By Alek Sigley, Tongil Tours founder and postgraduate student at Kim Il Sung University.
While living in Seoul for two and a half years I came to much love the South Korean take on American fried chicken. This is known as “chimaek” (치맥). The “chi” is short for “chicken”, and the “maek” comes from “maekchu” (맥주), which means beer. It is called so because the fried chicken is usually eaten as a side dish (anju) to beer. Some sour pickled white radish, cut into cubes and served with the tangy pickle juice, completes the holy trinity.
The fried chicken itself is often the “original” (후라이드), unseasoned and unsauced style, served with some tomato sauce (ketchup) and mustard. But other popular styles with more of a Korean twist include the yangnyom chicken, which is covered in red Korean chilli sauce (gochuchang), soy sauce chicken (kanjang chicken), which is marinated in soy sauce, garlic chicken, cooked with liberal amounts of garlic, spring onion chicken (파닭) which is served on a bed of marinated spring onion, and more.
It seems chimaek is becoming known outside of South Korea these days. My hometown of Perth, the most isolated city in the entire world, is now home to several branches of the big South Korean chimaek chain restaurants such as kyochon and nene, and several individual stores that do it too. But I never expected to have chimaek in Pyongyang!
The story begins when I met Han Sol upon first arriving at the dormitory in early April. As I’ve mentioned at other points in this blog, he is an ethnic Korean Canadian, and third year undergraduate student at Kim Il Sung University. He was born in Seoul but emigrated to Canada with his South Korean parents when he was young. He is here in the DPRK as a Canadian, since with a few exceptions it is impossible for South Koreans to come here. He came about eight years ago with his parents, who worked at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology (PUST), and did some other business on the side, while he finished his high school diploma at Pyongyang Foreigner’s High School in the diplomatic compound. Among this business that his parents did here was help set up the first chimaek restaurant in Pyongyang.
Han Sol told me about how his parents assiduously studied the art of making South Korean fried chicken, so that they could then pass on the techniques to the North Korean chefs. They sourced ingredients from China so that it could have the most authentic taste possible. They found a local partner, and a restaurant location, and helped decorate it. And finally, they had their restaurant.
We visited on Sunday the 27th of May, the day after the sudden second summit between Kim Jong Un and Mun Jae In. The restaurant is located quite far from where we live in Pyongchon District, but luckily, we had our friend Bodh from Cambodia who has a car to drive us in.
We park the car outside the restaurant. Just next to the restaurant is a little park with some benches and swings. Being Sunday, there are quite a few people sitting around, from old people relaxing on the benches, to parents watching their children play on the swings.
The restaurant sign simply says “Pyongchon Samilpo Restaurant” (평천삼일포식당), with nothing to indicate its most special specialty. We enter and see the main dining room, which is done up in a fast food, diner kind of style.
The manager recognises Han Sol and we go upstairs to a private room. She speaks a bit of English and sounds quite worldly. She told us about her travels to Bodh’s home country of Cambodia, how she rode around on a scooter with a friend through its streets.
We look through the menu and order the original fried chicken and the yangnyom chicken, bulgogi salad, some ice cream for dessert, and, as is an absolute must for South Korean-style fried chicken, beer to wash it all down with. Leafing through the menu I see that they also do various Chinese dishes, Neapolitan spaghetti, sashimi, and traditional Korean food.
The fried chicken comes out and we eagerly try it. It’s fairly close to what you’d get in South Korea, I think. But the yangnyom chicken loses a couple of marks for not coming out with the diced nut (usually peanut but sometimes almond) garnish it usually has in the South and which seemed to feature in the picture on the menu. Also, the pickled radish was nowhere to be seen.
After a few beers we got out the karaoke machine, and with the manager and some of the waitresses sang a few songs. It had a surprisingly range of English songs and Han Sol and I sang Linkin Park’s Numb and Crawling to exorcise our residual teen angst. We sang Sunday Bloody Sunday and other English songs that the manager knew. Han Sol sang Oh Canada in dedication to his native land. We then switched the machine’s settings to the Korean songs and sang a range of upbeat and popular tunes from “Bonfire” (우등불) to “We Love” (우린 사랑한다).
We then wrapped up the night with “We are One” (우리는 하나) to commemorate the fourth Inter-Korean Summit that had taken place unexpectedly the day before, and in support of North-South solidarity. I only hope that with the summits and North-South conciliation this year, this restaurant is only the first of many South Korean-style chimaek places in Pyongyang.