I Ate in a North Korean Restaurant
In the lobby of the Haedanghwa restaurant in Beijing is a happy little aquarium filled with chubby orange goldfish. Normally, this decorative feature would be unremarkable. But here, in a restaurant likely run by and funneling funds to the North Korean government, I feel like one of those fish in the tank. Like we're being watched.
It's interesting being a strawberry blonde laowai (foreigner) in China. Even in a metropolitan city like Beijing I get a lot of stares. I'm generally used to that reaction, but it's more intense in this restaurant, where my dining partner (a friend from Washington, D.C., in Beijing on business) and I are literally enemies of the restaurant's backers.
North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has been metaphorically rattling his saber and threatening to shoot nuclear weapons at the U.S. for months now, and our lunch bill could help fund an attack.
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Haedanghwa Foodstuff Co. runs three North Korean restaurants in China and is opening another in Amsterdam. Because international sanctions against North Korea are so strict, these restaurants are widely assumed to be a way for the country to get around restrictions and obtain much-needed foreign currency.
It's not that I feel unsafe at Haedanghwa. I'm more uneasy about spending money here. But for the sake of the experience -- I've long been fascinated with life in the Hermit Kingdom, and this seems like a safe way to experience the culture -- we climb the stairs to the second-story eatery.
A pretty waitress in a black dress with a tartan waistband seats us in the front dining room. She speaks enough English to say hello and offer us water, but that's about it -- members of the waitstaff all speak Korean and Chinese, but English is minimal. The dining room is tidy, with shiny wood floors, pink frilly curtains on the windows and a North Korean black-and-white propaganda movie playing on a TV in the corner. Our waitress hands us a picture menu (assuming, correctly, that neither of us can read Korean or Mandarin) and leaves us.
The menu seems to include a lot of standard Korean fare: kimchi, of course, some cold noodles, some brothy dishes with meat and vegetables and food that seems like it's both spicy and savory, which is part of why I love much Korean food. Online, the English menu claims the food is flown in fresh from North Korea every day, but I know enough about the country to dismiss this statement as a fabrication. The cargo holds of planes leaving Beijing for North Korea's capital are so full, passengers have to carry on all their bags and store them on seats in the back of the plane. The cargo holds on planes heading the other way are empty.
If we could communicate with the waitresses, we could probably order a bottle of North Korean rice wine, on display behind the counter. But it's a little early in the day, and there are no prices on the menu. We decide to skip it, in case we end up buying the North Korean version of Dom Perignon.
Neither one of us is feeling very brave with our food choices, and the smells are a little overwhelming -- a bit bleachy and meaty. We'd perused the menu online and seen that dog meat, in the form of ribs, filets and some sort of carpaccio, was available. On the picture menu, we can't figure out what's dog and what's not, so we opt for a plate of kimchi, a lobster appetizer that looks covered in cheese and two bowls of bibimbap served in hot stone bowls.
The lunchtime traffic is brisk, with businessmen or families occupying nearly every table. The bright lighting makes it feel a bit like a cafeteria. Along one side of the room is a counter decorated with murals of Korean farmers and soldiers where the waitresses gather, quietly passing their order tickets to a woman manning a computer.
The kimchi arrives, cold and tangy and slightly addicting. It's not the best kimchi I've ever had, but it's good enough for me to keep eating more.
We're discussing its merits when a woman walks by wearing a long, shiny, royal blue sequined dress. She passes quickly, heading down a long hall to our right, and disappears. A few minutes later, we hear loud, high-pitched singing, and I realize we're missing out on the show.
Haedanghwa has private rooms for large parties, where the waitresses put on shows throughout the lunch and dinner hours. Hand-picked from prestigious Pyongyang families to come to Beijing and work at the restaurant for a couple of years, they live in dormitories nearby and aren't allowed to go out alone. Sometimes waitresses go missing, assumed to have defected. That leaves their families at home in danger and usually makes the local news.
The show goes on for well over half an hour, and the performers' dresses look like something Honey Boo Boo would wear, all taffeta and sequins. These women are so tall and slender they almost pull it off.
The rest of our meal is fairly unremarkable. The lobster and cheese tastes like lobster and cheese -- nothing special. Our waitress brings over the bibimbap and cuts it up for us, mixing the runny egg, spicy gochujang red pepper sauce, veggies and meat served over rice into a steamy, comforting mess.
My dining partner digs in before I do and takes a couple of bites.
"How is it?" I ask.
"Good. But I don't think this is beef."
I take a bite. It's definitely not beef. It's sweet and a little tough -- probably not dog meat, which I've heard has a pungent odor. I'm not really into eating mystery meats, so its presence kind of ruins the bibimbap for me.
After we're done, our waitress brings over a chilled bowl with some sort of purple custard. She can't tell us what it is, but it tastes like a soupy red bean paste that's a little too sweet.
Our bill comes to about $40, and I charge it, hoping I didn't just give Kim Jong Un access to my credit card. I don't think my $40 is going to make or break the North Korean regime, but I'm pretty sure I won't be coming back to any Haedanghwa restaurants.