MUNCHIES' China correspondent Jamie Fullerton recently spent a week in Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, gaining a rare glimpse at the hermit kingdom's food culture. This is the second dispatch in a three-part series. Catch part 1 here.
When it comes to pizza, my favourite food, I'm not enormously fussy. But when I was served the pepperoni pizza I had ordered at Italy Pizza, the newest Italian restaurant in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang, I had to politely ask that the staff take it back and add some cheese, as it had been served with none. That's me: the picky Brit abroad.
Italian food has only been a "thing"—and a niche "thing" at that—in the city since 2008, when the first Italian joint in North Korea opened. So it's easy to forgive a few pizza production basics, such as putting cheese on them, occasionally going awry. It also seems a little crass to moan about such slights in a country in which the memory of the 1990s famine that killed around 2 million people is still fresh.
With the totalitarian country kept in chronic isolation by current leader Kim Jong-un, information about food infrastructure there is hard to verify. Numerous reports, however, suggest that much of the North Korean rural classes live hand to mouth. The middle and upper classes are usually granted the chance to live in cities, the most elite being Pyongyang, where an increasingly moneyed middle class has emerged over the past decade. This has fuelled the rise of Western-style restaurants in the capital.
Now in Pyongyang you can find beer bars, burger restaurants and, perhaps surprisingly considering the North Korean regime's attitude toward the country's historic enemy of Japan, a sushi joint. Italy Pizza is the third Italian restaurant to open in the city, arriving in late 2015 as part of the opening of Mirae Scientists Street: a stretch characterised by pastel-coloured skyscrapers located next to the Taedong River that runs through the centre of the capital.
As is the case for many of the Pyongyang hotels and restaurants foreigners are allowed to visit, the décor of Italy Pizza is 1970s cruise liner-level kitsch. Gloriously odd touches abound, such as this fish tank with no fish in it. Or water.
Pizza dough is churned out in an open kitchen. Although most North Koreans are banned from travelling abroad, many Western-style restaurants in Pyongyang get permission to send their staff overseas for training.
The restaurant was not very busy on my Friday evening visit, and I was told that this is typical. Many of the approximately 5,000 Westerners who visit North Korea as tourists each year have speculated online that venues such as these exist purely as showcases for foreigners. Simon Cockerell, general manager of UK-owned North Korea tour specialists Koryo Tours, said that this was unlikely.
Cockerell explained that while all North Korean restaurants will ultimately be state-owned, businessmen and women who operate within work units that manage them have a bit of leeway with regard to the style of venues that they open. "It's easy to say there's no profit motive, but costs versus income is still a 'thing,'" he said. "They might be willing to lose money for, say, three years or something, but there is such thing as a restaurant closing in Pyongyang because not enough people went there. They are businesses."
Italy Pizza does more to attract business than just serve pizzas. After my dinner was served, perhaps due to having few other customers to deal with, a waitress serenaded the room with an impressive karaoke session.
The imagery on the karaoke screen was typical of that seen on TV in North Korea: fighter jets, guns, tanks, and the occasional nod to heavy industry.
The pizza, meanwhile, was pretty good, with a pleasantly fluffy crust. The tomato sauce won't be challenging Domino's for tang factor any time soon, but it's unlikely that many people will be in a position to make a direct comparison within the next few decades.
Most pizzas were priced at the equivalent of around $6 to $10 US each, making them unaffordable to most locals but not in the elite price range of fine dining in Pyongyang. I wondered if, by being exotic and pricey compared to local staples such as noodles and kimchi, eating pizza was a bit of a status symbol in the city.
Cockerell reckoned not. "There's still this thing in North Korea where people don't like to be seen eating in public," he said. "You'd think that restaurants might have good views from their windows but often they have curtains over them. It is more socially acceptable now to have more money than someone else, but that mentality probably comes from a time when eating out was seen as showing off, and showing off is seen as bad. It's innate conservatism."
I'll return to Italy Pizza, should I ever find myself in Pyongyang again. And next time I'll go for the Fruit Pizza. If any dish flies in the face of innate conservatism, it's got to be this thing.
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