Stepford Wives in Korean House
A North Korean restaurant in Myanmar has unusual trappings
I have been hearing about North Korean restaurants popping up in unlikely destinations like Kathmandu and Yangon, and being staffed entirely by nationals. It's led to some conjecture and conspiracy theories on why these government-sponsored restaurants exist at all. Could it be a network of spies? Could it be a cover? Why is it only staffed by women? Let me be honest here. I am no great fan of Korean food. Barring kimchi, I am happy to give most of it a miss. But when I hear of this restaurant called Pyongyang Korya, I am tempted not by food, but sheer curiosity. It's that time of the year, when I am asked to provide my year-end reading list. This year, I have been taken with the reading I have done on North Korea, notable among those reads is Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea. But then this isn't about books, it's about food. So I hop into a taxi and head to Saya San street in Yangon, a district for high-end restaurants.
I am driven straight to the South Korean Restaurant, neon and backlit – like a friendly TGIF, the flag is on a brass plate on the main door, so that no one is confused. For this street now boasts two Korean restaurants. I get directions and find Pyongyang Korya (the North Korean restaurant). It's a house. A real house, with a garden and main porch. Had it not been for the signage of a smiling girl against a backdrop of food, I would have assumed I was trespassing. When I walk in, it is even more evident that this was once a house and the living/dining area has been converted into a restaurant. The tables are full, a girl materialises and then it gets a little unsettling because there are six of her, zipping around. From the door to the table, a short distance, I am passed from one to the other with alarming efficiency, till the third seats me. They are dressed identically. The same French knot with black bow pinned on top, polka-dotted dress clinched at the waist with a silver heart, gold drop earrings, gold chain and gold bracelet on the right wrist. Then, in rapid succession, water is served, followed by the cold towel, the menu and finally the order taker, all under a minute, each step performed by a different girl. The closest I have come to this level of smothering is at an Indian thali restaurant, only they smile, here there are no smiles or greetings.