by Ian Bennett
What’s the least likely food you’d expect to find in North Korea? Pizza? Fondue? German sausage? Or how about something from the culinary traditions of the nation’s sworn enemies. American-style burgers? Surely not (whisper it) Japanese food? Surprisingly- they are all there, and increasingly popular with Pyongyang’s citizens.
The area outside Pyongyang’s central Rail station is a hubbub of activity. Taxis idle awaiting incoming trains, and a big LED screen broadcasts popular light entertainment shows. On warmer days, Pyongyangers congregate here during their lunch hours. By night, the whole area is bathed in ever-changing light- and raucous noise- from the big screen.
Beyond the screen and its adjacent Pyonghwa Motors advertising billboard for is a pleasant tree-lined plaza, replete with kiosks, a mini cork rifle shooting range (win a cuddly toy!), and the usual array of food stands selling traditional Korean fare. And nestled behind all of that is something rather incongruous for a place like this - a Japanese restaurant.
Now it should be stated at the outset that the Yokryon restaurant is not technically a 100% Japanese establishment. It’s owned and run by Chongryon (a mercifully abbreviated form of Chae Ilbon Chosonin Ch'ongryonhaphoe), a group of ethnic Koreans who live in Japan. There are over half a million Chongryon, and many hold North Korean passports only, despite their often multi-generational Japanese residency. Our North Korean colleagues are invariably at pains to clarify that these people are Koreans in Japan-not Japanese Koreans. The difference is important to them.
Subject to many of the same international travel restrictions as other North Korean citizens, many Chongryon choose to make visits back to the motherland; sometimes to visit relatives, occasionally in an educational capacity, for cultural programs and sometimes, it seems, to just drink and have fun. On occasion, they also go there to set up businesses as joint ventures, and that is how the Yokjon restaurant came about.
The difference is apparent as soon as you walk in and look at the menu. Whilst traditional Korean favourites such as bibimbap are there, what really draws in the curious and aspirationally cosmopolitan are dishes like udon noodles and the exquisite okonomiyaki cabbage pancakes. Personally I find udon noodles so slippery they are hard enough to eat at the best of times, but put them in soup and try to pick them up with Korean metal chopsticks and the whole task gets much harder- not a day to be wearing a clean white shirt. When we visited in November this year, I opted for the yudofo main course- a sort of large block of tofu in miso soup, with accompanying side dishes. In Japan, this is a classic cold weather dish; the Koreans warm it even further by adding a delicious chilli and garlic topping. And the incongruousness doesn’t stop at traditional Japanese dishes - these guys even serve up a North Korean take on French Toast and egg rolls.
Lest you forget where you are, an evening meal here may be interrupted by the sound of tables being moved aside as the waitresses make space, crank up the karaoke and belt out some popular Korean numbers whilst the diners eat.
We first visited the Yokjon a couple of years ago, and it has become a firm favourite with Choson Exchange workshop leaders. Repeated trips to work with North Korean entrepreneurs in Pyongyang have meant visits to dozens of different eating establishments in the capital, and whilst the Korean food is fantastic, sometimes you just need a day having something other than kimchi. The Yokjon satisfies that need admirably. Also, they do have kimchi. Obviously.