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I can’t eat that… a vegan’s guide to Korean food (vegetarianism in Korea)

Vegetarianism.

If you are 1 in 5 billion people that are vegan (these are verifiable facts here, people), you must be:

1) Angry at something, or
2) Conscientious of something that doesn’t quite sit with you.

Either way, you have chosen a meat-free life that has almost exclusively alienated all of your closest friends and family. Great job! You will continue to live this lifestyle until you are a tired, old, cynical shell of a human being that is known more for vulgarity than eco-friendliness. Wow! I can’t wait to subject my own children one day to this Hollywood-esque lifestyle!

Hey, I’m okay with it. But many vegetarians react to their diet defensively almost like being accused of racism. “But I have lots of meat-eating friends!” Sure, that‘ll convince them that you don’t secretly hate them.

So, somewhere along 37°35′N and 127°’E, there lies a country where vegetarianism isn’t as strange as you might expect. Korean people are indeed eating more meat now, but there is a long-standing history of vegetarian cuisine. Granted, their reasons for a meat-free diet aren’t the same as most western vegetarians, but regardless, let’s go over some key phrases and more importantly, how exactly vegetarianism works for Koreans.

Korean Vegan Vegetarian Food Korea

I’m here to tell you that it blows my mind how Koreans look at the abstinence of meat or other animal products. In America, I simply have to tell someone “Oh, I’m a vegan” or “Oh, I don’t eat meat. No thank you”. Some people ask what exactly is a vegan, but most just take a moment to wrap their head around that idea. “…there goes the Whopper, the Big Mac…” but generally, most Americans understand the idea in general. Every so often, someone remarks “Well you can still eat quesadillas or fried eggs at least” In which case you can simply point out that for many vegetarians and all vegans, those foods are like Paris Hilton - you just don’t want to touch that. Some people get defensive (because come on, who wants to feel like a murderer of sweet little chickens?), others attempt to find common ground (”That’s cool - last year for lent I gave up hamburgers” ) while others are simply baffled (”Well, then what can you eat?”). But really, when you look at the psychology behind the responses, all of them indeed recognize the philosophical aspect - it becomes like a koan - an unanswerable question or riddle.

But with Koreans, it really doesn’t matter. You can tell the cook “채식주의자임니다” all day long and it really doesn’t mean anything. He will still give me 오징어 or some other 반찬 that clearly contains meat. I find it more useful to order food using a three-step process.

  1. say which food you want
  2. say what you don’t want in it
  3. then tell them you are a vegetarian.

This formula usually gives the person taking the order a logical process to absorb the reason. “He wants this, without this, because this”. I also like to add this little ditty in. “고기를 못먹어요” This means “I can’t eat meat” as opposed to the more commonly heard “고기를 안먹어요” “I don’t eat meat”. The latter phrase implies that you may or may not eat meat, but as for right now, you don’t want to eat meat.

Speaking of meat, the idea of vegetarianism encompasses a plethora of meat. This is generally understood to include bacon, pork, chicken, beef, fish, etc. In Korea, it’s not this way. You pretty much have to specifically say what you don’t want/can’t eat. All too many times I have told the 아저씨 that I am a vegetarian, I can’t eat meat, I can’t eat fish - and I STILL get a steaming hot bowl of 순두부찌개 with happy little 해산물 floating in it. From an American mindset it makes me think “What exactly did you think I was talking about it when I said no fish?” His response: “Shrimp isn’t fish. Clam isn’t fish”. He’s a sweet guy though so I don’t let it bother me. More than anything, I just feel embarrassed that he has to make another one. After all, I’m not there to get anyone mad or upset or preach my values - I just wanted some food.

Also, I would strongly recommend giving the 아주머니 or 아저씨 a little credit. Admit it, you have an accent. It might take them a while to understand you as it is. Also, you’re messing with their menu. Exceptions to dishes are not as common in Korea as it is in America. In America, we can order a cheeseburger with no lettuce, extra pickles, no sesame seed bun, and extra cooked and it not be a big deal. In Korea, it is slightly unusual to make changes to a menu item. They are likely used to people just saying “김밥 주세요” and that’s all. So try to order things that are already pretty close to being animal-free but need only a little tweaking.

Here’s a little formula to remember. (모모) 안먹어요. Replace (모모) with anything you don’t want in your stomach.

  • 고기 - beef
  • 해산물 - seafood
  • 물고기 - fish (also 생선)
  • 새우 - shrimp
  • 계란 - egg
  • 햄 - ham
  • 조개 - clam (also 대함)
  • 낙지 - octopus
  • 오징어 - squid

Keep in mind that many dishes are naturally vegan while others can be modified. Most 순두부찌개 comes with 해산물 (seafood) but as long as you point out to the server that you can’t eat 해산물, you can enjoy the spicy goodness that is 순두부찌개. Also, if you are unsure if a menu item has meat in it, you can ask “고기 있어요?” There is another phrase I use and has been met with huge success. “고기빼고 해 주세요” means “Leave out the meat”. Insert anything you don’t want in your food instead of meat and you have a perfectly good formulaic phrase! But keep in mind, it kind of depends on the food. This is appropriate if the restaurant makes its 짜장면 sauce separate from the beef topping. However, many places cook the beef in the black bean sauce in which case you should order something else.

The word 야채 (vegetables) is sometimes placed in front of something to indicate that it is devoid of animal products. I would like to remind you that not everyone considers 계란 (egg) an animal product. In which case, the 야채비빔밥 while likely still have a bright and smiling egg right on top to greet you. However, I am usually pleasantly surprised that 버섯 순두부 찌개 (mushroom tofu jjigae) oftentimes comes completely meat-free without any special requests. Score!

I leave you with a few suggestions. I hesitate to list some non-standard dishes because I don’t want to get anyone’s hope up. The following dishes are pretty common and well known.

  • 돌솥 야채 비빔밥 (or just simply 돌솥비빔밥 minus egg and beef)
  • 비빔 국수 (minus egg on top)
  • 비빔 냉면 (minus egg on top)
  • 떡뽂이 (careful here - usually there’s 오댕 mixed in - it’s your call)
  • 버섯 순두부 찌개 (or just 순두부찌개 minus seafood)
  • 김밥 (carefully poke out ham, crab, egg - these are usually pre-made so no special ordering here)
  • 김차 김밥 (minus the egg and you’re all set)
  • 매운고추김밥 (if you can stand the heat - one of my favorites!)
  • 쫄면 (minus egg on top - careful - quite spicy - but oh so delicious)
  • 빔치파전 (batter contains egg - not vegan friendly)
  • 된장 찌개 (minus seafood)
  • 김치 찌개 (varies - may contain pork, tuna, or other meats - just ask)
  • 야채 민두 (my veggie dumplings will rock your socks)
  • 의김치 (my personal favorite)

So maybe you don’t eat because of animal rights. Maybe you are trying to reduce your eco-footprint. Maybe you are trying to get closer to the source of energy in your foods - take on a more natural approach. Maybe you just want a lighter meal. Either way, it is 100% possible to live a vegan lifestyle in Korea. However, one must realize, though that you will be eating out less than your meat-eating friends. It’s just like in America. I don’t really eat out much; I go out to eat maybe twice a week. I most generally cook and eat at home. Although I must admit, I find it so much easier to eat vegan Korean food than I do vegan American food. Plus veggie Korean food is guaranteed hippie-free!  Bonus!

My advice? Grow tough skin, be confident, and dust your shoulders off if you get some uneatable food served to you. Always remain polite about your choice of foods and people will learn to respect your decisions instead of dread your patronage. I was a vegetarian/vegan for years and years and I always found a way. If nothing, I hope this guide will get you going in the right direction.
Thoughts?

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