Dubai

Eating North Korea

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Okryugwan – Dubai Chapter

As I wind down this most recent visit to Dubai I’ve been really trying to get into the spirit of things, namely by consuming as much as possible. In my regular down-to-earth Canadian life I’m ethically opposed to over-consumption. But as they say, “when in Rome”. As a result, this has been a trip of reserved excess. Reserved because I’m not on vacation and therefore cannot simply surrender to the siren’s song of consumerism.  Reserved also because my consumption is, I like to think, an aesthetic one, which is to say it’s a slightly elevated experience than the all you can eat breakfast buffet or the tour bus that shuttles the British seniors between the hotel, Jumeira Beach, and Dubai Mall.

Yes, the only defense against the mundane is to put on an air of self-importance. This too I learned over the weeks, which seems like years, in Dubai. What’s the point of all this you might ask? Well, the point is precisely this: North Korea has a restaurant called Okryugwan which is apparently a global chain and the have a branch in Dubai and this is what Wikipedia said of it:

“Okryugwan has various branches throughout China, which help the North Korean government to earn badly needed foreign exchange. Okryugwan is thus well-known even in South Korea. Each restaurant is reportedly required to remit US$100,000 to US$300,000 to Pyongyang per year, depending on local conditions.”

The tour buses are sadly not stopping here. But as responsible global citizens and sympathetic to the Great Leader’s need for foreign exchange (who doesn’t want to diversify their cash flow?) – and more importantly, people curious as hell about a North Korean chain restaurant, we simply had to give it a go. We proclaimed yesterday as Great Leader Appreciation Day to make it more festive. Strangely enough, I was the only person out of our party of 5 who had any real experience with Korean cuisine (shout outs to my peeps at Paldo Gangsan Toronto!). As a result, I think I was the only one who realized that North Korean cuisine is pretty much what my friends and I back home like to call, “Korean food”. We ordered a variety of dishes and as we ate the reality of the situation in North Korea was not lost on us. The thought that kept creeping into my head was, “This has gotta be soft power gone wrong.”

The Experience

They ask your nationality when you make a reservation. Not sure what the wrong answer is, but so far I can confirm Norwegian and Canadian are ok. Overall though the ladies that worked there were lovely and hospitable. It was a strange experience though because everything is perfectly orchestrated, from the woman dressed in traditional costume guarding the door, to the impeccable manners of the wait staff, to how they insist on walking you to the bathroom. The experience is diminished by reports that potential defectors and asylum seekers working at the restaurant risk punishment on their families back home.

They claim most of the food is imported from North Korea…which I sincerely hope is not the case (how about feeding your people first?). Below are images of what we ate. Pretty basic stuff if you know Korean food.

Cabbage Kim Chi

Cabbage Kim Chi

Marinated Raw Beef

Marinated Raw Beef

Mixed Mushrooms

Mixed Mushrooms

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Braised Beef

Ox tail soup

Ox tail soup

 

Sideways view of cold noodles

Sideways view of cold noodles

 

What happened after the meal was totally unexpected…cue karaoke night. Yes, we were the only ones in the restaurant and we ended up having special juice singing terrible renditions of songs ranging from the Backstreet Boys to yours truly belting out Eminem’s Stan to the applause of our sweet and very hospitable hostesses. Internal ethical considerations aside I would highly recommend going to Okryugwan. It’s definitely an experience to remember.

First song of the night.

First song of the night.

Strangely fun.

Strangely fun.

 

For more about Okryugwan see:

http://www.npr.org/2010/12/31/132491605/dubai-restaurant-offers-a-taste-of-north-korea

http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/asia-pacific/n-korea-serves-up-everything-but-politics-in-deira

http://www.fastcompany.com/1713872/karaoke-espionage-haute-cuisine-adventures-north-korean-governments-restaurant-chain

Dubai the Weird

Dubai Comp

Well, it’s been a month since my last post. I had intended to write regularly while I was in Dubai having arrived on August 12th from Bombay, but work, sun and the searing heat got the better of me.

I was on assignment in the UAE for about 3 weeks where my days consisted of attending site visits, the odd client meetings, doing research and putzing around my hotel room trying to resist the urge to just go for a swim. Eventually, time lost all sense of proportion, measured largely by the hours between room service meals. There would be days when the only conversations I’d had was with the Filipino, Indian or Pakistani staff that make up the bulk of the service industry. Space too starts to feel out of joint – understood as the distance between the chair and the bed, or the bed and the pool, or the air-conditioned hotel entrance to the similarly air-conditioned Al Fahidi Metro station.

I’d heard a lot about Dubai from friends who had visited. More often than not the reviews were unflattering. Those who love Dubai often speak of the luxurious standard of living and the high level of service that expats can expect. Those who dislike Dubai decry above all the highly visible social stratification and inequities that exists side by side with the glitz and glam of the world’s tallest building and the most insane shopping malls I’ve ever seen.

The story of the UAE, a country so young yet progressing at such a blinding pace, is a bit of a marvel. The speed of development fueled in large part by oil revenues has resulted in a place that is, simply put, weird.

4/5ths of the population are foreigners. It’s a Muslim country, but with a strangely permissive feel. For some it shines with the brightness of possibilities. For others it’s nothing more or less than the realities of foot on pavement, sweat on brow and the physical labour spent to realize someone else’s dream. The extreme wealth in contrast with poverty served with a smile left me feeling empty. As impressive as the views are from the Burj Khalifa, what I’ll remember most is the conversations I had with some of the workers I met. I’ll remember their questions about Canada and whether things are better here.

There were moments when, under the heat of the Arabian sun, sitting in my crappy rental car, I felt completely at ease with my dislocation because the place just doesn’t feel real. For most, it’s just a place of transition, a pit stop on the way to something else. Dubai is like a mirage and even now, as I write this back home in Toronto, my experiences of the emirate seem a distant memory. In a few more days it will be as if the trip never happened. It will feel like Dubai doesn’t exist.