Vegetarian in Korea
What to Eat?
By: Genevieve Bryson
June 30, 2016
What is it like being a vegetarian or vegan in South Korea? Can you survive in a country that is famous for its barbecues and dining culture as a non-meat eater? Well of course you can! Continue reading for more tips and tricks on being a vegetarian in South Korea.
Can I live in Korea as a vegetarian?
안녕하세요! Or Hello, in English. I am Genevieve, and I have been a vegetarian for over 10 years. I am slowly moving into a more vegan diet, so while transitioning into veganism, I have been keeping an eye open to any Korean foods which can be eaten by both vegetarians and vegans.
I chose vegetarianism while in university due to my love for animals and animal rights issues. People choose a vegan/ vegetarian lifestyle for a plethora of other reasons as well. Some chose it for health, ethical, or religious reasons for example. But whatever your reason is for being a vegetarian or vegan, the issue concerning dining out is always an important one. Unlike the USA where you can find aisles in supermarkets that cater to vegetarians, that is not the case here in Korea.
I have recently returned to Korea after a long hiatus. I was here in 2008-2010, and for those two years I found it very difficult to order food that was vegetarian friendly. I remember ordering food from an ajumma in a restaurant and saying in Korean “I’m a vegetarian, I do not eat meat.” Thus she ended up bringing my food with bits of pork. According to her, pork is not meat. I quickly thumbed through my dictionary, looked up the word for animal and said, “I don’t eat animals.” The look of fright on her face and her endless apologies as she began taking the bits of pork out with chopsticks had us both laughing.
This is just one example of what being a vegetarian was like back then. Since returning I have noticed a lot of improvements for us vegetarians. The other day I went to a Kimbap Chonguk (김밥충국) and said that I am vegetarian (채식주의자 chae shik chu wi cha) and the ajumma understood and pointed out which meals were acceptable. Yay! 1 point in the vegetarian corner!!
My Korean is still basic as I spent so many years in other countries, but thankfully I know enough to ask about various foods and read hangul. Oh and seriously learn it! It only takes a few hours to memorize and your life will be much easier when dining out. There are a lot of loanwords from English in Korean.
As a vegetarian, markets or the grandmothers on the roadside selling food, quickly become your best friend. Their prices are cheaper and the food is fresh. Still with dirt on the carrot fresh!
I would buy potatoes (감자 kam ja), carrots (당근 dang gun), garlic (마늘 ma neul ), onions (양파 yang pa), paprika/pepper (파프리카 pa peu ri ka) and makes stews, or stir frys. The cost is quite inexpensive, and you will get a good bit for your money as well. You will quickly become a mini chef at home! I found allrecipes.com and happycow.net to have a lot of great recipes for vegetarians and vegans.
If you are not too confident with your cooking skills, or just too tired to bother, fear not, you can survive with Korean food. Tteokbokki (떡볶이) is an inexpensive spicy rice cake which you can find in street stalls or restaurants. I just take out the fish cake and chow on the rice cake while chugging water and milk (btw soy milk is 두유 du yu). I previously mentioned Kimbap Chonguk, but there are other kimbap places which also have a similar menu. Yachae (야채) is the Korean word for vegetable and you can get a lot of vegetables on the side if you ask the ajummas working in the restaurant. The Korean word for the side meal is banchan (반찬). And they will give you a lot! You can get soup, kimchi, vegetables and meat. But naturally, just say no on the meat and fish sides.
Kimbap is offered without meat or seafood. You can see them preparing it so you can always point out which items you prefer. Another meal which you can find in restaurants is japchae (잡채). This is one of my favorite meals and I always order it when I go to Korean restaurants if it is on the menu. It is a noodle meal served with rice, vegetables, and meat. As always, just say you’re a vegetarian so hold the meat.
I am near Daegu and I have discovered that there are some great vegan restaurants. I will check those out in the coming weeks and give my review of the meal and restaurant!
Waygook Cikgu Travels