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 first dispatch in a three-part series.
For many people, a trip to North Korea represents the ultimate extremity of tourism: a chance to see the world's most isolated country and for encounters, however fleeting, with members of a population largely kept under the oppressive thumb of the dictatorial Kim dynasty.
It's often said that the estimated 5,000 Western tourists that enter the country each year—on strictly regimented tours helmed by local guides that only visit government-approved sites—leave the country with more questions about it than they go in with. Like the other 4,999, I had many questions of my own as I flew into the capital city Pyongyang last month. But at least one of my most niggling queries could be answered during that journey: my first on Air Koryo, North Korea's national airline.
The Koryo Burger, the sole food item currently served on Air Koryo flights, has earned a global cult following for its alleged repulsiveness and the unknown origins of its meat. The supposed nastiness of the creamy-coloured, brown-glazed puck has contributed to Air Koryo being regularly branded the worst airline in the world by review website Skytrax, although customer write-ups of the airline are far more favourable than the site's in-house verdict. As something of a fast food connoisseur, I wanted to taste this thing myself.
Having obsessively read up on the Koryo Burger before my flight, I was primed to retch before a flight attendant handed me one. A relatively kind review of the burger, featured on a roundup of comments on Air Koryo's food collated by MUNCHIES in September 2015, described it as featuring "mystery meat" that was "not very nice and I did not finish it". One Facebook commenter, Jim Frisk, went a bit further, describing it as "the worst food I've eaten in my entire life".
I, too, did not finish my Koryo Burger—but this was largely due to chewy blandness rather than revulsion. The meat was inoffensively dull and, true to the intrigue that surrounds it, even tougher to identify than it was to chew. I guessed that it just got over the "chicken" line. Just.
Meager shreds of purple cabbage, a stale bun and a processed cheese slice did little to complement the meat. An equally mysterious thin red sauce, which appeared when the meat was squeezed but was thankfully far too watery to be blood, added to the sense of confusion that was intensified by the bizarre war-themed propaganda films on the TV screens. The burger was served fridge-cold: a sharp, unwelcome sensation for a mouth more used to the reliably comforting microwave-warmth of a Big Mac.
To be fair, North Korean cuisine revolves around the twin pillars of kimchi and noodles, without much history of burger production, so no one should expect In-N-Out-level patty standards. Burgers have been served in Pyongyang since around 2009, when a restaurant with Singaporean backing named Samtaeseong started offering them. "There are a bunch of places that serve them and they're all right," said Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, the company I travelled to North Korea with.
"The chain with Singaporean investment has places that look McDonald's-style, fast-food style," added Cockerell. "But the food is never actually ready when you go in there so you have to sit and wait for 15 minutes. They've got the fast-food racks by the counter but nothing in them. They don't have enough customers to justify actually cooking something and expecting someone to buy it within half an hour."
Cockerell, who has flown with Air Koryo around 200 times, agreed with my verdict on the Koryo Burger: that reports of it being disgusting feel exaggerated. "If you're a person of the world then the worst thing you've ever tasted should be something unfeasibly disgusting," he rightly said. "You've lived a dull life if a tasteless piece of meat and bread is the worst thing you've ever eaten."
Before the flight he had told me that the vegetarian option on Air Koryo was to "not have the burger." I assumed he was referring to abstinence, but was corrected when the passenger next to me requested the veggie option and was handed a Koryo Burger bun minus the meat bit, but with a couple of extra tomato slices.
Whether you go for the original or "veggie" option, with the flight route between Beijing and Pyongyang taking less than two hours the lack of taste appeal of the nourishment available on it hardly matters. Eating a Koryo Burger is a box to tick—which is something that, some critics of North Korea tour firms claim, is all a visit to the country can ever really be due to the restrictions on tourists there. (Having spent an intriguingly bizarre week in the country, I thoroughly disagree.)
Facebook commenter Ian Bell had the most reasonable summary of the Koryo Burger that I read. "Sure, it tasted weird and was cold, but it was interesting to try a North Korean take on a hamburger," he wrote. "My only complaint was that we were seated next to a drunk guy in a strange hat who kept falling asleep on my dad."
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