Korea is a very tough place to be a vegetarian/vegan. The cuisine in almost every Korean restaurant is very meat heavy. Even if you do manage to order a meatless dish, there might be sauces or broths which are not vegetarian. For a vegetarian/vegan person, who does not speak Korean and plans to spend a few days in Korea, thinking about food options can be quite an intimidating prospect. However, one good trend in recent times is that the concept of vegetarianism is growing in Korea and at the same time, there is a little bit of familiarity with Buddhism (hardcore Buddhists tend to be vegetarian). So there is a a little bit of awareness on what vegetarian means, though it is almost non-existent. However, by having the right information on hand and understanding the vegetarian options that exist, a vegetarian person can find his/her way through the Korean food scene. The following are few helpful tips that can help you survive Korea as a vegetarian:
1) Learn to say I’m vegetarian in Korean
To say “I am a vegetarian” in Korean, you have to say “Chae-sig-ju-wei-ja-yae-daa” or write down in Korean characters – 저는 채식주의자예요
2) Print the following images and show them to your server while ordering
* if you have trouble printing the images below directly, then you can copy paste these images below onto a word document and then print*
Following are phrases that can be used to explain dietary restrictions, and what you can and cannot eat. They are written in English and Korean characters, and each card is the size of a Korean 10K won note. They are courtesy of this blog.
Below is a checklist that you can customize to communicate what you can and cannot eat:
3) Check out these websites/blogs
4) Plan for a few options beforehand
While you cannot always expect to know exactly where and when you will eat, try to keep a list of few vegetarian restaurants in the area that you are going to visit. To create a list, use the following websites:
- Here is a list of vegetarian restaurants on the official Korea Tourism Website
- Another list on tripadvisor for Seoul based veg friendly restaurants
- A popular facebook group of Vegetarians and Vegans in Korea
- A crowd-sourced map with vegetarian joints marked on the map
- I-Herb, an e-commerce company based out of California offers vegetarian food, and has a presence in Korea in terms of local shipping partners. So, now you can have vegetarian food delivered to your hotel or accommodation too.
5 ) Eat at these types of restaurants
Loving Hut – A chain of vegan restaurants which serves food made completely meat free (they have some “meat” dishes on their menu, but it is “fake meat”)
Temple cuisine – Eat what buddhist monks would eat at temples, all vegetarian. You can try to find other temples which serve food, as chances of it being vegetarian are high. You can find more such temples here.
Insa Dong – Insa-Dong alley has a temple which serves vegetarian food.
Indian Restaurants – Indian cuisine has lots of vegetarian options. You can never go wrong with this option, and the food can be delicious too.
Coffee Shops/Cafes – A sandwich, a cake, or muffins can often be found in such places. You might even be tempted to try out local tea and coffee flavours.
Italian Restaurants/Pizza Places – A simple pasta, a spaghetti, or a cheese/veggie pizza is a safe bet anywhere in the world, and Korea is no different. Just make sure the pasta sauce has no meat.
Supermarkets – Do a shopping run at any E-Mart/Lotte Mart/other supermarket, as they would stock western and imported foods. Look for items that can be identified easily as vegetarian (e.g. fruits, veggies, bread, pasta, snacks, etc)
6) Try these Korean vegetarian dishes
Kimchi ( 김치 ) – A classic Korean dish, marinated cabbage with garlic and chili. Many times there is fish sauce that is also present in the Kimchi. So, you will have to be certain that your kimchi is free of fish sauce and fully vegetarian.
Bibimbap ( 비빔밥 ) – Another classic, this dish is basically a bowl of rice and vegetables lightly stir fried and served in a stone bowl. Bib-im-bap is so famous in Korea, that they even have a annual festival in Jeonju every year celebrating this dish. Be careful when you order, as Koreans like to put small pieces of meat at the bottom. Sometimes they put a piece of crab on top or even an egg (in case you do not consume eggs). So make sure you communicate what kind of bibimbap you want.
Pajeon ( 파전 ) – Jeon means pancake and Pajeon is a pancake made of green onions. Jeon is often served as appetizer or “banchan”. These pancakes are basically made with flour batter, but they may be coated with egg batter many a times. So, please clarify if you do not consume eggs.
Gamja Jeon ( 감자 전 ) – Another pancake, Gamja Jeon is made of grated potato. Still a good vegetarian option, but watch out for egg batter coating. Clarify before you order in case you do not consume eggs. Otherwise another great option.
Bam ( 밤 ) – These are roasted chestnuts and a very popular street food. They can be consumed like snacks.
7) More resources
- A slideshare with useful info : http://www.slideshare.net/kozazacom/seoul-official-dining-guide-for-vegetarians