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Dear Eater: Inside the International Restaurant Chain Run by the North Korean State

It’s probably no surprise to hear that the North Korean won isn’t doing so great. Back in 2009, the country’s government issued a new currency with an exchange rate of 100 old won to 1 new won, wiping out many North Koreans’ life savings. This prompted the already-thriving black market in North Korea to blossom, which led that black market to switch to more stable types of currency—namely the Chinese yuan and the American dollar. Things haven’t gotten any better since the revaluation. It’s said that the only people in the country who still use the almost-worthless North Korean won are “vegetable sellers.”

That apparently includes the government, which has been relying more and more on an interesting ace up its sleeve to procure foreign currency: its international chain of restaurants. 

Generally considered Pyongyang’s finest restaurant, the cavernous Okryugwan—literally “jade stream pavilion,” named for the nearby Okryu Bridge—has served up traditional North Korean food since 1960. But starting in 2003, it began its slow international expansion, first with a Beijing location replete with waitstaff trained at North Korean culinary schools. After that restaurant eventually started pulling in more than US $6000 per day, Okryugwan locations sprouted up in Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, Mongolia, Russia, Cambodia, and the United Arab Emirates, with rumored branches on deck for Scotland and the Netherlands. (Not all of these branches are still open today, and not all of them are called Okryugwan—a few go under the nom de guerre “Pyongyang.” Perhaps not surprisingly, the connections among them are somewhat unclear, but all are said to funnel money to the North Korean government.)

Working in the international Okryugwan restaurants is, of course, a plum position for North Korean citizens, who need special permission to travel around their own country, to say nothing of crossing its borders, which is near-impossible to arrange. Each member of every all-female waitstaff is chosen carefully not only for her beauty but also her zeal for drinking the national Kool-Aid, as the servers are under close watch—especially since a few women escaped from a restaurant in China in 2006, resulting in the closure of several locations. 

Not every location is run directly by the North Korean government—defectors have reported that some are operated instead by middlemen who pay the government between US $10,000 and $30,000 per year. These days, the restaurants themselves variously earn the equivalent of around $100,000 a month apiece, depending on location. Secret shareholders are involved in a few as well, but the show is still run by the North Korean state in all instances. It's admittedly a pretty clever way to sell tourism—“Come experience hard-to-find North Korean cuisine! A culinary rarity!”—in a situation where asking tourists to visit your country isn’t really an option. And more importantly, it helps the DPRK get its hands on that cold, hard foreign cash it so dearly needs.

Unlike the Pyongyang location, where locals must wait months to obtain tickets from their work units in order to eat there, the international Okryugwans are open to the public. So when my boyfriend and I, both Americans, took a short trip to Dubai recently, we found ourselves in an ethical quandary over whether we should dine at Okryugwan. We were dying to check it out, but … if we gave the North Korean government our money, were we funding its uranium Kickstarter? Did it count as disaster tourism if we went there to gawk at their quaint and outdated ways, which we would maybe be half-doing? Especially if these ways were performed by people who are essentially government slaves? Even donating, say, $40 to the nefarious DPRK regime felt like a moral betrayal.

I’m still conflicted about it months later, but in the end, our curiosity got the best of us. We showed up at the Dubai Okryugwan as flagrant looky-loos, unsure if we’d be welcomed as guests or considered enemies of the state.

In the busy, modern Deira district of Dubai, in the bottom of a nondescript office building, the restaurant is a Communist-flavored time warp, with disco lighting and riots of fake roses in giant floor vases. A huge stage stands at the far end of the dining room before a wall-sized mural of jagged mountains. Notably, there are no portraits of Kim Jongs anywhere, neither -Il nor -Un. Signs in English (the lingua franca in Dubai) explain that karaoke rooms are available in the back, while in the dining room, TV screens play karaoke videos at low volume—the subject of each, judging from the background imagery, seems to be the natural splendor of the North Korean countryside. There were only about four different songs playing when we were there, but each song played in several different arrangements. Another sign asks guests not to take photos, which we only saw when we left (whoops). The menus are in Korean and English, and the servers, perma-smiling in matching 1950s polka-dotted pinafores, speak English fluently. 

Disappointingly, the food isn’t very different from standard South Korean cuisine. Raengmyon—cold buckwheat noodles served in an iced, mustardy, vinegary broth and a bibimbap-like assortment of toppings—is the star attraction, one of the only specifically North Korean dishes on the both-North-and-South-Korean menu. After she set the entrée down, the server pulled out some gigantic scissors and chopped the noodles up, portioned them out into individual bowls, then painstakingly arranged the little bits of meat and vegetable on top of each bowl. Also known as Pyongyang-style noodles, they were OK, if not very exciting. Other exclusively North Korean delicacies include mullet (a type of fish) soup with boiled rice and green bean pancake. Everything else, you can get at any Korean restaurant in the U.S. For what it’s worth, our favorites were both all-inclusive Korean dishes: The absolute mountain of white kimchi was super-sizzly and effervescent, and we loved the beef ddeokbokki, a kind of gnocchi-esque rice dumpling, which arrived in a quantity that would feed four grown men.

Like many of the other restaurants, the Dubai Okryugwan outpost doesn’t only offer North Korean cuisine: Your meal also comes with a creepy, kitschy, Lawrence Welkian floor show. This is the main lure for travelers—or if it’s not, it should be. Like the servers, the performers are all women, and they come whirling out in their color-coded hanboks and frilly prom dresses, team after team of them—singing arias in flawless coloratura while playing a synthesizer from 1986, rocking out authentic accordion polkas at mach speed, harmonizing on pop songs in three and four parts, all while dancing in complicated Busby Berkeley-style synchronicity. It was eerily lovely to watch, with the rotating pastel lights dyeing their dresses different hues while they danced. The accordionist was particularly impressive: A tiny lady in perhaps her 20s, absolutely tearing it up on a full-size 120-button bass accordion. Those things are heavy.

Research later told us that all of the pop songs sung during the floor show were about North Korea and its various leaders. In fact, we were pretty sure they were the same songs from the karaoke videos playing prior to the show. 

Information on forthcoming Okryugwan locations is scarce, so it’s all “alleged,” but reports generally agree that business is booming. It seems likely that the chain will continue to expand, particularly as long as the North Korean won stays weak. Okryugwan is a weird, weird place, and the quirky, touristy appeal is off the charts, so its popularity is no mystery. And I suppose you gotta hand it to the DPRK for harnessing their weirdness and selling it to tourists so successfully. 

All images by Meg van Huygen

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Food
The Science Behind Why We Crave Loud and Crunchy Foods
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A number of years ago, food giant Unilever polled consumers asking how the company might improve their popular line of Magnum ice cream bars. The problem, respondents said, was that the chocolate coating of the bars tended to fall off too quickly, creating blotches of sticky goo on carpeting. Unilever reacted by changing the recipe to make the chocolate less prone to spills.

When they tested the new and improved product, they expected a warm reception. Instead, they got more complaints than before. While the updated bar didn’t make a mess, it also didn’t make the distinctive crackle that its fans had grown accustomed to. Deprived of hearing the coating collapse and crumble, the experience of eating the ice cream was fundamentally changed. And not for the better.

Smell and taste researcher Alan Hirsch, M.D. refers to it as the “music of mastication,” an auditory accompaniment to the sensory stimulus of eating. “For non-gustatory, non-olfactory stimulation, people prefer crunchiness,” he tells Mental Floss. Humans love crunchy, noisy snacks, that loud rattling that travels to our inner ear via air and bone conduction and helps us identify what it is we’re consuming. Depending on the snack, the noise can reach 63 decibels. (Normal conversations are around 60 dB; rustling leaves, 20 dB.)

When we hear it, we eat more. When we don’t—as in the case of Magnum bars, or a soggy, muted potato chip—we resort to other senses, looking at our food with doubt or sniffing it for signs of expiration. Psychologically, our lust for crispy sustenance is baked in. But why is it so satisfying to create a cacophony of crunch? And if we love it so much, why do some of us actually grow agitated and even aggressive when we hear someone loudly chomping away? It turns out there’s a lot more to eating with our ears than you might have heard.

 
 

The science of crunch has long intrigued Charles Spence, Ph.D., a gastrophysicist and professor of experimental psychology and head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford. Food companies have enlisted him and consulted his research across the spectrum of ingestion, from packaging to shapes to the sound chips make rustling around in grocery carts.

“We’re not born liking noisy foods,” he tells Mental Floss. “Noise doesn’t give a benefit in terms of nutrition. But we don’t like soggy crisps even if they taste the same. Missing the sound is important.”

In 2003, Spence decided to investigate the sonic appeal of chips in a formal setting. To keep a semblance of control, he selected Pringles, which are baked uniformly—a single Pringle doesn't offer any significant difference in size, thickness, or crunch from another. He asked 20 research subjects to bite into 180 Pringles (about two cans) while seated in a soundproof booth in front of a microphone. The sound of their crunching was looped back into a pair of headphones.

After consuming the cans, they were asked if they perceived any difference in freshness or crispness from one Pringle to another. What they didn’t know was that Spence had been playing with the feedback in their headphones, raising or lowering the volume of their noisy crunching [PDF]. At loud volumes, the chips were reported to be fresher; chips ingested while listening at low volume were thought to have been sitting out longer and seemed softer. The duplicitous sounds resulted in a radical difference in chip perception. It may have been a small study, but in the virtually non-existent field of sonic chip research, it was groundbreaking.

A view inside a potato chip bag
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For Spence, the results speak to what he considers the inherent appeal of crunchy foods. “Noisy foods correlate with freshness,” he says. “The fresher the produce, like apples, celery, or lettuce, the more vitamins and nutrients it’s retained. It’s telling us what’s in the food.”

Naturally, this signal becomes slightly misguided when it reinforces the quality of a potato chip, a processed slab of empty calories. But Spence has a theory on this, too: “The brain likes fat in food, but it’s not so good at detecting it through our mouths. Noisy foods are certainly fattier on average.”

Fatty or fresh, raising decibels while eating may also have roots in less appetizing behaviors. For our ancestors who ate insects, the crunch of a hard-bodied cricket symbolized nourishment. In a primal way, violently mincing food with our teeth could also be a way to vent and dilute aggression. “There are some psychoanalytic theories related to crunchiness and aggressive behavior,” Hirsch says. “When you bite into ice or potato chips, you’re sublimating that in a healthy way.”

 
 

All of these factors explain why crunch appeals to us. But is it actually affecting what we taste?

Yes—but maybe not the way you’d think. “Sound affects the experience of food,” Spence says. “The noise draws attention to the mouth in the way something silent does not. If you’re eating pâté, your attention can drift elsewhere, to a television or to a dining companion. But a crunch will draw your attention to what you’re eating, making you concentrate on it. Noisy foods make you think about them.”

That crunch can also influence how much food we consume. Because noisy foods tend to be fatty, Spence says, they’ll retain their flavor longer. And because the noise reinforces our idea of what we’re eating, it affords us a sense of security that allows us to keep consuming without having to look at our snack—not so important in a brightly-lit room, but crucial if we’re in a dark movie theater. “It becomes more important when you can’t see what you’re eating,” Spence says.

Thanks to this hard-wired feedback, the snack industry has made it a priority to emphasize the sounds of their foods in both development and marketing. In the 1980s, Frito-Lay funded extensive work at a Dallas plant that involved $40,000 chewing simulators. There, they discovered the ideal breaking point for a chip was four pounds per square inch (PSI), just a fraction of what we might need to tear into a steak (150 to 200 PSI). The quality and consistency of the potatoes themselves is also key, according to Herbert Stone, Ph.D., a food scientist who has worked with companies on product development. “Too thick, too hard, and people don’t like them,” Stone tells Mental Floss. “Too thin and they just crumble.”

The right potato sliced at the right thickness with the right oil at the right temperature results in a solid chip—one resilient enough to make for a satisfying break when it hits your molars, but vanishing so quickly that your brain and body haven’t even processed the calories you’ve just taken in. “If they pick it up and put it in the mouth and the crunch is not what they expect, they might put it down,” Stone says. “It’s about expectation.”

A shopper examines a bag of potato chips
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Walk down the snack aisle in your local supermarket or glance at commercials and you’ll find no shortage of claims about products being the boldest, crunchiest chip available. For years, Frito-Lay marketed Cheetos as “the cheese that goes crunch!” Even cereals try to capitalize on the fervor, making mascots—Snap, Crackle, and Pop—out of the sound their Rice Krispies make when submerged in milk. One ad for a brand of crisps drew attention for “cracking” the viewer’s television screen.

For most consumers, the promise of sonic flavor will draw their attention. But for a small number of people diagnosed with a condition dubbed misophonia, the sound of a co-worker or partner crunching on chips isn’t at all pleasurable. It’s insufferable.

 
 

According to Connecticut audiologist Natan Bauman, M.D., the average noise level of someone masticating a potato chip is between 25 to 35 decibels. (Other sources peg it as closer to 63 dB when you're chewing on a chip with your mouth open, or 55 dB with your lips closed.) When you hear your own chewing, the sound is being conducted both via the air and your own bones, giving it a distinctively unique sound. (Like talking, hearing yourself chewing on a recording might be troubling.)

For someone suffering from misophonia, or the literal hatred of specific sounds, it's not their own chomping that's the problem. It's everyone else's.

When we chew, Bauman says, the auditory cortical and limbic system areas of our brain are lighting up, getting information about freshness and texture. But people with misophonia aren’t struggling with their own sounds. Instead, they're affected by others typing, clicking pens, or, more often, chewing. The sound of someone snacking is routed from the cochlea, or cavity in the inner ear, and becomes an electric signal that winds up in the brain’s amygdala, which processes fear and pleasure. That's true for everyone, but in misophonics, it lands with a thud. They’ve likely developed a trigger, or negative association, with the sounds stemming from an incident in childhood.

“If you are scolded by a parent and they happen to be eating, or smacking, it becomes negative reinforcement,” Bauman says. Chewing, lip smacking, and even breathing become intolerable for sufferers, who often feel agitated and nervous, with corresponding increases in heart rate. Some fly into a rage.

Misophonics don’t necessarily recoil at all of these sounds all of the time: It may depend on who’s doing the snacking. Often, it’s a co-worker, spouse, or family member munching away that prompts a response. Fearing they’ll damage that relationship, sufferers tend to vent online. The misophonia subreddit is home to threads with titles like “And the popcorn eater sits RIGHT next to me on the plane” and “Chips can go f-ck themselves.” (The entire content of the latter: “F-ck chips, man. That is all.”)

Bauman says misophonia can be treated using cognitive therapy. An earpiece can provide white noise to reduce trigger sounds while sufferers try to retrain their brain to tolerate the noises. But even the sight of a bag of chips can be enough to send them scrambling.

People with misophonia might also want to exercise caution when traveling. Although some Asian cultures minimize crunchy snacks because loud snacking is considered impolite, other parts of the world can produce noisier mealtimes. “In parts of Asia, you show appreciation for food by slurping,” Spence says. Slurping is even associated with a more intense flavor experience, particularly when it’s in the setting of a comparatively quiet dining establishment.

Western culture favors noisier restaurants, and there’s a good reason for that. Supposedly Hard Rock Café has mastered the art of playing loud and fast music, resulting in patrons who talked less, ate faster, and left more quickly, allowing operators to turn over tables more times in an evening.

Spence believes sound will continue to be important to gastronomy, to chefs, and to food companies looking to sell consumers on a complete experience. Snack shelves are now full of air-puffed offerings like 3-D Doritos and Pop Chips that create pillows of taste. With less volume, you’ll snack more and crunch for longer periods.

A woman snacks on a chip
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But the sound of the chip is just one part of the equation. The way a bag feels when you pick it up at the store, the aroma that wafts out when you first open the bag, the concentration of flavor from the granules of seasoning on your fingers—it’s all very carefully conducted to appeal to our preferences.

“When we hear the rattle of crisps, it may encourage people to start salivating, like Pavlov’s dogs,” Spence says, referring to the Russian scientist who trained his canines to salivate when he made a certain sound. We’re conditioned to anticipate the flavor and enjoyment of chips as soon as we pick up a package. Even hearing or saying the words crispy and crunchy can prime us for the experience.

When we’re deprived of that auditory cue, we can get annoyed. After news reports emerged that Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi had mentioned her company might consider a quieter version of Doritos for women—an idea PepsiCo later denied they would label in a gender-specific fashion—women Doritos enthusiasts rallied around the Texas state capitol, condemning the perceived gender discrimination. To protest the possible dilution of their favorite snack, they made a spectacle of crunching Doritos as loudly as they could.

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London Grocery Chain Encourages Shoppers to Bring Their Own Tupperware
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Why stop at bringing your own grocery bags to the store? One London grocery wants you to BYO-Tupperware. The London Evening Standard reports that a UK chain called Planet Organic has partnered with Unpackaged—a company dedicated to sustainable packaging—to install self-serve bulk-food dispensers where customers can fill their own reusable containers with dry goods, cutting down on plastic packaging waste.

To use the system, customers walk up and weigh their empty container at a self-serve station, printing and attaching a label with its tare weight. Then, they can fill it with flour, nuts, or other kinds of dry goods, weigh it again, and print the price tag before taking it up to the check out. (Regular customers only have to weigh their containers once, since they can save the peel-off label to use again next time.)

Planet Organic is offering cereals, legumes, grains, nuts, chocolate, dried fruit, and even some cleaning products in bulk as part of this program, significantly reducing the amount of waste shoppers would otherwise be taking home on each grocery trip.

Zero-waste grocery stores have been popping up in Europe for several years. These shops, like Berlin's Original Unverpackt, don't offer any bags or containers, asking customers bring their own instead. This strategy also encourages people to buy only what they need, which eliminates food waste—there's no need to buy a full 5-pound bag of flour if you only want to make one cake.

The concept is also gaining traction in North America. The no-packaging grocery store in.gredients opened in Austin, Texas in 2011. The Brooklyn store Package Free, opened in 2017, takes the idea even further, marketing itself as a one-stop shop for "everything that you'd need to transition to a low waste lifestyle." It sells everything from tote bags to laundry detergent to dental floss.

[h/t London Evening Standard]

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