Okryu-Gwan: Financing Kim Jong-il’s Caviar Habit

This post was written by a dear friend of mine about a year ago on a trip to Dubai.  He shared it with me recently and I thought it an excellent story of a food adventure, and topical considering the recent succession and nuclear negotiations.  If I disappear shortly hereafter never to be heard from again, you’ll know why – I’ve been kidnapped by Kim Jong-Un to write his private food blog, just like the South Korean movie director and actress.  Some names and details have been changed to protect the author.

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I have discovered a new definition of globalization, and it is “An American speaking Mandarin to a North Korean in Dubai.”

One of the joys of Dubai is that you find the tragic, the comic, and the purely random. Like signs that say “Binladen Construction Group”. Anyway, I saw a random NPR article on the opening of a North Korean restaurant in Dubai. Since I was going to be in Dubai, I resolved it had to be investigated… at all costs.

The Okyru-Gwan is a bit of a strange beast. It’s apparently the best restaurant in North Korea. And aside from arms trafficking and money laundering (and apparently Japanese pachinko machines), it is one of Kim Jong-il’s main sources of foreign hard currency. About half the North Korean embassy in Beijing has been converted to an Okryu-Gwan — apparently lines go out the door at lunch. Then there’s ones in Vietnam, Laos, Mongolia, Russia  and other parts of the world with obsessive predilections with hammers and sickles.

Finding the restaurant was damn-nigh impossible. There is no address anywhere. And the one telephone you find associated with it (in the Dubai business register) doesn’t seem to work. All we knew was that it was near “Deira”, which is a seedy part of old Dubai full of bazaars and cheap storefronts. Asking a Chinese shoe merchant in Deira where his fraternal socialist comrades had set up shop elicited a blank look.

Further frantic googling located that it was near the “Deira clock tower”, and so my intrepid band of students went to investigate. We found the clock tower, and then navigating by the color schemes of the one picture we had, found the restaurant.

There were North Korean girls standing outside wearing North Korean costumes. We were quickly ushered inside and seated. It was empty. So we got the massive table in the middle. Here’s how protocol seemed to work:

§  There were 3 quite attractive North Korean girls whose job it was apparently to cater to our every whim. They surrounded our table and stared at us foreign water buffalo. Since I, Harold the Banker, am a banker, I communicate most efficiently through bullet points.

§  They were wearing little North Korean flag pins on their uniforms. Other than that, there was no political paraphernalia inside. No portraits of either Kims, as is de rigueur in the DPRK. Instead, natural scenery. But there was a large LCD screen showing… fish swimming back and forth. Very garish.

§  There was a stern-looking “NO PHOTO” sign inside. So apologies for lack of photos.

§  The girl at the head of the table’s job was apparently to banter with us and make lighthearted conversation. Her English wasn’t terribly serviceable, but she was trying very hard. I tried Mandarin, to no avail either. So I finally pulled out my BlackBerry and we communicated via Google Translate.

§  I’ve encountered her mode of communication before in Asia. It’s known as “Asian waitress giggle-talk”. How it works is that everything she says, even if it’s “Would you like some tea?” has to be preceded, interrupted, and appended by giggles.

§  There were three other North Korean girls who were standing in the corners watching the three who were watching us. Someone in some office in Pyongyang somewhere is probably also watching them.

§  Apparently, she wasn’t doing such a good job bantering with us, or maybe she was too friendly? One of the girls in the corner barked something at her in Korean, and she immediately backed off… to be replaced with the next giggle-talker.

§  Anyway, the food was absolutely amazing. Pyongyang buckwheat cold noodles is a signature of the Okryu-gwan and of Pyongyang. We all got that. Someone got something which in the menu was translated as “Okryu-gwan Hot Dish” which appeared to be a rice cake topped with a pancake topped with mushrooms over which hot water is poured. The resulting mishmash was absolutely divine.

§  Overall, North Korean food is very different from South Korean food by taste and texture. Not nearly as spicy or as pungent.

I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside, but here is a reasonably accurate depiction of the cold buckwheat noodles that I found floating around the Internet:

Oh, and ABBA’s Dancing Queen was playing in the background on a synthesizer.

We were invited to come back and told that at 8 PM, the girls would sing and dance, and play the guitar, piano, and drums. Apparently, this is true. They play old ABBA songs on the guitar and piano according to the reviews. I can honestly say that never before have I gone and dined with this combination of interest, apprehension, and well, fear. Or eaten lunch with this overpowering feeling that you’re being watched. Or that your overpriced (if delicious) meal is going to support Kim Jong-il.

Once outside, I snapped a quick photo of the girls standing out front, which made them completely freak out. Who knew.

Later that night, I somehow had to urge to come back, so I returned with my friend for a late dinner. This time, I got the Okryu-Gwan Hot Dish while he wolfed down the cold noodles. Fortunately, the general manager was there this time. She was this plump little adorable Asian woman who frankly reminded me of my grandmother, complete with nagging Asian grandmother insistence that we eat. She actually spoke pretty good Mandarin! (“I studied at Pyongyang Foreign Languages College!”)

Although she was embarrassed as all hell, since we were supposed to be bantering with her pretty waitresses, and not with her plump, adorable, Asian-grandmotherliness, we found out, in conversation with her:

§  Business has been “pretty good”, mostly South Korean and Chinese businessmen though, but could be better.

§  She was curious as to how we found this place, and blown away that it would be mentioned on the “English Internet”

§  Here’s the kicker — I was going out of my way to not mention South Korea, which North Korea does not recognize, and can seriously offend them, but she was actually pretty open minded, and mentioned the name “Han Guo”, which is completely taboo with the North Koreans.

§  The key difference between North Korean and South Korean food is that North Korean food does not go overboard with spices. She said the South Koreans use so much spice and fermentation with their kimchee and everything else, that it completely obscures the taste of food.

§  All the staff at Okryu-Gwan Dubai were top performers at the Okryu-Gwan Pyongyang and had worked there for several years before being chosen to go overseas.

§  I asked her if she had ever seen North Korea’s state leaders like Kim Jong-il before — she said “Well, they come to Okryu-Gwan all the time, but we ordinary people cannot just look at them!!”

When we left, she gave me a hug, and also a VIP Poster (10% discount on future visits!) Did I mention she was plump and sweet and adorable and reminded me of my grandmother? Only she’s from a horrible totalitarian regime. But at least the food was awesome?

Because it was awesome.

So, there you have it. I have directly financed the North Korean regime and the Dear Leader’s caviar habit to the tune of 130 UAE dirhams.

Vital Statistics:
Location: Google Maps says it is here: Al Rigga – Dubai – United Arab Emirates but as Harold the Banker says, just look for the clock tower.
Website: are you kidding?
Prices: about 130 UAE dirhams (about US $35)

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