Infiltrating North Korea, in Beijing

I’ve seen some crazy things in Beijing. This ancient traffic-filled futuristic city was a place of awesomeness until a few nights ago. A few nights ago, we went for North Korean.

Someone made a joke, the old yawner about Ethiopian: “They have food?” Evidently. My mom refused to call in the reservation, and instead asked a Chinese friend to do it. “Tell them it’s for Mr Dee,” she insisted. “We don’t want them to poison the food.” She was joking… kinda.

Then, when we arrived, someone pushed Mimi, my Chinese-American sister-in-law, in first. “Just in case,” they muttered under their breath.

And we walked in.

The walls were bare — blank, empty, like the plates of North Korea. Lights glaring bright (all the better to see us with.) One scrawny fellow swerved around in his booth, eyes wide at the four gwailo sauntering in. His face screamed a silent “WTF!” (Or maybe it was a signal to his comrade, who was furious tapping morse code missives with a toe.) Three 1960s-style stewardesses, clad in Dear Leader red and blue suits, whispered and approached us. (Approached? Cornered! And stewardesses? Not a chance! A trio of furious lesbian killers, trained to assassinate with shivs shaped from the slivers of chopsticks!) They guided us to a booth in the very back, and I couldn’t help wondering why — my eyes searched for alternate exits. (Does the bathroom have windows?)

I paranthetically jest. But I don’t lie. It was weird. People did give us big old double-takes. But while old NK dramas played out on a vintage tv, our dining soundtrack was pure Broadway. The dulcet tones of Cats, The Theme From Love Story, even Moon River from Breakfast at Tiffany’s played out in an instrumental Casio cover. Elevator music and the land of Kim.

The English-language menus were huge hardback tomes, drenched in garish photos of old Korean favorites: bi bim nyeng mun (pretty damn good), pyongyang kimchi sampler (awesome kimchi, wrapped up into in tight groovy circles), dog. (Yeah, dog. We didn’t order it, but the menu was dripping with photos of all the great canine dishes available: dog kalbi, bul-dogi, bi bim dog. Dog on a stick. It was sick.)

We did order meat, though. Good ol’ bulgogi. Nice, family favorite. But when the meat came, we all stopped and stared. Cautiously, Dad tried a piece, and growled “It’s okay.” I picked up a thick grey slice, and took a chew. “Yeah, it’s not bad,” I lied. Aaron gave a “Hmmm” after his bite, and Mom just watched.

“I think it’s dog,” she finally said.

“No, no, no, it’s not dog,” Dad countered. “How would you even know what dog looks like?”

“Remember when your friend Handel tricked me into eating it?”

“Yeah, but this could be horse. I mean, it could be anything at all. You don’t know.”

“Relax, guys,” Aaron offered with no confidence whatsoever. “It’s just cheap meat. I think it’s fine.”

I kept silent. From the moment this dish appeared on the table, I could think nothing but “woof.” But I couldn’t stop eating. Bite after bite, I thought, “This is disgusting,” and I kept going. I wrapped it in kimchi to mask the taste, as I chewed through the tough, ugly, sick grey meat. (*People muse that once you’ve tasted human flesh, you can never stop eating it. And while this tasted terrible and horrible and awful and ugly and I wanted to vomit, I still picked up yet another piece, smeared it in thick red kimchi drippings, and ripped off another bite with my teeth.)

Instead of vomiting, which I really wanted to do, I laughed. This was a moment. A gorgeous pure untouched moment. North Koreans, glaring at a table of Crazy Yanks, eating dog, while the theme from Breakfast at Tiffany’s played. It was awful. Horrible. Amazing. I hated it. It was the best.

“You know those days when you get the mean reds?,” Audrey Hepburn asks in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

“The mean reds?,” George Peppard returns, confused. “You mean- like the blues?”

“No,” Audrey sighs, in that way she does so awfully well. “The blues are because you’re getting fat and maybe it’s been raining too long, you’re just sad that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?”

Yeah — I had that feeling. I was afraid I’d been poisoned by Kim Jong-Il with a plate of Fido. These mean Reds fed me dog! Of course they’re horrible!!!

But, unlike Audrey and George, I couldn’t very well jump in a cab and head to Tiffany’s. I’d left the closest branch in Singapore. So instead, Mom and I climbed in a cab and went to the Apple store. Which, ultimately, worked just as well.

Extraordinary Eats / , ,

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