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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