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NKorean food for thought

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17-story-1.jpg

More than just dishing out tasty Korean fare to expats and tourists alike, Phnom Penh's Pyongyang Restaurant provides a taste of North Korean culture

Photo by: CHRISTOPHER SHAY

Waitresses at Pyongyang Restaurant take a break from serving to sing and provide entertainment to diners during the evening.

LAST week, North Korea announced it would dismantle its plutonium plant, supposedly ending its nuclear weapons program for good. In response, the United States took North Korea off its list of terrorist state sponsors - and I went to dinner.

Pyongyang Restaurant in Phnom Penh is owned and operated by the North Korean government, meaning all profits are sent directly back to Kim Jong-il's regime.

And now that North Korea is no longer a terrorist nation, I can enjoy my kimchi guilt free.

With restaurants in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Sihanoukville, North Korea's foray into culinary capitalism in Cambodia has been a runaway success.

North Korea opened its first Cambodian restaurant in Siem Reap in 2003, and it was an immediate hit - especially with the growing number of South Korean tourists and businessmen.

Estimates of the exact number of North Korean-run restaurants abroad vary, but most put the number around 100.

While some North Korean-run restaurants in China blare propaganda and plaster Kim Jong-il's face on every possible surface, the restaurants in Cambodia are apolitical.

At Phnom Penh's Pyongyang Restaurant, customers can enjoy their food while sitting under a painting of a tiger in the snowy mountains of North Korea and watching a flat screen television playing soothing films of North Korean waterfalls, mountains and forests.

But while the restaurant is bright, clean and completely devoid of images of Kim Jong-il, it is one of the smokiest restaurants in Phnom Penh.

The oxtail is

tender, and the kimchi is both spicy and flavourful.

And the food at Pyongyang Restaurant is expensive, by Cambodia's standards - US$6 to $22 per entree. But it is top-notch Korean fare. The oxtail is tender, and the kimchi is both spicy and flavourful.
Unlike many of its sister restaurants in China, the menu does not include dog, a traditional Korean dish that has been banned in South Korea for more than two decades.

The restaurant also sells rare North Korean products at outlandish prices, like ginseng, honey and tea. But people don't just come for the food.

At 8pm, the well-coiffed waitresses wearing identical pale blue, polka-dotted dresses and four inch heels, take a break from serving to sing, dance and play traditional Korean instruments. At one point during the floorshow, one waitress plays the electric keyboard, while the rest take turns belting out Korean songs. Day after day of performing the same routine has put the waitresses' twirls and arm movements perfectly in sync with each other, and the staff never stops smiling - ever. This combination of identical clothes, perfect synchronisation and rigid smiles was a bit off-putting, but the rest of the restaurant loved it.

By 9pm, the clientele, which has been enthusiastically drinking North Korean rice wine during the show, starts singing Korean karaoke with the waitresses - all of them are slim with faces pale from white make-up.

Reportedly, the waitresses have gone through a strict selection process in North Korea, where they were chosen based on their appearance and loyalty to the government.

Most are from well-connected families, and the service is excellent - to the point where when I left, one waitress ran across the restaurant to make sure she was there to thank me.

Most people are not allowed into North Korea, but they can go to Pyongyang Restaurant at any time and get a taste of the world's most secretive nation.

Pyongyang Restaurant is located at 400 Monivong Boulevard.

THERE’S MORE TO KOREAN FOOD THAN KIMCHI
Korean pop music, fashion and television have overtaken Asia and made in-roads throughout the world, but its cuisine has not had the same success. A new campaign to promote Korean food, however, hopes to change that. South Korea has launched a program that aims to quadruple the number of Korean restaurants worldwide to 40,000 by 2017, the Agriculture Ministry and the Korea Agro-Fisheries Trade Corp say. Prime Minister Han Seung-Soo said the global success of Korean pop culture abroad has provided an opportunity to enhance the international awareness of Korean food and boost the country’s food exports. “The globalisation of Korean food will help increase the exports of Korean agriculture and fisheries products and provide a new momentum for economic growth,” Han said Thursday. The Agriculture Ministry plans to spend US$ 40 million in the next two years to raise the profile of Korean food abroad. The money will help establish Korean culinary schools in other countries, develop recipes and introduce a standard ratings system for Korean restaurants abroad. The South Korean government also promises to provide cheap loans to local restaurants opening up branches in other countries. REPORTING BY AFP AND CHRISTOPHER SHAY

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