It's fairly well known that Korea is a meat lovers paradise. For us carnivores, there's a dazzling array of meats and sea foods that are readily available. Korea is obviously most famously associated with its Barbecue restaurants, which can be found on pretty much any street corner. While Korea boasts a large number of vegetable dishes, it can be hard for vegetarians (and even more so for vegans) to find dishes that are actually vegetarian. For example, many soups or stews that don't have meat or seafood in them will often contain fish or meat products within their broth. Having a co-worker that is vegetarian has really opened my eyes to some of the difficulties vegetarians may face coming to Korea. After chatting with him I thought it would be useful to put together some tips to help any vegetarians that are interested in teaching in Korea.
1. Learn the Basics
As explained via many vegetarian blogs, one of the most useful things one can do is learn the basics when it comes to ordering in restaurants. Many expats are held back by the language barrier in Korea, which can be easily overcome through proper memorization of the key words and phrases you will need to know when dining out. I highly recommend taking an hour or so to research the appropriate terminologies and pronunciations. Definitely learn Hangul while you're at it. Not only is it rediculously simple, it will help you recognize items on menus, and pronounce everything correctly. Since the concept of being a vegetarian is often quite foreign to the older generation of Koreans, knowing how to explain yourself properly goes a long way. Chaeshick-chu (저는 채식주의자예요) means vegetarian in Korean.
2. Vegetarian Korean Dishes
It's a good idea to get to know some of the Korean dishes that are Vegetarian friendly, so you know what to look out for. A few foods that I have researched and are typically done (or can be easily done) vegetarian are.
Korea's well known classic rice, egg and vegetable dish, which can be prepared hot or cold. Occasionally Bibimbap will come with meat (gogi) mixed with it, so make sure to specify ahead of time, or you will probably be picking the meat out.
Kong Guk Su 콩국수
Kong Guk Soo is a cold noodle dish typically enjoyed in summer. It is made with a soybean broth, and is usually served with ice, cucumber and sesame seeds. Kong Guk Su is super delicious, especially given how hot it has been this summer.
Juk is Korean rice porridge made by slow boiling rice in water along with other ingredients. Juk is known for being easily digestible, and while it can be quite bland, one can use this to their advantage it and flavor it how they like. Many varieties contain meat, so it's important to find out before ordering. Popular choices for vegetarians would be vegetable, pumpkin, or red bean.
Pajeon are savory Korean pancakes, which can be filled with different vegetables. While there are many different varieties (of which seafood is quite common), it is easy to find meat free varieties such as green onion, kimchi, and potato.
Kimbap is essentially a steamed white rice roll, filled with other ingredients rolled in seaweed. Kimbap rolls are prepared in numerous ways, and can be ordered vegetarian- make sure to specify no meat!
Jjolmyeon is one of the most popular noodle dishes in Korea. The noodles have a chewy texture, and come mixed in a spicy tangy sauce. It is also served cold, and come with a variety of thinly sliced vegetables.
*** A note on Kimchi: Kimchi- Korea's fermented cabbage dish is commonly thought of as vegetarian. However, sometimes Kimchi is flavored with a fermented medley of spices, as well as a seafood/oyster sauce or fish/shrimp paste. Bad news for vegetarians especially eating out in Korean restaurants. My advice would be to exercise a degree of caution depending on how strict of a vegetarian you are.
3. Vegetarian Restaurants
While they are hard to find, the number of vegetarian restaurants in Korea is on the rise. Seeking out a vegetarian restaurant to eat at is a nice break for those looking for a fail-safe option where they can eat comfortably and stress-free. I have heard great things about Loving Hut, a chain of vegetarian restaurants located throughout Korea, which boast "gourmet international cuisine, made with wholesome vegan ingredients." You can find a link to all their locations on their website.
PLANT is a vegan restaurant in Itaewon that I heard of through a popular expat YouTuber named Megan Bowen (check her YouTube channel out). She raved about Plant on her snap chat, specifically their vegan baking- cookies, muffins and cakes.
Insadong is a popular tourist area, which has a plethora of vegetarian restaurants, boasting delicious vegan eats. Osegye Hang is a traditional Korean restaurant (where you take your shoes off and sit on the floor) that does vegetarian barbecue, with plenty of vegetarian side dishes.
I hope this blog gives you a better idea of what life is being a vegetarian in Korea. It may be a big challenge for you during your time in Korea, but can be done successfully if you are willing to put in the effort. Of course, there are a plethora of Western style grocery stores, in which you can easily purchase ingredients to make whatever vegetarian dish you are craving. Enjoy your food, happy eats!