As a vegetarian headed to South Korea, all I heard was how there was going to be nothing for me to eat in this meat-heavy culture. This led me to head into the trip with a mentality of “whatever, I’ll survive on beer, rice, and kimchi for the next ten days”, #DietofChampions, am I right? As much as I wanted to see if I could turn that into the new, trendy diet, upon arriving in Seoul, I came to find that eating in there as a vegetarian wasn’t as challenging as was rumored.
Although there are a lot of foods cooked in meat or fish broths, and meat or fish tends to sneak its way into certain dishes you might think are vegetarian-friendly, (too often looking like tofu), there are foods other than rice and kimchi for vegetarians to eat.
Having the translation of “I’m a vegetarian” readily available to show servers in restaurants is, as always, extremely helpful to avoid the aforementioned meat or fish sneaking in.
Here are some vegetarian-friendly dishes that I came across in South Korea that are a must try for both meat-eaters and non-meat eaters alike.
Let’s start with this Korean classic. If you don’t know, bibimbap is a medley of vegetables and rice in a special stone pot with a fried egg on top (easily able to be made vegan).
The pot stays hot and makes the rice nice and crispy and keeps everything hot. The heat retained in the pot also helps cook the egg as you mix it through the rice and veggies, adding an additional layer of flavor, making it almost like fried rice.
I have had bibimbap many times before in NYC’s K-Town and the rice was never as delightfully crispy as it was in Korea (don’t @ me, I know they probably use the same pots and it was all probably in my head). This is a dish that can easily have meat added so just specify that you are a vegetarian when ordering.
VEGETARIAN TEMPLE FOOD
Buddhist temple food is always all vegan and is made with the intention of keeping the mind clear. It is made to calm the body and is not supposed to be craved.
On my trip to Korea, we were fortunate enough to do a temple stay at the beautiful Baekyangsa Temple, where renowned monk and “philosopher” chef Jeong Kwan lives (made famous thanks to Chef’s Table on Netflix). Her meals did not disappoint and were nothing like anything I’ve ever tasted.
Jeong Kwan’s food tends to be a mix of a lot of pickled vegetables like lotus root and radishes, sautéed mushrooms, leek fritters, and rice with sweet potato. The flavors are simple, as things like garlic and scallions are never included (they are considered to be aphrodisiacs).
The expression “cooked with love” came to mind when learning about Jeong Kwan’s food, as you can see the care she puts in from the start of growing the vegetables in her garden to arranging her dishes to be served.
Farm to the table also takes on an entirely new meaning as Jeong Kwan lets nature run its course in her garden – including letting pesky bugs take bites out of her vegetables. Jeong Kwan patted me on the head and I’m hoping some of her monk chef magic got passed along and I’ll now be able to cook like her (so far, no luck).
If you are not able to do a temple stay when in South Korea, there are a variety of restaurants that specialize in temple food in and around Seoul, such as Balwoo Gongyang, which even has a Michelin Star. If you follow a strict vegan diet, I recommend eating at some of these as everything on the menu will be safe.
Mayak Gimbap is like veggie sushi and is traditional Korean street food. It translates to narcotic or drug rice roll – the narcotic/drug part because it is considered to be very addicting.
The pickled vegetables (usually carrots, radishes, and cucumbers) rolled in sticky rice and wrapped in seaweed, is indeed, something to crave. There was a subtle, spicy kick to it which I later learned was from a mustard sauce, similar to wasabi.
I had this dish at Gwangjang Market, and it is the perfect light snack…. until you really can’t stop eating it.
Japchae is one of the best things that I ate while in South Korea.
These stir-fried glass, sweet potato noodles with sesame seeds on top are light in texture and feel like they melt in your mouth. They are both sweet and savory which is a nice break from a lot of the spicy dishes Korea is known for.
I had them for the first time at Gwangjang Market. If it wasn’t for all the other delicious foods to try here, I would have probably had at least two bowls. I honestly found japchae to be more addicting than gimbap.
On our last night in Seoul, I saw japchae as a side on the menu of the restaurant we were eating in, so had to order it one more time. It came topped with beef (which was easy to take off if you’re flexible about meat touching your food), so do not assume it always comes vegetarian.
These chewy rice patties pop up a lot in different Korean dishes and reminded me a bit of a very thick pasta. They can also be ordered as a side at most restaurants. Usually, they are covered in gochujang, a spicy, red pepper sauce.
I tried tteok-bokki for the first time at Gwangjang Market and needed to chug some makgeolli (rice wine) because my mouth was on fire. I’ve heard fish can sneak into the sauce with these so just make sure to specify if you are a strict vegetarian or vegan.
One traditional Korean dish that tteok-bokki can be found in is dak galbi. This is a big pot of chicken mixed with vegetables, Korean spices, and melted cheese. Even though I couldn’t really participate in eating this, I was able to pull out a tteok-bokki to get the idea.
Korea has its own version of ramen and it often comes with a slice of cheese on top. It may not sound appetizing, but I can now tell you, from experience it is delicious, especially since cheese is an ingredient not typically used in Korean cooking (and if you’re a cheese lover and have been in Korea for some time are probably missing it).
Ramyun is the same noodles as in ramen and can either be in a spicy soup broth or a spicy sauce like gochujang (the same red pepper sauce that pops up in a lot of Korean cooking). The cheese slice adds some more neutral flavor and helps to cut some of the spicinesses.
The best way to describe ramyun is like a very spicy mac and cheese. There are also a variety of instant ramyun noodles that you can get at any convenience store which makes a great present to bring back home.
The variety of pancakes you can get in Korea is endless. Mung bean, potato, and leek were the ones I liked best.
I had pancakes both as street food and at restaurants. I enjoyed watching the vendors make this right in front of me at the markets and took some mental notes on how to perfect the flip.
In restaurants, these become a good vegetarian option when there is a meat-heavy menu. Pancakes can easily have meat hidden in them so make sure to ask before you order.
A friend of mine who had lived in Seoul for a couple of years mentioned egg bread to me as a must try. I never learned the name of this Korean street food, so thanks to him, I just refer to it as “egg bread”.
It is a fried egg on top of a piece of sweet cornbread. The egg should be the perfect amount of drippy – not too much that it makes a mess but just enough that it soaks into the bread. If you see it, get it.
I did not see egg bread at any of the markets, just serendipitously being sold on the street in both the Insa-Dong and Hongdae neighborhoods. It makes the perfect snack when you are on your feet wandering through the streets of Seoul all day.
Hopefully, this didn’t make you too hungry! As you can see, despite the emphasis on Korean BBQ and meat-heavy dishes, there is a lot to eat in South Korea for vegetarians. Don’t let any dietary restrictions deter you from traveling here.
If you’re planning a trip to South Korea, be sure to try these dishes even if you do eat meat!
We hope that this article has helped inspire you to sample some South Korea vegetarian dishes. If you have any questions about the destination or have your own travel tips to share please leave these in the comments below.
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