Three months ago, after an interesting turn of events and a pre-midlife crisis, I found myself back in South Korea. I had lived here eight years ago as an omnivore but this was my first time braving this land, so well known for its barbeque and seafood, as a vegan.
I suspected it would be a challenge and my suspicions were confirmed. Finding my way in Korea as a vegan has been a steep learning curve and one that presents new challenges on a daily basis. With Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” as my theme song and an acute awareness that I’ve dedicated myself to being a vegan lifer, I got through the first couple of trying months. As it turns out, it’s not as hard as I initially believed.
Food, food everywhere… but not a bite to eat
It’s true that Korea has as many restaurants and cafes as Quaker has oats, so you would think it would be possible for a vegan to find something to eat. It is – if you know what you’re looking for.
When I first got here I would wander the streets hungry and exasperated by the barrage of meat pictures displayed by restaurants in every direction. I felt like the Ancient Mariner; substitute the ocean for a sea of carcass selling establishments. I knew there were some dishes I could veganize by request but I didn’t know the words in Korean and I was plagued by a memory from eight years ago when I thought I was ordering rice and tomato sauce only to get a dish full of squid tentacles. My lesson: learn the language required to request vegan dishes and don’t be afraid to use it.
Lesson learned. I had a co-worker write down “I don’t eat meat, eggs, fish or dairy” in Korean and when I felt brave enough, I entered a small restaurant and apprehensively showed the staff my request when ordering what has now become my staple Korean dish, dol sot bibimbap. To my delight, the sizzling stone pot filled with rice and local veggies was set down on my table, meat and egg free. Success! I have since become proficient at making this request in Korean and it comes vegan style every time.
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One of the reasons I chose to live in Seoul was because I knew it would be easier to find fellow vegans and vegan friendly foods and restaurants here than in any other Korean city. Facebook has been an excellent avenue for hooking me up with the Seoul Veggie club and the Seoul Vegan Potluck group which hosts monthly potlucks in different restaurants in Seoul. This has been my main vegan connection and through the potluck I’ve met many passionate vegans with whom I can share the challenges of being vegan in this meat-loving country. “You got spam in your kimbap after requesting no meat too?” Together we can laugh about the silly things such as spam and fish not being considered meat by many well-meaning restaurant staff members.
Through my fellow foreign vegans I’ve also learned where to purchase some vegan essentials as well as where to find vegan/vegetarian restaurants in Seoul. It’s very reassuring to talk to people who have successfully lived in Korea as vegans and to pick their brains for ways in which they’ve managed. They’ve introduced me to things like “iherb,” a website with sundry vegan products which can be delivered to Korea for a very low price.
My vegan friends have also introduced me to the go-to blog for vegans in Seoul: Alien’s Day Out. Written by Mipa, a Korean who spent the majority of her life living abroad, the blog is a wealth of information on vegan and vegan friendly eateries in Seoul as well as fantastic recipes. Alien’s Day Out was my beacon of vegan light as I scrambled to find my way during my first couple of weeks here. Through it, I’ve found places like Garobee Buffet, a Korean food restaurant with all my fave Korean dishes done vegan and, of course, Loving Hut where not only can I eat my heart out, but I can also find a variety of vegan products, and their staple, texturized vegetable protein (TVP). Alien’s Day Out is also a bakeshop which supplies goodies to several cafes and stores in Seoul. I now know exactly where to go when I’m jonesin’ for a chocolate cupcake.
Local dishes and produce
One of the coolest things about living in a foreign country is discovering local dishes and food items that are practically non-existent back home. Because I had lived in Korea before, I mistakenly assumed that I had seen it all. But all I had to do was open my eyes to see that there is vegan goodness to be found everywhere. For example, Buddha’s birthday is a major holiday here. I took the opportunity to visit a large temple where I knew there would be some vegan dishes being sold as part of the celebrations. Buddhist food is often vegan as the Buddhist philosophy is all about non-violence (as a side note there are many stellar temple food restaurants here in Seoul that are of course, all vegan). A lot of the food stalls were selling this brownish jelly resembling a discolored, opaque jello. Highly appealing, I know. I had seen it before but discounted it as I associated it with gelatin. Upon further examination, I came to know this jiggly substance as dotori muk, or acorn jelly – a great source of protein in addition to being a common Korean diet food because of its low caloric density. As well as my discovery of this new source of protein, I was also blessed with a bowl of free vegan temple noodles. It was, indeed, a Buddha’s birthday miracle.
These days I probably get a little too excited scouring the Korean supermarkets for interesting produce. I always find a variety of greens, most of which I don’t know the names of, but some of which are clearly labeled such as the “green pumpkin” which actually looks more like zucchini than pumpkin. Perhaps something was lost in translation…There’s such an amazing variety of veggies here that I can experiment with something different every day. An added bonus is that shitake and king oyster mushrooms (my fave!) are ridiculously cheap here.
Whenever someone here finds out I’m vegan, their first reaction is “that must be hard”. Being vegan anywhere definitely comes with its challenges, which in Korea are amplified. I’ve learned, however, not to sweat the small things. Sure, I am sometimes brought dishes with meat after requesting it be vegan. Yes, I have on occasion come home starving from work only to eat a chunk of raw tofu with soy sauce for lack of anything else in my fridge while my co-workers were are all out eating galbi. It comes with the territory. Being able to stay true to my highest values in a country where such morals are barely recognized, let alone supported, heightens my connection to veganism and grounds me even further in the knowledge that there’s no turning back from this conscious way of living.