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Cold War Cuisine
By M D'Sterbal

Dog Soup and Raw Beef, Pyongyang-Style

Beijing Lyojing Restaurant
2nd Building, 3rd Zone Anhuili,
Asian Sports Village, Chaoyang District
橡橾ø ƒ32
Tel: 6491-6803, 6491-6801
Hours: 10 am-10 pm daily.
Food: **** Ambience: **** Service: **** Cost:

My photographer is surrounded by desperate waitresses in starch-pressed uniforms. They are grabbing at his camera and making ugly sounds. "No photos," they keep repeating in broken Mandarin. There is an aura of fear in the air, and our dog-meat soup hasn't even arrived yet. Welcome to Beijing Lyojing Restaurantone of Beijing's few North Korean eateries.

I assure the waitress that we are her friends, fellow workers. Harsh stares penetrate the barbecue smoke from the neighboring table, and there is some quick chatter in a dialect of Korean that few travellers ever get to hear. The waitress gives me a look that turns my bowels to ice. "America?!" she asks accusingly. I wrack my brains trying to think of a country that even the North Korean ministers of propaganda won't find offensive. "Iceland," I answer, and her face softens slightly. "Photographing of dishes will be tolerated," she tells us. "No faces." We agree. Anonymity must be maintained.

Our menu is produced, a black folder with numerous plastic sleeves holding hundreds of namecards upon which the names of dishes are written in Korean and Chinese. There is no English, and many of the Chinese names are phonetic transliterations of the original Korean. There are no pictures of dishes or even colorful descriptions. Such trivial details are for bourgeois liberals. We ask the waitress to recommend some Hanguo (Korean) dishes, and she stiffens. "We are bei chaoxian ren (North Korean)," she corrects us. She then waits silently as we order random dishes from the sparse menu.

The first dish to appear is, of course, Kim Chi. It is this dish that unites the two sides of the peninsula in a fire-breathing union. Forgetting to leave the dish intact for the photographer, I try a huge mouthful, and my eyes water. "Is this your spiciest Kim Chi?" I ask the waitress. "No" she replies bluntly. "You would be unable to handle it."

More dishes arrive, and we are all hungry. Our photographer seems to have disappeared, and I fear that he is hog-tied in the back of a truck headed to Pyongyang. Perhaps his insistence on taking a photograph of the North Korean opera blaring from the television was not his wisest move. I begin to get nervous and leave the table, walking to the door like a crab, twitching. Our photographer returns just as I am about to bolt for freedom.

The Lu Dou Bing (green bean cake) comes with three sauces, sweet, spicy and extremely spicy. Both the cake and the sauces are delicious, although the absence of filling sawdust makes me wonder if this is a true North Korean delicacy. A circular metal plate is lifted from our table to reveal a barbecue grill, and two plates of meat are served. The first is a beef dish, marinated in a spicy sauce. The second is the traditional Five Flower Pork, a plate filled with thick slabs of pig seasoned in a sweet sauce. Both are surprisingly excellent.

By the time that we are halfway through our meal, thick smoke from the table grills has filled the restaurant and I am blinded and choking. It is as if a tear gas grenade has been detonated behind the bar. My dining comrades continue chatting, filtering the tear gas through their cigarettes. I say something like "the meat is (wheeze) flavorful," and they nod in agreement. We are also given a plate with lettuce, tomato, onion and garlic, all raw. We are not sure whether this is meant to be eaten raw, but cannot figure out how to cook it on our grill. We eat it raw, which turns out to be good practice for the next dish.

The next dish comes out, Sheng Niurou. This is Mandarin for raw beef. However, there is more to this dish, which should accurately be called Sheng Niurou Jidan, or raw beef with raw egg. I ask the waitress how it is meant to be eaten, and she takes the plate from me and mixes the whole thing into a glutinous mass. Now you eat, she instructs, handing me back the plate. I eat one mouthful. While it is actually quite tasty, the consistency puts this dish in the slimy category of food groups, and I chibuxia (literally am unable to swallow). Besides, rationalizing my cowardice, I must save some room for my dog-meat soup.

The waitress collects our plates as soon as we have finished, telling us that the plates are needed for other customers. She then brings us a small cauldron of dog-meat soup.

We ask for bowls, and she ignores us so we start eating from the pot. Dog meat is a dark pungent meat with a somewhat stringy texture. It is said to be a warming meat with yang-strengthening properties, equally good for cold winter days or long passion-filled nights. A few minutes later, the waitress returns with our bowls, saying they had "run out of bowls." The soup is delicious and I try to ignore the theme tune to Lassie running through my head. Moments later, I feel warmth rushing through my body, and I understand completely why this canine delight would be attractive to people in a cold northern climate.

There is very little at Beijing Lyojing for the vegetarian to enjoy. Our own token non-flesh eater refused to even touch her chopsticks, and fled from the table when the raw beef came out. We ordered a spicy cold noodle dish that never arrived. We got a small dish which we didn't order, a plate of two kinds of glutinous cakes. I assumed that this was dessert, and ate a piece expecting it to be sweetbut it felt and tasted like hardening denture paste, and I had to spit it out. We were also served Pyongyang Beer, which tasted like watery malt liquor. One of my dining companions seems to enjoy it, but then he is from Swaziland, a nation of strong proud people not given to fussiness over alcohol. Also available are bottles of famous ginseng liquor, if the dog-meat soup is not enough to put some bang in your yang.

Beijing Lyojing is a restaurant that fulfills the needs of the workers state, and as such it is not a pretty site. It is not a good place to take a skittish first date. Do not harangue the waitstaff with petty questions, and if you are American or British or white for that matter, keep it to yourself. That said, if you want to eat authentic Korean food (I say Korean rather than North Korean because I am uncertain as to whether they actually still have food in North Korea) in what I can only assume is an authentic North Korean atmosphere, then I cannot recommend Beijing Lyojing highly enough.

In completing this review, I would like to explain my final grading of this restaurant. How does one explain the difference between excellent dog-meat soup and dog-meat soup that is just mediocre? Obviously, a different standard of measurement is called for here. I give this restaurant three stars in each category, using the yardstick of authenticity in each. The food is authentically North Korean (four stars). The ambience harkens back to those bygone days when paranoia was a constant dining companion (four stars). And the service is just what I would expect in any restaurant in Pyongyang (four stars). At around 250 for six dishes and beer, the price is moderate. This is a restaurant that I plan to return to at reasonably spaced intervals. The Permanent Revolution is best enjoined in small doses.

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