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Question from a reader: being vegetarian / vegan in Korea?

May 28, 2011 - Chris Backe

A reader writes in:

Hi, Chris,

I have a question.  I’m interested in traveling to Korea this fall, and am learning Korean to prepare, but have one concern about the trip:  I’m vegetarian.
How difficult is it to eat in Korea if you do not eat meat, fish, or eggs (allergy to eggs)?
Thanks for your help,
[S.W.]

Hi S.W.,

Going vegetarian or vegan is somewhat difficult, but manageable. Assuming you’re already familiar with what to watch out for, that makes the job a little easier – and there are a couple great bloggers out there living the vegan / vegetarian lifestyle. More on them in a second.

While not personally a vegetarian, I’ve noticed anecdotally that the profile is rising, especially among the expat community. More restaurants now feature some sort of the vegetarian option – yet another reason to keep your eyes open while traveling! The restaurants that don’t offer a vegetarian option can often adapt their recipes to your requests. I mention several phrases to make requests and ask questions in my recent book, Korean Made Easy (shameless self-plug) – here are a few of them:

I’m a Buddhist – 나는 불교에요 – na-neun bul-gyo-eh-yo. This white lie usually gets the message across that you’re seeking a completely vegan meal.
I’m a vegetarian.  저는 채식주의자입니다 (jeo-neun chae-sik-ju-ui-ja-ib-ni-da).
I can’t eat …  … 못 먹어요. (…mot-meok-eo-yo.)

Fellow blogger Kimchi Soul has some excellent advice and a couple more phrases in a recent post: Coggi anmigoyo (I don’t eat meat – 고기안미고요) and kyeran baego (without egg – 계란배고) are also useful. He also notes that gochujang (red pepper paste) and doenjang (soybean paste) are completely vegan and “are both versatile enough to be used as dipping sauces, to make stews, and to flavour side dishes.” You may know that Korean restaurants – especially those serving samgyeopsal (strips of pork) offer up lots of banchan (side dishes) to go with the meat. If you’re ok with being around meat and meat-lovers, accompany them to the samgyeopsal restaurant and fill up on the usually-ignored banchan.

A couple other bloggers to add to your reading list are Alien’s Day Out (http://www.aliensdayout.com/) and Vegetarian in Korea (http://www.vegetarianinkorea.com). The former has an emphasis on making vegan food and visiting restaurants, while the latter (last posting August 2010) primarily reviewed vegetarian restaurants. A 2006 post from Mary Eats is still useful today – offering information on the standard menus for Gimbap restaurants (Gimbap Cheonguk, Gimbap Nara, etc. – sort of like burger places in the Western world, they have many of the same things on their menus at much the same prices).

It’s certainly not effortless, and the language barrier can be an issue, but a number of people are successfully living – and thriving – as vegetarians in Korea.

Readers, been to any good vegan / vegetarian restaurants recently?

Agoda

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