Feast, not famine, at enigmatic eatery
Pyongyang Koryo in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, is one of three specifically North Korean restaurants that exist outside the secretive Stalinist state. The others are in Beijing and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. All three belong to the same business group, which is said to be one of North Korea's most profitable international enterprises.
North Korea's food shortages have eased in recent years, but the country's dining-out scene remains almost totally undeveloped, except for foreign visitors and state dignitaries, to whom Pyongyang Koryo will seem highly familiar.
It's very similar to the hotel restaurants in the North Korean capital to which they get shepherded. Indeed, the cover of the menu features a picture of the Koryo Hotel, 'the official foreigners' hotel' in Pyongyang.
This restaurant is intriguing. It's spacious and modestly decorated with kitsch pictures of pastoral scenes of the kind that were beloved in eastern European restaurants. According to a North Korean source who is a frequent visitor to Kuala Lumpur, it is also reasonably authentic.
What is the difference between North and South Korean cuisine? Koreans claim the differences are huge, but to me there seemed to be few, except for the ambience - it's raucous and bawdy in South Korean restaurants, and severe and reserved at Pyongyang Koryo.
My two dining companions were both Hongkongers of exacting standards, a moviemaker and an employee at an upmarket wine merchant. Both were gourmands and sometimes hard to please. But we were all delighted by the sumptuous miso soup and pumpkin soup hybrid. Koreans traditionally use the pungent fermented soya bean paste doenjang, but, authentic or not, this soup was a winner.
We tried the gogi gui (mixed barbecue set) and it was perfectly acceptable. The beef was fine, albeit clearly pre-frozen, and the pork was of premium quality. Soon after we chucked the raw meat on the grill, the waitress brought an array of seven banchan - vegetarian side dishes, including kimchi (which was nice and crunchy), 'boiled bracken' (which tasted of soil) and 'seasoned leopard plant' (a mystery dish that went well with the grilled pork). We also ordered that other Korean favourite, samgyetang, and the blend of chicken, ginseng and red dates in a broth was satisfying, although it could have been more flavoursome.
Some things on the eccentric menu looked a little unpalatable, such as the raw cow's liver on ice and the garlic liquor, which was good for 'a man's health', the waitress informed me without a smile. They were items to try another day.
The barley tea that was provided free of charge served as a refreshing counterpoint to the richness of the fiery barbecue sauce, and was constantly and graciously refilled.
The only beer on the menu was Malaysian-brewed Carlsberg, so we did the sensible thing and chugged down a load of soju. It was a brand from Pyongyang, and compared with the South Korean sojus I've sampled, this tasted like a Mig-21 de-icer. Still, the rosy glows and smiles on the faces of my companions told me they rather liked the stuff. A smooth drop it isn't, but it does help you forget the spookily quiet ambience.
The only other diners were the crew of an Air Koryo plane. The North Korean flagship carrier flies from Pyongyang to Kuala Lumpur directly. There's no way of knowing whether they could have chosen to go anywhere else for dinner, but they were devouring their bibimbap with gusto and clinking mugs to a hearty gom bae (cheers)!
This place is seriously North Korean. The total bill for the three of us amounted to 135 ringgit (HK$345) without alcohol. The soju cost 30 ringgit per 350ml bottle. So the Pyongyang Koryo is good value, as well as palpably enigmatic.
Pyongyang Koryo 9-1 Jalan Solaris,
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Tel: 0060 3 6203 0895