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Pleasantly surreal: North Korean dining

Update: November, 06/2016 - 21:20
At Ryu Gyong Restaurant, the waitresses double as entertainers, playing instruments and singing North Korean and Vietnamese songs to diners.
Viet Nam News

Taking a culinary detour on the wild and weird side, An Phương samples the best that Northern Korea has to offer in HCM City.

HCM CITY – Located on Lê Quý Đôn Street in HCM City’s District 3, Ryu Gyong Restaurant offers a variety of dishes from North Korea.

Yes, that North Korea.

To be honest, when I was told that the North Korean government had opened more than 100 restaurants around the world as a way of earning income for the nation since the 1990s, my initial reaction was “Really? North Korea, a country that often suffers food shortage.”

All political considerations aside, I was duly fascinated, so a few friends and I stopped by one fine Wednesday evening.

Ryo Gyong is run and staffed by North Koreans. Upon entering, we were welcomed by a phalanx of young waitresses, all speaking Korean and clothed in knee-length blue dresses.

Though we thought it normal to greet us in their language, we were surprised when they began communicating with us in fluent Vietnamese, as they were all natives of North Korea.

Three of the waitresses then accompanied us to a table in the corner of a banquet-style room.

Since this was the first time I had ever met someone from North Korea, I was excited to get a glimpse of their life by sampling their food and talking with the waitresses.

Though they have only been in Việt Nam for two years, their Vietnamese speaking skills were pretty impressive.

Upon ordering, we were asked multiple questions with regards to our names, ages, occupations and why we decided to have dinner at a North Korean restaurant.

Two of my friends were stunned at the rapid-fire interrogation.

We’d never been asked so many questions in a restaurant-setting, but, in a way, that made it all the more intriguing and exciting.

“Is it a requirement for you to talk to guests?” I asked one of the waitresses.

“Yes! We tend to communicate with everyone in the same manner and stay at the tables at all times,” she enthusiastically replied.

The menu, which was fairly expensive, featured many classic dishes like naengmyeon (cold buckwheat noodles), jajangmyeon (black-bean sauce noodles) and bibimbap (mixed rice) that you might find at a standard South Korean eatery.

Similarly, several condiments and side dishes, such as scorched rice, stir-fried anchovies and, seaweed salad, were served before the main dishes.

We decided on three special recommendations from the waitresses: a mixed salad, grilled pork with cheese, and seafood hotpot. We didn’t order South Korean classics as we wanted to focus only on North Korean specialties.

Our group noticed that the dining room featured a small stage equipped with a drum set, keyboard and bass guitar. Would there be a live band accompaniment to our dinner?

At exactly 7:45pm, the same waitresses who served us changed into other outfits and took the stage to perform.

As the lights dimmed, we were treated to a multi-disciplinary show featuring traditional North Korean songs and even old-school Vietnamese pop songs, including Nắng Sài Gòn.

The performers really knew their way around their instruments, we all agreed.

What struck us most was when two of the restaurant’s waitresses performed Chim Sáo Mồ Côi, a folk song native to the southern provinces of Việt Nam.

Though the performance was not perfect, we appreciated that North Korean waitresses in their 20s were able to sing it with joy and confidence, while most young Vietnamese barely know of its existence.

Amid all the lovely weirdness, the food was quite decent.

Our first dish was a mixed salad with soft seaweed, crunchy vegetables, sweet shredded beef and chilled jelly. The texture of the jelly was the wow factor that made the salad special.

This light appetiser was delightful to eat, but I would not recommend it to folks who enjoy food with bold flavours.

Grilled pork with cheese came next. The pork was cut into bite-size pieces, spread with a layer of cheese and mashed eggs. The dish was served with a side of toasted cheese sandwiches.

Though it was tasty, I was not a huge fan of the dish since it was rather sweet and not cheesy enough for my liking.

The final dish was the seafood hotpot, memorably named Pyongyang Pot Fairy.

Though the hotpot was expensive, it was worth the price since there were so many ingredients: fresh prawns, crab meat, mushrooms, eggs and vegetables.

While we were waiting for everything to be cooked, one waitress told us that the use of healthy Chinese red dates and gingko was what made the dish stand out.

I really enjoyed the broth, which was hearty and intensely flavoured, and warmed us from the inside out. However, the only thing that was missing was…noodles!

Unlike the typical Vietnamese seafood hotpot that always comes with noodles, the North Korean version is to be enjoyed as is.

Like the pork dish, though, the Pyongyang Pot Fairy had a sweet taste that might fool diners into thinking they are full.

While talking to the waitresses during dinner, I learned a few things about their food. About half of the ingredients are brought directly from North Korea since Ryu Gyong wants to offer the best and most authentic experience to guests.

Even so, the restaurant clearly made an effort to attend to Vietnamese guests’ needs as well by introducing several culinary classics exclusive to our culture, namely sautéed spinach with garlic.

All said and done, I found my visit to Ryu Gyong to be pleasantly surreal and interesting.

In fact, it’s not that easy in HCM City to get a real sampling of what the elites get to eat in Pyongyang every day.

Though the food did not stand out as spectacular, I would happily eat here again.

The fascination factor would probably fade somewhat, but it would be worth it to sample a few more North Korean dishes and listen to Vietnamese songs I rarely hear. VNS

BOX:

Ryu Gyong Restaurant

Address: 30bis Lê Quý Đôn St, Ward 7, District 3, HCM City

Tel: 08 7307 6666

Comment: Tasty North Korean cuisine in a surprising setting.

 

 

Grilled pork with cheese was layered with a tasty mixture of egg and cheese.
Chilled jelly was the “wow factor” in the restaurant’s mixed salad dish.

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