“Let's see by a show of hands, who won't be having sweet meat? Five? We're going then.”
With that quick vote, it was decided that a delegation of 21 South Koreans visiting Pyongyang this month for a conference would be having an extravagant lunch where every one of the eight courses would be a dog meat delicacy.
“A once-in-a-lifetime experience!” a North Korean official chaperoning the group said enthusiastically.
While South Korea, mindful of its overseas image and the criticism attached in the West to eating dogs, has made the practice more discreet and better regulated, isolated North Korea attaches no public stigma to consuming the meat.
Dog meat restaurants in the South are usually back-alley fare catering to middle-aged men. In the North, dog meat has become a celebrated part of the culture served at its best dining halls to the few in the impoverished state who can afford it.
Dog meat is eaten in other countries in Asia, including Vietnam. In South Korea, “boshin-tang” which translates as "health preserving soup" is usually braised meat, stewed in a spicy broth and served with steamed rice. But marinated ribs, as found in North Korea, are rare.
In the North's capital, the recipe calls for less spice, presumably to highlight the natural flavor of the ingredients, and a variety of cuts are served for a leisurely meal accompanied by rice wine.
Defectors in the South said Korean cuisine, which varies according to region, undergoes further change in the North because there is less money for elaborate spices and ingredients. This means food is simpler in the North, the taste is lighter and little is wasted.
Sweet and soft
The pungent odor of dog meat is far more noticeable in the North's cuisine with its fewer spices, leading a few uneasy Southerners to forego the feast. They were instead served a set that included chicken, fish, shrimp and vegetables.
“You want to go easy at first, or else, near the end, you won't have any room left,” said Shim Jae-hwan, a human rights attorney from Seoul who was part of the South Korean delegation dining at the Pyongyang Sweet Meat Restaurant.
Following a bowl of clear broth for a starter, an impressive roast was served, its texture soft and sweet as it easily tore from a 15-cm (6-inch) segment of the vertebra.
Then came an assortment of meat in a variety of sauces, one more exotic than the next, and the meal ends with a hearty bowl of spicy soup and rice.
The North's reclusive leader Kim Jong-il is said to be a fan of dog meat, and state media said he often offers advice on how the dish should be prepared, such as: “To get the broth right, the meat should be cooked with its skin intact.”
Together with restaurant Okryu-kwan, which seats nearly 10,000 people a day and is known for Pyongyang's trademark dish of cold noodles, the Pyongyang Sweet Meat Restaurant has become a popular spot among the North's elite and visitors from the South.
The restaurant near the Taedong River in central Pyongyang can accommodate more than 2,000 people a day and manager Pak Song-suk boasts all the meat comes from home-grown canine.
“Sweet meat is considered the best remedy when the appetite is low because of hot weather or fatigue,” a feature article in the North's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper said.