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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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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Food
The History Behind Why We Eat 10 Dishes at Thanksgiving
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Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. TURKEY

A roasted turkey on a platter.
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Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as…served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. STUFFING

Pan of breaded stuffing.
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Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. CRANBERRIES

Dish of cranberry sauce.
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Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. MASHED POTATOES

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
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Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting President to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. GRAVY

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
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Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, historian Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to created a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. CORN

Plate of corn.
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Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. SWEET POTATOES

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
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In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE

Plate of green bean casserole.
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Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you love was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. PUMPKIN PIE

Slice of pumpkin pie.
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Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. WINE

Two glasses of wine.
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Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

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