Picture this: Phnom Penh 2007, North Korean restaurant. Waitresses in short red capped-sleeve dresses take turns to wait at tables and to burst into song and dance and play the electric piano and violin on stage. The tunes? From upbeat North Korean songs (one can only surmise they're about dear leader and the glorious motherland), to Russian classical music to Mandarin love songs ("nuren hua", literally "woman flower") to Neil Sedaka's "Oh Carol!" (the strangest version I've heard, some parts did not even sound like Engrish, I mean, er, English). The karaoke screen constantly displayed the Chinese characters "hechang 4544", or "group singing 4544".
It was most surreal. And disturbing. Was this the confirmation I needed that my patronage was propping up an evil regime? While most people cannot visit North Korea, any tourist in Phnom Penh can have a try of North Korean cuisine and a glimpse into the strange life of the North Koreans. (My friend Maria was one of the few to visit, as a TV journo and got to attend the ultra-nationalistic Arirang Festival).
The restaurant is reportedly owned by the North Korean government, and your money (all in USD of course) goes straight to Pyongyang, leading us to joke that we should perhaps pay in counterfeit USD, North Korea being notorious for printing counterfeit US dollars in the laughable hopes of "destroying the US economy".
The food was nothing to shout about, although our group got into a tizzy over a particular dish. Sophon had ordered fried duck, which looked nothing like any duck we had ever seen. The meat was more fibrous than stringy (as in the case with chicken or duck), and looked more like beef or pork. To complicate matters, it arrived on a hot plate in the shape of a cow. Our worry was, of course, the dog meat on the menu. Could the waitress have got our order wrong? Did she mean "dog" when she pronounced "duck"? Dale was very funny, making animal sounds, "quack-quack, and not woof-woof?", to the waitress in hopes of ascertaining the meat dish before us.
Most of us in the group had already tried the meat before we realised it was a strange looking and tasting duck. I was wondering if our dogs Austin and Nessie would ever love me again. A Canadian I knew who had to eat dog meat to prove to his prospective father-in-law that he truly loved his South Korean wife told me dogs can smell it on you, once you eat dog meat. From then on, he insists, he was rejected by every dog he met!
The waitress insisted it was duck breast and not dog meat, but most of us had gone off it--better safe than sorry! The thing is, dog meat dishes were not more expensive than any of the other meat dishes on the menu, so who knows?
The restaurant, at #400, Monivorng Boulevard, is not far from where we live, and we all went there because it's a novelty. There is much Japanese and Chinese influence on the menu. Besides Kimchi and Korean soups, you can get sashimi and sushi. We had mostly Chinese styled fare: pork ribs and lamb skewers, eel (just like the Japanese teriyaki sauce covered unagi), vegetables and steamed prawns. It was expensive too, about USD12 to USD15 for a small dish. The worst thing about the place were the smoking South Korean men. I felt I was in Greece all over again, where one has to eat while trying not to choke on cigarette smoke.
The waitresses were beautiful and one told us she was from North Korea. They had porcelain skin and were tall and slim. One can imagine many a South Korean businessman trying to strike up a relationship with these singing, dancing beauties. One thing that struck me was how everything, from their dresses, to their shoes, to their scrunchies, were exactly alike, reminding me of the Singapore Airline hostesses, who have to dress identical to their colleagues, down to matching luggage and nail polish.The customers, mostly South Korean expatriates, were obviously enamoured, and were snap-snapping away with their digital camelas (oops, cameras). One party was celebrating a birthday and at one point all the waitresses broke into a trilling Korean Happy Birthday song.
Which led us to a discussion on the lives of these waitresses. Can they have relationships with foreign men? Dale was told by a French hotel-owner here that the women are not allowed out of the embassy, and possibly the restaurant. Where do they sleep? At the restaurant dorm or the embassy? And I suppose they don't have passports, so how can they elope?
Watching them sing and dance their hearts out made me think of those shows about China under Mao, and actresses like Joan Chen, Gong Li who were former national performers. These waitresses are the lucky ones, they get to escape North Korea. The first North Korean restaurant opened in Cambodia in 2002 in Siem Reap and apparently business is so good there is another one newly set up in Bangkok.
So what's the connection between Cambodia and North Korea? Former king Sihanouk was a close ally of the late North Korean leader Kim Il-sung and when he was ousted in a military coup in 1970, he was offered asylum in North Korea and given a grand residence in the country, surrounded by North Korean bodyguards. Even today, his bodyguards are trusted North Koreans.
[...]Driving along the airport road, a real head-turner (whiplash!) is the Pyonyang Cold Noodle Restaurant.[...]
Oh really! I never knew that! Thanks for telling me, John. I'll look out for it next time. Am not sure I want to visit though, if it's anything like the other Pyongyang restaurant...!
Today is Vesak Day and the Bloom women sew-ers told me to go down to the riverside where there are monks feeding children. Worth a look!
Cafe re-opens tomorrow!
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