What I Ate and Drank in North Korea, Part III: The DPRK’s Take on Western Culture

There’s an odd feeling you go through that’s unique to Americans (and probably Japanese and South Koreans) travelling in North Korea. It’s where a local starts describing what sounds like an indescribably evil group of human beings, true monsters whose only goal in life seems to be screwing other people over and who you know you absolutely want nothing to do with. And then it gradually dawns on you that these ogres you’ve been hearing all about are you. The bizarrest part of that queasy revelation is that the person you’ve been speaking to is perfectly friendly, obviously holds no grudge against you personally, and yet continues to speak about you and your people as if you all stole all the presents Santa gave to every orphan in the world. So I shrugged if off as yet another North Korean contradiction when, after our farms trip, our guides started proudly describing how advanced Pyongyang was and, as proof, bragged to my friend Mark and me about two of the capital city’s shining culinary stars–a Pizza Hut and a McDonald’s. We were smart enough to figure out almost immediately that, despite their protests, they didn’t literally mean actual Pizza Hut or McDonald’s restaurants, with the clown and the P’Zones–the brand names have become generic terms for “pizzeria” and “hamburger joint” for many regions of the world. And let’s face it, you can’t expect a North Korean to know much about the concept of franchises. So when they asked if we’d like to go to the Pyongyang Pizza Hut for dinner, we jumped at the chance, of course. The “Pizza Hut” was on the second floor of what looked to be half a semi-abandoned department store and half some sort of office or apartment building.The restaurant itself looked like a kid’s take on what a restaurant owned by mafiosi might look like, gridded with cheap plaster columns, plastic “brick” facades on the walls, tables with red tablecloths festooned with dusty red cloth napkins in wineglasses, plastic plants everywhere, and weird purple and pink lighting that might’ve been donated from an Eastern European disco in the early ’90s. We were the only customers, at least for the first half hour, and when we arrived, the staff went into a somehow slothful flurry of slowly paced activity. The pizza gal behind the counter (above) started kneading dough, apparently only for our viewing benefit, and the two other similarly uniformed young women disappeared and reappeared to and from a back room. I came to the conclusion they weren’t actually doing anything besides creating the illusion that there was another working kitchen back there somewhere. We ordered a pizza Napoletana (top pic) and another with ham and … chives? (below). Our guides and driver, obviously not understanding that it’s custom to order pizzas for the table and share, and probably assuming that all Americans are by nature gluttonous pigs, each ordered a whole pizza for themselves but barely finished a single slice. Frankly, they looked disgusted…

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