Khmer Rouge strongholds started to sprout television aerials that we knew the end was near.)

Maybe a little less isolation, and a few more cold noodle joints might not be a bad idea.


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