AMPONTAN

Japan from the inside out

Pyeongyang soju off the shelf in the U.S., and other ramblings

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 25, 2008

IN MAY 2007, I wrote this post about the export of Pyeongyang soju (shochu) to the United States, wondering how well the product would go over due to considerations of both taste and politics.

Well, the fine DPRK Studies website found a blog post by American journalist Jason Perlow, who likes to eat and write about what he ate. Mr. Perlow visited a Korean restaurant in Palisades Park, New Jersey, just across the river from New York City. He has photos of the restaurant, the meal he was served, and the bottle of Pyeongyang soju that he bought at a nearby liquor store to go with the meal. (The restaurant doesn’t have a liquor license.)

Mr. Perlow was surprised to find it was quite smooth. (I had some doubts about that in my original post, too.) He was aware that purchasing the beverage contributed financially to the Kim Family Regime in North Korea, but his epicurean tendencies bested his political scruples after a brief skirmish. He might not have been aware at dinner time of some of the controversies surrounding the import of the drink, though he did link to a previous DPRK Studies post about them.

Additionally, neither Mr. Perlow nor Richardson at DPRK Studies mentioned that poisonous snakes were used as an ingredient in the soju, and that political prisoners were used to catch the snakes. (Richardson, however, did mention that political prisoners might have a role in its production.)

Other items of interest: Mr. Perlow complains about chopsticks in general and metal chopsticks in particular (come on guy, it’s not that hard), and mentions that shabu-shabu is on the menu. The dish is popular throughout Northeast Asia, but that’s the Japanese name for it!

Fancy that–a Korean restaurant still using the Japanese name. Some think shabu-shabu was invented by the Mongols in the 13th century, but the Suehiro restaurant in Osaka claims they developed it in 1952 (those who read Japanese can see their explanation here). They also trademarked the name in 1955, so maybe that’s the explanation.

Then again, the New Jersey restaurant also serves kalbi, a name the Japanese prefer to borrow as karubi rather than just come straight out and call them ribs (肋骨), which is what the Korean word means.

Of course, using euphemistic terms for food is an international phenomenon: When you’re eating sweetbreads in a Western restaurant, you’re not eating sweet bread–it’s the thymus gland and the pancreas!

And before I forget: DPRK Studies has a post about a new North Korean noodle made from soybeans that delays feelings of hunger. Necessity is the mother of invention after all.

Isn’t longer digestion time one of the reasons the Japanese like to eat udon as a late-night snack when studying, thereby staving off the hunger pangs?

16 Responses to “Pyeongyang soju off the shelf in the U.S., and other ramblings”

  1. The Overthinker said

    “When you’re eating sweetbreads in a Western restaurant, you’re not eating sweet bread”

    My mother fooled me with that when I was much younger and more trusting (though it was at home, not a restaurant)…. They were not to my taste, to say the least….

  2. keiko said

    “Necessity is the mother of invention after all.” How about a “Kintaro” noodle, Kim Jong Il version to enhance reverence for the dear leader.

  3. “Additionally, neither Mr. Perlow nor Richardson at DPRK Studies mentioned that poisonous snakes were used as an ingredient in the soju, and that political prisoners were used to catch the snakes. (Richardson, however, did mention that political prisoners might have a role in its production.)”

    Well, the ingredients list on the front say “Corn, Rice, Wheat”. If some type of neurotoxin from poisonous snakes are part of it, at least in any significant quantity, it would probably never pass ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms) and USDA (US Department of Agriculture) scrutiny, especially given the fact that it is from a nation who the US has severely restricted trade relations with.

    Why would the North Korean government put poisonous snakes in Soju? Not that I don’t believe this, but why?

    BTW, I am aware that Shabu-Shabu is Nabemono, but for some reason, most of the Shabu-Shabu establishments in my area are owned by Koreans. In fact most of the Japanese restaurants in New Jersey are either Korean or Chinese owned. This is because most Japanese people who reside in the US do not want to be in the restaurant profession.

  4. ampontan said

    Hello, Jason: Thanks for the note. My original article, which is linked, mentions that the snake supposedly “puts lead in your pencil”, as you also describe the effect of ginseng. If it is used, surely they don’t put in the toxic bits, just as a Japanese chef won’t give you the bad parts of a fugu/blowfish.

    Are the Koreans/Chinese preparing fugu in the greater New York area, too?

    The last time I was in New York (2000), my wife and I stopped for a quick snack at the cafeteria across from Penn Station. She could tell at a glance that the whole setup wasn’t Japanese (and it only took me two or three…)

    But I’m not usually a purist in these matters. The best cup of capuccino I ever had was brewed by a Chinese guy running a bakery in San Francisco.

  5. Aceface said

    “Some think shabu-shabu was invented by the Mongols in the 13th century”

    Aha.Mongols actually don’t eat meat in this style,but the muslims Chinese回族do.

  6. Ken said

    The snake from which they extract essence is saber-rattle-snake, isn’t it? Just kidding.

    “Mr. Perlow visited a Korean restaurant in Palisades Park, New Jersey, just across the river from New York City.”

    There used to be Yao-han, a Japanese supermarket, in Fort Lee, neighboring town of Palisades Park and many Japanese around there.
    It is frequent pattern; the Japanese begin to live and open Japanese shops, Koreans immigrant and take over such businesses, Japanese people evacuate and Koreans change the target customer from Japanese people to Koreans.
    At last, the district is occupied by the letters like the shape of Shish-Kebab.

    “Mr. Perlow complains about chopsticks in general and metal chopsticks in particular”

    I hate the metal chopsticks because they are slippy and moreover make noise when touching other tablewares, most of which were also metal originally in Korea.
    It is like eating in prison and opposite extreme against Japanese manner.

  7. Ampotan-san:

    The issue of Fugu preparation is a difficult one because one must get a Fugu license from a City’s department of health in addition to having the specific sushi master getting the proper certification in Japan. To my knowledge, there are only two restaurants in New York City that can prepare fugu, and both are owned and managed with Japanese sushi chefs.

    Ken-San:

    “Yaohan Plaza” in Edgewater is now Mitsuwa Marketplace. It has been heavily upgraded and renovated with new stores in it.

    http://offthebroiler.wordpress.com/2007/05/28/takoyaki-its-octopussylicious/

    http://offthebroiler.wordpress.com/2006/05/19/nj-dining-mitsuwa-marketplace/

    There are similar such large Asian shopping centers in New Jersey run by Koreans. The largest is Han Ah Reum (H-Mart) which has several locations. Generally speaking the price of the goods they sell is cheaper than the Japanese stuff. I still go to Mitsuwa to buy certain things such as superior brands of Shoyu and other Japanese specialty items (such as Marudaizu grade Yamasa or Kikkoman from Japan, not the american-made versions).

    http://offthebroiler.wordpress.com/2006/06/22/nj-dining-han-ah-reum-and-kings-noodle/

  8. ampontan said

    Here’s a thought about metal chopsticks: When I used them, the only adjustments I had to make were with noodles.

    But I’ve gotten so used to seeing (not doing) the Japanese way of eating noodles that I didn’t notice if the Koreans do it too when I was there. The Japanese usually grab an end of the noodle and slurp it up in a string. You’re supposed to make a noise. One woman running an izakaya was concerned when I didn’t slurp.

    If the Koreans don’t slurp, perhaps they coil the noodles more before eating them.

    Ken: They have metal chopsticks in Japanese prisons? I’m surprised. Things like that can be hidden and used as a weapon.

  9. Good luck using metal chopsticks to eat Naengmyun. They are like glass noodles but even slipperyer. The broth is cold and has beef gelatin in it, which acts like a lubricant. The stuff just slips right through.

  10. Get A Job, Son! said

    I dont wish to put words into Ken’s mouth, but perhaps the meaning of this
    “I hate the metal chopsticks because they are slippy and moreover make noise when touching other tablewares, most of which were also metal originally in Korea.
    It is like eating in prison and opposite extreme against Japanese manner.”

    is that the metal chopsticks and tray, plate, cups, bowls etc gives the feeling of eating in a prison environment.
    For me, it always feels a bit ‘industrial’, and not like a restaurant should feel.

    Then again… Ampontan – you might be having a small joke!

  11. tomojiro said

    Well, actualy now, metal chopsticks could be considered more “eco” than wooden chopsticks if you are an “eco” fan.

  12. Ken said

    “You’re supposed to make a noise.”
    I neither slurp nor make a noise

    “They have metal chopsticks in Japanese prisons?”
    Unfortunately I have not experienced yet.
    That is just an image from American movies.

    Bingo, Get A Job! You can enjoy the industrial feeling in Seoul.

    Tomojiro,

    Almost all of Waribashi is made from the trees thinned out to grow other finer trees, etc.
    My-hashi (carrying chopsticks) is reported rather against eco in the topic of a magazine as a total.
    Anemia will decrease, though.

    Mr. Perlow,

    You do not have to affix –san as I am called Ken in the US.

    “Yaohan Plaza” in Edgewater is now Mitsuwa Marketplace.”
    I seldom go to NJ and my colleague missed Yao-han but thanks anyway for detailed information about Mitsuwa.

    “There are similar such large Asian shopping centers in New Jersey run by Koreans.”
    When I entrered a Korean grocery store in Manhattan, I found use-by date of some kinds of food were expired.
    Since then, I never go to Korean grocery stores.
    The fish in your uploaded photographs of Han Ah Reum also does not look fresh enough for sashimi, especially the squid.

    “Marudaizu grade Yamasa or Kikkoman from Japan, not the american-made versions”
    There is Dutch-made versions too!
    I recommend Tamari shouyu if you like sashimi as you seem able to taste the difference.

  13. bender said

    Many, if not most Japanese people do slurp soba, and many consider it quite appropriate. What’s the point of denying this?

    The “-san” suffix may not be the right honorific to address someone, but it is a polite way of non-Japanese folks to address Japanese folks, so I’d say it’s good enough.

  14. mac said

    > Well, actualy now, metal chopsticks could be considered more “eco” than wooden chopsticks if you are an “eco” fan.

    I’d argue against that. How much energy goes into making them? Reusable wooden or bamboo have to beat cast metal chopsticks by many factors. But I agree non-reusable, disposable wooden ones are a Japanese sin. Hygiene culture gone mad. Live in Japan for more than a month, one ends up with so many of them, one starts to consider building furniture out of them … or something.

    Personally, I have only used metal chopstick to move the charcoal on the hibachi but I think the worst to eat with are the big, fat, slippery, blunt plastic “logs” you get at Chinese restaurants.

  15. As to metal being more eco than bamboo, that’s ridiculous. Bamboo is a renewable resource, it grows very quickly. A lot more energy has to be expended to make metal hashi.

  16. nick said

    I’ve seen the north Korean soju in the u.s. and imediately wondered why it wasn’t embargoed like Cuban liquor and cigars. it does make sense that they would export something of their best quality, perhaps not even domestically sold since making a bad impression can hurt trade badly. I think it’s signifcant what I saw was relabeled in English, it confirms it’s an export product. it needs some sort of relabeling for u.s.sale but the label could apparently just be a sticker

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