Sunday, June 12, 2005

Zagat North Korea?!

When I think of North Korea, I think of a number of things...rigid, neo-Maoist state, pompadored dictator waving nukes, drinking cognac and kidnapping a noted South Korean director so he can force him to film a Marxist Godzilla movie (and no, I'm not kidding)...but what wouldn't occur to me is fine dining in Pyongyang:
Recent visitors to the "hermit kingdom" report that good food is no longer limited to government functions or the occasional hotel eatery. A new raft of restaurants -- from Korean barbecue to fast-food hamburgers -- cater to foreigners and locals alike.

"Everybody is now interested in making money, and restaurants are one way of doing so," says Kathi Zellweger of the Catholic aid organization, Caritas. "On my last trip I was told that in Pyongyang alone there are now over 350 new restaurants and I did note far more restaurant signs on buildings and also some 'beer drinking bars' packed with men in evenings."
In July 2003, UN workers Sofia Malmqvist, Olof Nunez and Roberto Christen put out a guide to Pyongyang restaurants. Printed privately and distributed to friends and colleagues, the guide rates 50 restaurants in Pyongyang according to price and quality.

It is the first such attempt to introduce foreigners to the secrets of eating out in a city where visitors rarely wander around unescorted. The guide provides much useful advice. Foreigners are not common, for instance, at the city's one bowling alley, but you might be able to hang out with the locals if you praise the restaurant's stews. American-style pancakes are available at the Pyongyang Information Center's second-floor restaurant. The Chongchun 1 restaurant attracts families and children and, according to the guide, is "a definite 'dine with the proletariat' experience!" Co-author Roberto Christen relates that he often mixed with North Koreans at these restaurants, communicating across language barriers about such matters as food and weather...

...The most unusual food in Pyongyang these days is not the ostrich barbecue at the Arirang restaurant or the sashimi at the Galaxy. It is a dish that most people would consider the most banal: hamburger. Foreign food is certainly not unknown to the North Korean elite (consider, for instance, the tales of Kim Jong Il's sushi chef or the memoir of the Italian pizza expert flown in to impart the secrets of the trade. But Pyongyang's new hamburger restaurant is perhaps the first example of a Western menu for the masses.
Beyond the bizarre notion of hamburgers and sushi in Pyongyang, there are many larger implications of a flourishing restaurant business in North Korea, including the erosion of a centrally controlled economy and the growing influence of outside investors. Read the whole article for further insight.

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