It’s exactly three months until I’ll find myself in Korea once more. This time, it’s just an opportunity to travel and explore the rest of the Korea experience while I can; I honestly don’t know when’s the next time I can visit. This is also a trip where I’ll be taking two friends of mine over and I will be the unofficial tour guide. I’m rather excited: Korea’s a great place. It’s beautiful, the people are nice (for the most part but this is normal for most people), the culture interesting, and the food delicious.
I’m not entirely biased, because as a vegetarian, I know that in Korea, you’re going to have to work a little harder than others to get food. After all, when I think of Korean food, I think of flavorful soups, rice, fermented vegetables (i.e. kimchi) and meat (and when I listed ‘meat’, I also meant seafood) – not to mention alcohol and their love for spicy things. When other people think of Korean food, they think of Korean barbecue. This is where things can get a little complicated. I’m a semi-vegetarian. I’m mostly vegetarian but when I go somewhere that’s less-than-friendly to vegetarians, I loosen up my restrictions a bit: I might take a sip of the soup broth that I know was cooked with some meat, I will pick out the meat and eat the rest, etc. However, one of my friends who will be going is a strict vegetarian. As such, I found myself compiling Safe Foods for him to eat and decided that it would be nice to make a post on it. Why not, right?
SOME KNOWLEDGE ON BEING VEGETARIAN IN KOREA
There are some things vegetarians should know about going vegetarian in Korea. It’s still a very new concept – even among the younger generation, though they tend to be more open-minded. It’s what they’ve known all their lives and though Korean cuisine is one of the more healthy ones out there, it is largely meat-based. No matter how good your Korean is, it may not help you because like most other omnivorous Asians, they may not count seafood as meat so if you ask for no meat, you may still get shrimp in there. Basically, I’m telling you to be specific. In addition, even if you have a native Korean friend and they’re speaking for you, asking if you can just have the hot pot without the meat, they’ll look at your friend, then you, as if you’ve lost your minds and they’ll inevitably ask what would you eat then? Oh, I don’t know – the rest of the vegetables and fungus not to mention the side dishes and the noodles? Even if you did get the person to give you a plate of only raw veggies, you’ll find the problem of the broth; I’m sorry, there’s a 90% chance that’s meat-based as well.
However, not all is lost. There is a small, but growing, movement of vegetarianism in Korea, though predominately in the cities helped along by vegetarian/vegan foreigners. Their reasons are mostly health-based or they’re interested in ‘dieting’, though note that ‘dieting’ pretty much means ‘don’t eat’ in Korea. Here’s the 101 on being vegetarian in Korea–
BASIC KOREAN “SAFE FOODS”
Bibimbap (비빔밥) – This is a vegetarian’s go-to food in Korea. It’s basically a bowl of rice and various other side dishes; it literally translates to ‘mixed rice’ because though it comes prettily arranged, you’re to mix it up with a gochu sauce (spicy red pepper sauce) before eating it. There are other variations, but the Sanchae Bibimbap (산채 비빔밥), aka the Mountain Vegetable Bibimbap, is your best bet as it comes without meat. For regular bibimbap, it usually comes with a bit of beef so you’ll have to specify if that’s the only bibimbap they offer, though I doubt it. If they have one, they usually have the other. Dolsot Bibimbap (돌솥 비빔밥), or bibimbap served in a stone pot/bowl is most delicious as the rice on the bottom gets deliciously crispy. If you’re vegan, note that they usually top it with a fried (or raw) egg.
Boribap (보리밥) – I find this as another kind of bibimbap but they use barley along with regular Korean rice. However, this is, in certain ways, better than bibimbap as it’s entirely vegan to begin with, so if you’re really hungry or just don’t feel like using too much Korean (or miming) to get across your dietary restrictions which they probably won’t understand anyway but might attempt to humor you in the end, you should stick with this. Also, an order usually comes with barley tea, made from when they cooked the barley. Basically, you get a bowl of rice and then a large plate of side dishes and fresh veggies that you can add to your personal BoR at will. You then add sesame oil and then gochu sauce and mix it up. Wash it down with barley tea and repeat as necessary. It may also include a steaming pot of soup as well (Koreans love soup with their meal). Interesting note, it’s said that after eating boribap, people are more prone to flatulence. This is a personal favorite of mine and I didn’t find myself anymore gassy than I usually am.
Kong guksu (콩국수) – This is a dish consisting of noodles in a soybean broth that is offered in the summer months. Why? It’s served cold and you may even find some ice in it. It’s really simple: noodles in a milky soybean broth made from ground soybeans topped with sliced cucumbers and half of a hard-boiled egg and sprinkled with sesame. It’s one of the few foods that isn’t spicy and the taste is rather bland, so you then add salt to it to taste before mixing it around and digging in. In the summer months, you may also encounter naengmyeon (냉면). This is chewy noodles in a light amber and cold broth with similar toppings. I’ve learned that anchovies are usually used in making this broth most of the time. Stay away if that turns off your appetite.
Bibimguksu (비빔국수) – In accordance with the cold noodle trend, this dish is also usually served cool or cold. It’s noodles and veggies with gochujang (gochu sauce) and topped half of a hard-boiled egg. Certain establishments may make theirs differently, but it is vegetarian. I’ve eaten it three times while in Korea and though I like it, since I prefer noodles, it was always a bit too spicy for me. There is also another version in a vibrantly red, soupy broth (look out for the word ‘mul‘ (물), or ‘water’ preceding it). I’m not sure about the broth in this so be careful when you order it.
Kimbap (김밥) – The Korean maki roll. It’s similar to sushi in that they look the same, however, their contents are different; the contents of Korean kimbap is cooked. It’s also known as the to-go food and the item to bring on a picnic. I admit, when a friend told me that we should all probably bring picnic foods for our beach trip last week, I commented on how that was great because I’ve been craving kimbap. Sad, I know. Anyway, you will need to tell them no meat. There are a ton of Korean ‘fast food’ places that sell a large variety of kimbap from Cheese Kimbap (치즈 김밥) to Tuna Kimbap (참치 김밥) to even Vegetable Kimbap (야채 김밥). Do not be fooled. Vegetable Kimbap just means that they add more veggies in the roll in addition to ham and imitation crab. I usually just order regular kimbap and tell them to take out the ham, though I may occasionally just order the cheese kimbap when with friends and poke out the ham and imitation crab for them and eat the rest because I’m a cheese/dairy addict. I also love the sesame/perilla leaf they stick in the cheese kimbap.
Bokkeumbap (볶음밥) – The lovely fried rice. This is usually found in Koreanised Chinese restaurants (home of the famous jjajangmyeon, or black bean sauce noodles, that are most definitely not vegetarian – I asked, but I learned how to make a vegetarian version) or other more ‘traditional’ places. Most bokkeumbap does include bits of ham so before you order, be sure to ask them if it comes with and if it can be taken out. However, I usually just order plain bokkeumbap and it’s
seemingly vegetarian, though it does usually come topped with a fried egg. There are, of course, various variations but I like the original bokkeumbap in addition to kimchi bokkeumbap (김치 볶음밥). However, I found out that kimchi may or may not be completely vegetarian (I will elaborate more later). A note: Korean fried rice is not like the normal Chinese fried rice you know of in the States. There’s less oil and the rice is still tender and moist, as it’s short-grained. I cannot lie: I love bokkeumbap, but I couldn’t choose between the two.
Japchae (잡채) – Interestingly enough, this dish of stir fried potato noodles with various vegetables and shiitake mushrooms can come as a side dish, which means it comes with the meal (translation: it’s free). If it isn’t meant to be one, they will most likely throw in some meat. When ordering, ask them if there’s meat in it and to take it out.
YOUR BEST BET FOR ‘SAFE FOODS’ IN KOREA
Western Restaurants (양식집) – These places will be like every other Korean restaurant:
most all of their food will most likely come with meat in it. However, they’re also seen as more “upscale” and they’ll try (key word here – it might not come out perfect) to honor your every wish as opposed to the family run restaurant with their ahjumma and ahjussi who will try, but like older Asians, they think they know best for you and they just might sneak something in. Nothing against them as I found them very helpful and adorable but, like I said, vegetarianism is still a new concept and the older generation isn’t going to be familiar with it. At all. I went to a Mexican-Italian fusion restaurant in the middle of downtown and I told the waiter if there was any way I could make a certain pasta dish vegetarian (I completely failed to convince him that burritos can be made vegetarian and filling, but it may be because the restaurant didn’t have the proper ingredients for a real vegetarian burrito). He spoke with the chef and he came out, saying that they could and if I would like, they would add extra mushrooms into my pasta so it would be more than just carbs in sauce. Yes, please! I wouldn’t say all western-style restaurants would be the same, but you would have a higher chance… or you could become a regular at a local family restaurant. 🙂 Point of interest: western restaurants tend to include a dish of Korean pickles, which are more tangy and sweet, as opposed to kimchi as a way of cleansing the palate after eating something ‘creamy’ like pasta and cheese.
Vegetarian Restaurants (채식주의 식당) – This is an obvious choice. However, these aren’t found everywhere in Korea – for that, head to Taiwan. The vegetarian movement is growing but it’s still very much small so these places are mostly found in the big cities, namely Seoul. I lived in Daejeon which is the fifth biggest (and last) metropolitan city in South Korea; Daejeon’s home to a grand total of 3 vegetarian restaurants, all of which are at least a 30 minute commute away from my home. My favorite one is an hour and 10 minutes away; I made a monthly pilgrimage there.
Temples (사원) – These are a vegetarian’s haven. Although most Koreans abroad seem to be Christian, the truth is that about half of the Koreans in Korea are also Buddhist, so you’ll find temples scattered across the country and the monks are vegetarian as opposed to Buddhists in some other countries. I had the opportunity to join a vegan food tour (yes, it does exist) in Seoul for my sister’s birthday and one of our stops was at an upper scale restaurant that’s affiliated with a temple. The fare was amazing – simple, healthy, yet flavorful. Either that, or you could be my friend and I who got lucky. We were doing a spur-of-the-moment day trip in Gwangju and decided to visit a temple. Well, it decided to pour so we took cover under one of the eaves while listening to the rites. Once it was finished the participants left for lunch and next thing we know, we were invited to eat as well – for free. Of course, my friend and I did the dishes to pay them back but they even sent us off with more food. Temple food is simple and healthy but filling and most definitely vegetarian.
Home-Cooking – What can I say about this other than you most likely live by a grocery store or an outdoor produce market and even both. Plus, it’ll be healthier and even cheaper – plus it’s guaranteed vegetarian. My only complaint if it’s after work and you need to cook something. For that, I turn to fellow hungry friends or the local Kimbap Cheonguk (Kimbap Heaven) or some similar eatery.
The question of how strict of a vegan/vegetarian you are decides exactly how well you can eat on a regular basis in Korea. Because I allowed myself to eat food that was cooked with or had touched meat in addition to drinking the broth of soup, my selections weren’t too bad but things can get the same after a while; I gorged myself while in Hong Kong and Taiwan – especially Taiwan. However, if you plan on being a True Vegetarian – kudos to you – keep the following in mind:
- Kimchi is not necessarily vegetarian. Most kimchi, especially the spicy kinds, are made with fish sauce or even little anchovies and shrimp. Some versions also add in oysters, but that kind is made to eat immediately as it won’t keep for long. Also, keep in mind that there are hundreds of different kinds of kimchi in Korea and the recipe may differ from family. As far as I’m concerned, the only kimchi that is vegetarian is baek kimchi (백김치), or white kimchi. However, if you’re at a vegetarian restaurant or a temple, throw your worries away.
- Broth is almost always meat or seafood-based. As a mostly-vegetarian for almost a decade, I know that vegetarian soups can be pretty flavorful. However, most Korean soups are flavorful because of the meat they cooked it with or a mixture of anchovies and konbu, a seaweed. My point here is to be on the safe side, soups are generally to be stayed away from in Korea unless it’s kong guksu – the way that’s made is similar to soybean milk.
- Street food. This is on here because it is tempting, especially when you’re tired or starving and you’re walking down the street and then you suddenly sniff out a delightful fragrance. It’s street food. The good news is that not all of it is off limits to you – mainly the sweets, roasted chestnuts, corn, potatoes, etc. – but those are mainly snacking/junk foods. For the more savory street food, you may need to think a little. There’s ddeokbokki (떡볶이), or spicy rice cakes, which are essentially vegetarian but on the streets, they’re often cooked with eggs and o-deng (오뎅), or fish cake. There’s also a section for fried foods, also called dwikim (튀김), sort of like Korean tenpura, like sweet potato and clear noodles wrapped in seaweed. Do note that those items are fried in the same pot as the shrimp and the corn dogs
WHY STAY VEGGIE IN KOREA?
So, it’s been established that you can be vegetarian in Korea with a little work and effort. However, is it worth it – all the misunderstandings and the work to get those miniscule cubes of ham out of your fried rice? I think so. Korean food is healthy, but with their love for sul, or alcohol, and meat and eating late into the night, I stuck to my vegetarianism because it was a way to limit my intake if I did go out late and it kept what I ate healthy without putting up a big Wall of Do Not Cross between me and my coworkers (it was enough that I was vegetarian though they learned to enjoy it since they got my share of the meat). In addition, it made my body feel good. It’s sort of that misconception that vegetarian food is a one-way road to dieting, but the truth is that you can just eat potato chips all day and still be vegetarian; it’s all about the choices. At times, it may grind on your nerves, but it’s really up to you and your sense of conviction (why did you become vegetarian in the first place?). If you’re not into that, do understand that meat is expensive in Korea. In the end, if more and more people start asking if there were vegetarian options, then you’d think they’d soon pick up on it, right?
Or at least that’s the idea.