Dandong/North Korean Dinner July 5, 2012
Tonight I had my ‘authentic’ North Korean dinner. It was authentic in that the few North Koreans who are rich enough to afford such food eat it. I met my friend Rawson and we walked to the restaurant. Rawson informed me that the waitresses/performers came for 2-3 years before being sent home. He told me a story of a friend of his in Beijing from the North Korean embassy who took him out to a couple of authentic dinner. After knowing him for a couple years he was sent home never to be heard from again. Phone, email, letters, nothing… he simply disappeared. Which is to be expected I guess.
Anyway, we walked into this restaurant and were immediately greeted by a woman in traditional Korean clothing. She informed us that ‘the show’ would be starting soon. Rawson ordered for us and, after just a few minutes, the lights dimmed and the women took the ‘stage’ (really an empty area at the front of the restaurant with a minimal drum set, a keyboard, and a couple of microphones). The music started playing and the waitresses came out, dressed in different clothing and began performing. The music was 1980’esque in that it was driven by a synthetic keyboard and drum beat. The drummer and keyboardist played over the pre-recorded track with the gumption of those who had written the music. While the keyboardist was skilled enough, the drummer was pretty mediocre. She only had one beat and one fill in her repertoire, and she was often off the beat of the background music. There was a saxophone player, and a combination of singers and dancers. The music ranged from bad, traditional Korean/Chinese opera to bad, ‘modern’ Korean pop. Simply, it was just awful. The speakers were broken as buzzed when the pitch was too high, and made the sounds speakers make when cellphones are close by and are receiving signals, indicating an incoming call.
There was a large group of Brazilians at the restaurant, and Rawson warned me that the Korean performers might take one of the foreigners up to dance. Luckily, the Brazilians took the heat off me and they were asked to dance instead. Rawson said that it’s common to ask Americans to dance with them while singing patriotic songs about victory over America devils.
Each table had patriotic magazines with pictures of North Korean people, soldiers, and leaders in patriotic poses. There were pictures of teenager boys in military garb class learning computer science (learning from American Dell’s, I might add), pictures of Kim Jung Il in the 1970s, picture of Kim Jung Un now, and many others. It made North Korea seem like quite the extraordinary, happy country I’m sure it’s not. While all this was happening, they were playing a North Korean movie that seemed to take place during the Korean War/War of American Aggression (depending on which side you were on).
Dinner arrived and to my astonishment, Rawson had ordered more food than we could possibly eat (he did the same thing last night, but since he was paying I didn’t protest). We started dinner with Cow-tail soup. It was actually quite tasty and the bits of bony tail in in the pot had some wonderfully tender meat to pick off. Next came the dish that Rawson was most excited about. He said he came all the way to Dandong to try this dish. It was a fish only available in North Korea. It is called “Thunder Fish” (Lei Yu, I think…). It’s name was very ironic, as it tasted like a very bland, fresh water fish to me. They were maybe 7 or 8 inches long, and each was full of eggs. Like I said, the meat was fairly tasteless, and the eggs weren’t much better and actually rather chewy. They did serve some wonderful, cold, Korean noodles in soup. They were cool, light, and refreshing, as you would expect, and were a wonderful break from the otherwise heavy meal. Splashing just a little vinegar in the bowl makes them a wonderful meal on their own. Yet, we weren’t finished yet.
The meal got more interesting after that. The server brought beef carpaccio. Raw beef mixed with raw egg and a very spicy sauce, I was still a little skeptical about eating such a risky dish this far in the boonies. That said, it’s been a couple hours, I feel fine, and it might have been the best dish of the meal. It was wonderfully flavorful, and if there wasn’t so much food on the table I would have cleaned the plate. However, while we were eating the carpaccio the kim chi showed up (to my delight) followed by cow’s stomach (to my horror).
I have never been one to shy away from strange food, and this is no exception. However, even when my friend told me that it is quite a delicacy in Korea, I was still skeptical. It didn’t help me that the cow’s stomach was uncooked. For anyone who has never eaten cow’s stomach, Google it now and you will see why I was so hesitant to dig in. It is white, grey, slimy looking, and has the texture of rubber combined with chicken skin. Thankfully, it came with a spicy, vinegar sauce that saved me a great deal of shame. Raw cow’s stomach has very little flavor. Frankly, it is neither good nor bad in it’s taste, but it’s quality can be determined from it’s texture. Frankly, it’s chewy. There’s not much else to say. The sauce that came with made it as enjoyable as it could possibly be and I ate as much of it as I could.
Interestingly, four middle-aged men came in after the performance with small. North Korean flag pins on their chest and were waited upon as if they were Frank Sinatra at Peter Luger’s. Rawson said they were from the North Korean government and were in Dandong on vacation or business. Of course, those higher ups in North Korea have the freedom to enjoy the luxuries across the boarder when they wish. They reminded me of powerful mafia bosses in movies in that they were quiet, but obviously respected and feared by the Korean women in the restaurant. It made me slightly angry that these men wield so much power over the helpless, when outside of their little playground they I regard them as something between common thief’s and war criminals.
I have to go to bed now, I have an early bus to Ji’an (a city just a little further Northeast on the Yalu River, also on the border of North Korea). I will spend 1-2 nights there before heading off the Chanbaishan for 2-3 nights. Let me know how you all are doing. I love you and I miss you.