Being a Vegetarian in Korea
Being a vegetarian in Korea can seem quite daunting at first. Walking into a Paris Baguette and seeing English names on the products might make it look easy, but in fact, those names can be misleading. A “vegetable croquette” has ham in it, not mentioned in the name. A “handmade tofu soup” can still come with clams. And hearing “Yes, this is vegetarian”, then finding squid meat can be frustrating. But, these all make for interesting learning experiences here in Korea.
The best thing is to be as prepared as possible. One key thing is to do some research on food options in Korean cuisine. Alternate diets are not common here and may come across as strange to locals. Especially considering the word for “vegetarian” in Korean literally translates to “plant-eating animal”! Learning this word, and a few other basic but important phrases is extremely handy. Most of the time you’ll find people to be accommodating. If there is still a mistake, remember – don’t get frustrated…your requests are as new to the locals as you are to their country!
South Korea is well-known for its meat and barbecue dishes. However, due to its history with Buddhism, vegetable dishes are found everywhere. These dishes are eaten as side dishes (banchan) with most meals. For vegetarians, these side dishes can be eaten as main courses, along with some other more filling options.
Vegetarian-friendly banchan usually consist of pickled cabbage (kimchi), boiled or steamed roots, tofu, and other fermented vegetables. There will still be times where these dishes might include non-vegetarian food such as fish cakes, or fried anchovies.
A great staple meal for vegetarians is bibimbap, a mix of rice, vegetables, and egg (optional). It has all the necessary components of a tasty, filling meal. Try it fresh or crispy in a hot stone bowl.
Korean cuisine has an array of soups and stews, which, unfortunately, aren’t suitable for vegetarians. The majority of broths are meat or fish based, with the exception of those that are soybean based. The most common soybean-paste soup is doenjang jjigae. It is usually shared between people, but can be eaten as a full meal with a side of rice. It consists of tofu and vegetables, such as zucchini, wild mushrooms, and onions.
Korean fast food offers choices that are cheap and quick. For a vegetarian, yachae kimbap is a tasty option. A kimbap is a seaweed-and-rice roll with vegetables, meat, egg, and/or cheese. Make sure to specify no meat! Along with the kimbap, order a side of ddeokbokki. This snack is made up of Korean rice cakes in a spicy red pepper sauce. All in all, a much healthier meal than a burger and fries!
There are several other types of Korean foods to be enjoyed by vegetarians. Here is a list to name a few:
- yachae bbeokkumbap – vegetable fried rice*
- yachae juk – vegetable porridge*
- gamja jeon – potato pancake*
- gyeran jjim – steamed egg
- goguma twigim – deep-fried sweet potato
- gyeran bbang – egg bread fried on a griddle
- bungeo bbang – fish-shaped bread with red bean paste filling pressed in a waffle iron
- hotteok – small Korean pancake filled with brown sugar, honey, chopped peanuts, and cinnamon and fried on a griddle
*These dishes can have meat or seafood in them, so it’s important to always specify.
If you feel like you really have no options, or you’re not in the mood for Korean food, there is always a pizza shop to help you out! Cheese pizzas can be found at all pizza joints (although they come with a corn topping which might seem strange to some). Vegetable pizzas are usually available as well, but once again, double check for meat!
The “safest” way to ensure you’ll get a true vegetarian meal is to eat at a Buddhist restaurant or temple. The food is organic and vegan, for the sake of Buddhist ritual. If you ever do a Templestay program, you will get a chance to try this delicious food. The meals are based on Korean foods, but don’t use meat, dairy, or eggs.
- che-shik-jui-im-ni-da - (채식주의자 입니다) - I’m a vegetarian.
- go-gi-an-mo-go-yo - (고기 안 먹어요) - I don’t eat meat.
- heh-mool-an-mo-go-yo - (해물 안 먹어요) - I don’t eat seafood.
- go-gi-beh-ju-seh-yo - (고기 빼 주세요) - No meat, please.
- heh-mool-beh-ju-seh-yo - (해물 빼 주세요) - No seafood, please.
- gyeh-ran-beh-ju-seh-yo - (계란 빼 주세요) - No egg, please.
- gyeh-ran-guen-chan-a-yo - (계란은 괜찮아요) - Egg is okay.
Eating Out at Restaurants
Living in Korea for the past four years as a vegetarian means I definitely sought out restaurants that offered alternate choices. I have always enjoyed joining a group of friends at a Korean BBQ dinner (galbi) for the social aspect. But if I’m really in the mood to eat out comfortably, then I’ll usually find a restaurant with vegetarian options. Here are some of my favourite places to eat in Seoul.
PLANT is a vegan restaurant in Itaewon run by Miha (who actually has an extensive list of vegetarian restaurants on her website). Their menu is always changing because they offer specials of the day. Their food is organic and fresh.
Loving Hut is the best place to eat Korean food that is completely vegan and gluten-free. It’s a chain of restaurants around Korea, but my favorite location is in Sinchon. You can order a variety of meals such as soybean cutlet with rice, or a spicy noodle soup. One great thing about this place is that you can also buy some vegan products to use at home such as dumplings, soymeat, and soy sausages.
Jack’s Bean Falafel is a restaurant in Hongdae that has amazing vegetarian falafel wraps. It’s great for a quick bite while hanging out in Hongdae.
For more information, please see Visit Korea's site on Vegetarian Restaruants.