Posts tagged “cuisine

Pyongyang Restaurant Chain – North Korean Food Available Around the World

Singing North Korean Waitress Dandong, China

Live entertainment at a North Korean state run restaurant in Dandong, China.

Traveling to Asia but don’t have enough time to visit North Korea?  It’s possible to get a taste, literally, of North Korean culture at one of the many state run North Korean restaurants located in the East and Southeast Asian region.  At the Pyongyang restaurant chain you can get amazing North Korean cuisine along with music and dance shows performed by actual North Korean waitresses.

These restaurants are reportedly run by the infamous Room 39, the North Korean bureau that is tasked with acquiring and laundering foreign hard currency and the distribution of foreign luxury goods to high party officials.

The Pyongyang restaurant is the perfect place to hang out at if you are looking to rub shoulders with North Korean spies and secret agents.  All the waitresses are required to live on premises and are closely watched by state security agents – reportedly several branches in China were shut down after escape attempts.  Clientele at branches close to the North Korean border are mainly curious Chinese and North Korean businessmen, while branches further afield focus on the South Korean businessman trade.

Wikipedia reports that the Pyongyang restaurant chain operates in the major cities close to the North Korean border along with locations in Beijing and Shanghai.  Outside China you can enjoy the North Korean experience at a Pyongyang restaurant in Bangkok, Jakarta, Pattaya, Siem Reap, Vientiane, and Amsterdam.

Dandong North Korean State Restaurant Entertainment

Live entertainment at a North Korean state run restaurant in Dandong, China.

My good friend Jordan Harbinger, co-founder of The North Korea Blog, and I visited a North Korean state run restaurant during our visit to the Chinese/North Korean border city of Dandong.  We stopped by the Lui Jing restaurant, and although what I write about above deals with the Pyongyang restaurant chain, we were assured that the Lui Jing restaurant was also North Korean state run and would provide the most authentic North Korean meal in the city.  While in North Korea our meals were always adequate but seemingly dumbed down for our western palette.  At the Dandong Lui Jing restaurant we were served up heaping dishes of the best Korean food I have ever had.  We dug into a serving of Yook Hwe, a cold raw beef and raw egg dish that was fantastic, along with bulgogi BBQ (we ordered 2nds), and a gigantic fluffy shrimp and octopus omelet.

Taking photos is not allowed in most North Korean state run restaurants, so I never got pictures of our dishes, but when the floor show started the waitresses used sign language to indicate we could snap some shots – as shown in the pics above.  The waitresses were totally perplexed by us, I’m guessing they don’t see too many western foreigners stopping by at the Dandong branch, but of course we charmed them with our limited Korean language skills and smiles, and had the entire waitress staff abuzz chatting about our every move.  We visited two nights in a row and was granted the special privilege, despite a no photo policy, of taking Polaroids and sharing them with the girls there.

The North Korean Dining Experience

Exploring cuisines from around the world is one of the main reasons I have traveled so voraciously over the years, and while I love food and eating, I don’t really have the expertise to write about North Korean cuisine – I will leave that to the wonderful Juche Vegan blog. Instead I will use this post to highlight the North Korean dining experience available to tourists on a visit to the DPRK.

Lunch in Kaesŏng

Traditional Korean lunch at the Kaesong restaurant.

Lunch in Kaesŏng

Traditional Korean lunch at the Kaesong restaurant.


Waitresses serve a traditional Korean lunch at the Kaesong restaurant.

It was firmly impressed upon us during our orientation meeting in Beijing that while malnourishment still remains a major problem in the DPRK, the money paid for our trip would more than adequately pay for all the food we would consume on our visit – our DPRK dining experience would in no way be taking food out of the mouths of unfortunate North Koreans.

The quantity of food during our meals was always adequate while quality of the various meals ranged anywhere from average to fantastic. My favorite meals were the Korean BBQs while the most uninspiring were the buffets and set meal spreads normally found at the various hotels we visited.  Some of the specialty restaurants presented nice Korean dishes such as Bibimbap and cold noodles, but I found the meal served at the Korean hot pot restaurant in Pyongyang to be quite bland.  The most famous specialty restaurant in North Korea is the Pyongyang pizzeria, and while they specialize in authentic Italian cuisine (their pizzas are excellent), they also have many standard Korean meals on the menu.  In addition to my pizza I ordered the most exotic thing I could find on the menu (my own little test of their food supply situation), a spicy and fresh Korean style clam dish, it was excellent and served up promptly.  More about the Pyongyang pizza restaurant here.

Pizza in Pyongyang, North Korea

Pasta dish at the Pyongyang pizza restaurant.

No true social outing would be complete in North Korea without a little live music, and on multiple occasions our waitresses serenaded us with the popular folk classics accompanied by either the piano or accordion.  During our BBQ in the park at the Pyongyang Ultimate Frisbee tournament the scene became borderline scandalous when our singing waitresses grabbed us to dance, and to the absolute amazement of our western guide, I had the first North Korean/American booty bump session since god knows when.

BBQ Lunch at North Korean Ultimate Frisbee Tournament

BBQ in the park with the singing waitresses of Pyongyang.

Pyongyang BBQ

BBQ in the park with the singing waitresses of Pyongyang.

Pyongyang BBQ Waitress

BBQ in the park with the singing waitresses of Pyongyang.

Ultimate Frisbee North Korea

BBQ in the park with the singing waitresses of Pyongyang.

The Singing Waitresses of Pyongyang, North Korea

BBQ in the park with the singing waitresses of Pyongyang.

Dancing with the Singing Waitresses of Pyongyang, North Korea

Dancing with the singing waitresses of Pyongyang.

Beer is plentiful at all North Korean meals, and while not always cold, at least one big bottle is usually included with lunch and dinner.  At the Mt. Myohyang hotel restaurant one of us ordered a 2nd round of beers for the table, these were priced at about 1 USD per big bottle, but later one of us walked to the restaurant bar to order directly from the cashier, bottles bought here were only 50 US cents, that’s a 100% markup per bottle just for the 15 foot walk from the bar to the tables!

Mt. Myohyang Hotel Lunch

Lunch and beer at the Mt. Myohyang hotel restaurant.

Mt. Myohyang Hotel Lunch

Our North Korean guide at the Mt. Myohyang hotel restaurant.

We learned about the North Korean black market while relaxing at the BBQ lunch during the Pyongyang Ultimate Frisbee tournament. One of us slipped our guides about 5 US dollars and asked them to pick us up some beers.  Normally all financial transactions for foreigners are controlled through the government set rates at approved stores.  We had been accustomed to paying about 1 USD per big beer, but after having gained our guides trust, and at this informal drinking party in the park, the power of our 5 US dollars on the black market bought us a BMW trunk load full of beer!

Other unique dining experiences in North Korea:

Although we didn’t visit, there is a new fast food hamburger restaurant in Pyongyang, supposedly there you can pay using a North Korean debit card.  I obtained one of these debit cards at the Yanggakdo hotel but unfortunately its system was down and I was never able to charge it up with a little cash.  I also saw a Mexican burrito stand at the Pyongyang fun fair.  This was set up for locals using local currency, and although I missed the chance on the last trip, if the stand is still there when I go back in April I hope to have my guide buy me a burrito!

For something a little more on the exotic side try some North Korean ostrich.  Ostrich husbandry was introduced into North Korea as a way to help feed the starving masses, it didn’t work, but the North Korean ostrich farms remain (we were allowed to visit one on our tour) and ostrich meat can be found on menus of the high class Pyongyang restaurants.  Want something even more exotic? Try the dog soup available at the Kaesong folk hotel for 5 Euros a bowl – I did!

Revolving Restaurant North Korea

The Yanggakdo Hotel revolving restaurant and bar.

Yanggakdo Hotel

The Yanggakdo Hotel revolving restaurant and bar.

North Korean Rest Stop

Coffee, tea, and refreshment rest stop on the highway from Pyongyang to Kaesong.

Juche Vegan

The world’s first English-language vegan food blog devoted to North Korean cuisine – check out the Juche Vegan blog

North Korean Lunch Painting