Our trip to North Korea got off to a shaky start, gastronomy-wise. Half an hour into the Air Koryo flight from Beijing to Pyongyang, a member of the cabin crew hurriedly deposited a “hamburger” onto our trays. One look at the carrot-studded meat and I decided to stick to the more familiar glass of Coke. Things improved considerably at dinner. We ascended to the Yanggakdo Hotel’s revolving restaurant, where I broke my self-imposed hunger strike with a feast of duck and beef bulgogi cooked traditionally on hot stones. Later, our Australian guide told us they had been reluctant to serve us the dish, lest we consider this charming cooking method unsanitary.
North Korea is not a country known for wearing its heart on its sleeve, but that reticence melted away when it came to food. Our initially reserved Korean guides lit up when describing their favorite dishes or when we declared a regional specialty “delicious.” Their excitement reached fever pitch when we visited Pyongyang’s most famous raengmyŏn (cold buckwheat noodles) restaurant, the Okryugwan, where the noodles and their myriad toppings are proudly displayed in a brass tray akin to an ornamental birdbath. As we slurped tray after slippery trayful, we were surprised to learn that few regular tourists ever get a chance to eat there.
Our special culinary status opened doors as well as hearts. We were given rare access to a restaurant kitchen, where we watched as a shy female chef, just two weeks out of culinary school, manipulated a vast lump of dough into the aforementioned buckwheat noodles. The openness didn’t quite extend to letting us have a go ourselves, but whether or not this was more due to our lack of skill in the kitchen department, I decline to speculate.
At the end of the day, any trip to North Korea inevitably carries an element of “just to say you’ve done it.” However, go with an open mind and you will leave with your curiosity – and your stomach – satisfied.
I traveled to North Korea with Young Pioneer Tours. The four-night tour cost EUR 945 (including return train travel from Beijing to Pyongyang, accommodation and most meals) plus EUR 50 for a DPRK visa. US nationals must fly in and out for an additional EUR 100. For more information on upcoming tours, visit youngpioneertours.com.
Photos: Courtesy of Young Pioneer Tours, Robynne Tindall
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