Food in South Korea: Vegetarian Nightmare
Being a vegetarian whilst travelling in Korea was really difficult. It has most definitely been the hardest country to find food with no meat or fish. Even harder than other countries I found difficult such as Taiwan and Brazil. If you share my dilemma, you might want to read about my tales with the food in South Korea.
So I thought I would write this post to help others who are travelling in South Korea.
Most Korean restaurants will serve a few different dishes . . . well. Therefore, if you are looking for a certain type of food then you need to find this type of restaurant.
Why did I find food in South Korea so difficult?
Chaeshickchu means vegetarian in Korea but this does not mean a strict vegetarian but only that you do not eat red meat. In addition, if you do manage to communicate no fish and no white meat, you will find that your food is cooked in bone stock or anchovy stock. Fish is in everything with the food in South Korea – whether the food is actually fish, cooked in a fish broth or is fish looking like other food items such as carrots or potatoes.
If you are wanting to eat local then you are going to have a problem. It’s handy to have a non-vegetarian friend with you to try food in South Korea to check if they have fish in it.
What can I eat?
There are a few traditional food in South Korea, which do not contain meat and fish especially if you make it clear that you don’t want fish sauce or sprinkles on them. Such foods are:
This is a rice and vegetables meal served with an egg on top. If you ask for a vegetable one then it is most likely not to contain fish but just in case make sure you say “no fish”. Also they might add a little meat in as a treat so make sure that when ordering a vegetable one you ensure that you ask for no meat.
Gimbap is strips of pickled vegetables and rice rolled in seaweed. It is very cheap and available on most street markets.This normally has crab, fish or spam in it but can be made without or with tofu in it. However be aware that the fish they put in it looks very much like fried tofu. Be careful.
This is served with most meals and is easily the most popular type of food in South Korea. It’s Korean pickled cabbage in a chilli paste. Most are made with fish sauce so have a sniff before you chew or ask your faithful meat eater friend to try. However there are versions made without shrimp or fish sauce. Ask for No saeujeot 새우젓 (shrimp sauce) or aekjeot 액젓 o(fish sauce)
Vegetable dumplings 소만두
The vegetarian types are somandu and Napjak-mandu which are dumplings containing glass noodles and vegetables. They are typically steamed, fried or boiled.
Potato pancakes 감자 전
Gamja Jon are potato pancakes which contain vegetables. However there are meat versions of these so to ensure they are vegetarian then ask for no meat and no fish.
Mung bean pancake 빈대떡
Nokdu Jeon is a made by grinding soaked Mung beans and then adding things before frying it. Make sure you ask for a vegetable one.
Doenjang Jigae 된장 찌개 is a soup made of doenjang (bean paste) however you have to be careful that seafood or meat is not added and that the stock is not Anchovy water or bone stock.
Watch out for vegetable noodle soup. They will have cooked it with anchovy water and everything in it will taste of fish.
Roast Chestnuts 밤
These are called Bam and are often sold on the street.
Jap chae 잡채
This is cold vegetables and glass noodles. Make sure you ask for no meat as sometimes they will add it as an extra treat.
Deodeok root 더덕
This is a type of bellflower root which is in a spicy sauce and grilled. The texture is slightly meaty but in Korea it is known to have great health benefits therefore the dish is quite expensive.
Where else can I eat?
Check out Buddhist monastery restaurants. They will be slightly more expensive but everything there will be vegetarian.
In the city you will find plenty of foreign food places where there will most likely be a vegetarian option but again make it clear that you want no meat or fish as just because the pepperoni isn’t in the picture or menu doesn’t mean it won’t appear on your food.
If you are with a few meat eaters then check out the BBQ. Here you sit round a table and grill your own meat. You get plenty of side dishes of vegetables and can order additional egg souflee. However I wouldn’t try doing this alone as this is a meat eating establishment.
Loving Hut can be found all over South Korea and sells vegetarian and vegan food in South Korea.
There are also plenty of fast food places such as McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Burger King and so many Baskin Robbins.
Words which might help:
I am vegetarian – Jeoneun chaeshikjooeeja imnida 저는 채식주의자입니다
However this might not help as it commonly means just that you do not eat red meat only.
No meat – eotteon gogiga eobs-seubnida 어떤 고기가 없습니다
No fish – mulgogiga eobsda 물고기가 없다.
Can you make a vegetarian version of this dish – Hoksi i yorireul chaesikjuuijayongeuro mandeureo jusil su innayo? 혹시 이 요리를 (비건) 채식주의자용으로 만들어 주실 수 있나요?
And most of all . . . . good luck!