South of Pyongyang – Tom Vater’s journey into the culinary Heart of Darkness

Cambodia North Korea


For years, American presidents have been telling us that the ‘Axis of Evil’ is spreading its evil wings across the globe, slowly suffocating us with, well, evil.
North Korea has long been mentioned as one of these evil states. But as we push further into the 21st century, old certainties are eroding, and with Libya dropping off the ‘Axis’, North Korea is now also showing signs of evil fatigue.
The reclusive country has recently blown up one of its nuclear cooling towers and perhaps its isolated and eccentric leadership is thinking about other innovative ways to improve the country’s image.
So, what better way to promote a country with a reputation for scarcity of food could there be than to open government licensed restaurants around the world? It’s the closest thing to going corporate in a Stalinist universe.
And what better place could there be to start than in Cambodia.

Yes, North Korea has opened a restaurant in Phnom Penh. It is aptly called ‘Pyongyang’ and it delivers not just North Korean cuisine, but the best of North Korean entertainment.
Admittedly, North Korea is not really known for its cultural output – no writers, painters, pop singers, or even humble North Korean sports personalities immediately spring to mind. I’ve never heard of a North Korean golf champion. North Korean cook-books are rare too.
But enough introduction.
The ‘Pyongyang’, the officially authorized North Korean restaurant, is a culinary highlight in the Cambodian capital. It’s as strange as the country it showcases. And the food’s not bad either.

Choe Hyang Mi can do anything and this is why she works at the ‘Pyongyang’.

On first sight, Choe is a waitress. She is 21, on a three year mission in the Cambodian capital and loving it, “I miss my fatherland the most, I miss Korea very much. After that, I miss my family.”
Choe’s skin is white as porcelain and her austere makeup makes her look fragile, almost transparent. A North Korean waif, a DMZ fairy.
The Pyongyang is staffed entirely by women. The manager is a woman too. A rare victory for communism.
Choe was trained in Bejing. Together with other members of staff, the 21 year old was taught ‘foreign service skills’.

In the course of the evening I witness an astounding plethora of these skills, all displayed with a die-hard professionalism that would be impossible to match in the corrupt, greed-ridden, degenerate and debauched western world. I mention to Choe that working seven days a week (one day a month off) must be financially rewarding and a great privilege.
“We work only for the fatherland, not profit.”

Hong Young Mi is 21 as well. I would love to say she is an Axis of Evil clone of Choe, but she is not. Hong is a little podgy, with rosy cheeks and a winning smile and the carefree air of a girl that has just stepped out of a socialist propaganda poster. She has only been in Phnom Penh for a year. Next to knowing Choe, rosy Hong looks fresh and innocent. I ask her whether she likes Cambodia.
The young woman replies with great certainty, “I like Korea.”
For the girls at the ‘Pyongyang’, there is only Korea. No North and certainly, no South.

“Cambodia is very hot and dirty. Pyongyang is cold and clean.”
The restaurant too is cold and clean. It has as much ambience as an underused operating theatre in a hospital. The lights are bright, the a/c units are on overdrive and no cost and effort is spared to make the customers enjoy North Korea.

Over excellent kimchi and sweet and sour fish, we listen to the first squeaks of the karaoke machine. Choe has climbed the small stage in the corner of the restaurant and is kneeling down, fumbling with the switches of a monstrous PA system. She cranks up the volume, the song starts, scenes of fields and concrete bridges, presumably romantic sites where lovers meet in North Korea, flash across the screen. Without even a trickle of sweat or nervous hesitation, Choe bursts into song. It is beautiful, sentimental and strangely off-key in a lost haunting kind of way. The customers, most of them South Koreans, carry on eating, largely ignoring the ethereal apparition on stage, floating in front of images of her fatherland. It’s moving. The song ends and Choe scuttles off stage. But this is only the beginning of an evening of North Korean entertainment.

The food arrives in double time and there’s even Coke on the menu. I order one. A can arrives. No, the girls don’t mind selling American drinks.
Hong smiles regretfully, “We don’t get many American guests in here. In fact, I have never met one.”
Hong had an excellent elocution teacher.
While I make small talk about the greatest country in the world, the other waitresses have all lined up on the polished wooden floor next to the doors. The music lurches out of the PA system, standard Asian game-boy karaoke and the girls start dancing. It’s a chorus line. Oh no, it’s an acid trip. It’s the Sound Of Music gone bad. It’s one of like Yoko Ono’s wicked installations. It’s not quite right. The song stops and one of the waitresses remains alone on the dance floor, a violin against her shoulder. The violin has a pick-up, the backing track is a racket and the echo chamber of the PA system turns North Korean ‘classic soft’ into a sonic orgy of feedback reminiscent of ‘Voodoo Chile’.
It’s amazing, it’s hardcore, it’s pure. Not a thought is given to commercial potential, whether the audience will like it or what it actually means. It’s Pyongyang Punk. Bloated by the imperialist soft drink and deflated by the Stalinist Vanessa Mae protégé, I can’t imagine how anything could top a performance like this. That’s because I have not been to North Korea.
Then Choe and Hong are suddenly up there in the harsh lights, their slender hands grasping the microphones. I can see Choe flicking the switch on hers. Did they train these women with electric chairs?
The song starts, the girls sing, the echo chamber has the effect of a communist brainwashing elixir that shoots straight to the heart and explodes in my mind like a thousand shots of China White. I lose all sense of time and will. I cannot tell whether the song is thirty seconds or eight minutes long. The voices of Choe and Hong mesmerize the guests.

The food is great, the ambience is cozy. The Coke tastes terrible.

Published in the South East Asia Globe and Farang Magazine.

1 thought on “South of Pyongyang – Tom Vater’s journey into the culinary Heart of Darkness

  1. not only do they have Coke, they also have a pretty neat karaoke selection for guests, including Rage Against the Machine (wondering what went through the waitresses heads as we started barking ‘fuck you I wont do as you tell me’) and Bruce Springsteen (the text of ‘Born in the USA’ had been modified to thrash down the US even more than the original). This said, the food made my wife puke – and we didnt even try the Korean Dog Complex. Ta ta

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