I knew moving to Korea would prove a major challenge but never considered the challenge my vegetarian diet would create during my stay. I didn’t know it then but in August 2011, I left behind many conveniences – delicious vegetarian friendly restaurants, inexpensive produce, and like-minded friends who loved to host brunches. After my arrival, I realized that I’d taken these luxuries for granted. Nothing has come easy – with a language barrier to boot!
With the help of vegetarian friends in Korea, online research, and personal experience, I’ve put together some tips for vegans and vegetarians. With a few suggestions, hopefully the next time your company dinner is at the local samgyupsal joint, you won’t be in the corner munching on lettuce.
1) Make a Korean friend. If you’re new and haven’t started learning the language here, it will help to have a quick card to show someone at a restaurant. Ask your new friend to write in Hangeul exactly what you want to say to the server. As soon as I arrived, I asked my orientation leader to make a card for me translating to “I’m vegetarian. I don’t eat any meat including beef, chicken, or fish.” This didn’t get me too far for long because many times, I was served food with tiny pieces of beef or with lots of seafood. To some people, a tiny piece of meat isn’t meat at all and neither is seafood. Having this note card was a good start for those first few restaurants I visited with friends.
*having Korean friends also almost inevitably means that they or their moms will want to cook for you! (see above)
2) Learn Korean. To avoid those tiny pieces of meat and seafood, or to request something specific, your special diet will be just what you need to push you forward in learning the Korean language. Here are some helpful expressions found on a YouTube clip from a popular vlogger and vegetarian living in Seoul, ExpatKerri. You can watch her video here.
Useful Vegetarian Expressions:
* Kogi baego juseyo /고기 빼고 주세요/ directly “Meat take out give me please”
but it means “Please take the meat out”.
* Haemul baego juseyo / 해물 빼고 주세요/ directly “Seafood take out give me please” but it means “Please take out the seafood”.
* Kogi an mogoyo /고기 안먹어요/ directly “Meat don’t eat” but it means “I don’t eat meat”.
* Haemul an mogoyo /해물 안먹어요/ directly “Seafood don’t eat” but it means “I don’t eat seafood”.
-dubu /두부/ tofu
-gochu /고추/ chili peppers
-kong /콩/ beans
-deul ggae /들깨/ sesame leaves
Ordering at a galbi restaurant:
—One order of rice please: “Bap hana juseyo.” /밥 하나 주새요/
—One soybean soup please: “Dwenjang jjigae hana juseyo.” /됀장 찌개 하나 주새요/
—One egg soup please: “Gyeran tang hana juseyo.” /계란탕 하나 주새요/
3) Find other vegans and vegetarians. As a lover of travel and connecting with others, I’ve used CouchSurfing the past 6 years. With advanced search features, I simply searched the city of Ulsan and in the advanced search bar, typed “vegan” and “vegetarian”. I was able to find a vegan in Ulsan! And get this, she told me there were others! Right away, we planned a vegan/vegetarian potluck dinner. Even meat eaters enjoyed and praised the feast. After connecting with them, I kept searching. Next was Facebook. I found the Seoul Veggie Club. Folks are always posting about new restaurants, group gatherings, and delicious recipes. There was even a huge vegan potluck hosted by the group in one of Yonsei University’s large kitchens.
4) Cook. If you’re a vegan or vegetarian, I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir. However, living in Korea, I’m cooking more than ever. Fruit and vegetables are much more expensive but it’s a price I’ve become willing to pay. Well, not an 11,000 won mango. (Save your money and there will be trips to the Philippines for mango and avocado gorge sessions!)
5) Buy herbs for your window. They make your apartment feel cozy, plus you can get lots of cooking use out of them. My pasta has improved since I bought my first potted plant.
6) Bring your lunch. I work at a public school. After 2 weeks of eating rice and kimchii, I needed to request I bring my own lunch. I had to type a short letter explaining the situation. From then on, it’s been delicious dinner leftovers or the occasional PB&J, which brings me to number seven.
7) Peanut Butter & Jelly. Buy some. It was my saving grace in the beginning. Most HomePlus stores carry both. Many of the peanut butters here are loaded with sugar, which I don’t care for, so I had a friend ship some Trader Joe’s natural peanut butter from home. I’m almost out, if you’re reading this in the States. *hint hint.
8) Tofu. Again, buy some. You can buy it at any Korean grocery, supermarket, and even in the street markets. Put it in your soup or fry it for that delicious stir fry. Maybe you could marinate in some orange juice, roasted garlic, and sea salt then pan fry it to stuff in that mmm mmm good taco you’ve missed so much. Do whatever you like with it. I don’t care, but it’s a vegetarian’s dream and it’s everywhere. Enjoy!
9) Find vegetarian restaurants. My favorite vegan restaurant is The Loving Hut. It’s an international chain and can be found in many cities all over Korea. Yes, even in Ulsan! At most of the restaurants, you can buy frozen soy protein vegefood products and other various vegan ingredients. They have an English user friendly website. Here is a list of the restaurant locations in Korea.
Ulsan Online just posted a review about a vegan restaurant in the city. I can’t wait to check out. Anybody want to join me?
Alien’s Day Out is a vegan bakery that delivers anywhere in Korea from Seoul.
Gringo’s Burritos delivers frozen burritos in Korea and offers a veggie burrito and can also fulfill special requests to make vegetarian breakfast burritos. You can order from their website. For more information, read Ulsan Online’s article.
A few more of my favorite vegetarian friendly restaurants:
Kraze Burger, located on the 12th floor of the Hyundai Department Store in Samsan-dong, has a great tofu burger with dark leafy greens. Ask for no cheese or sauce and make it vegan!
Namaskar Indian restaurant, with two locations, has unbelievable naan, mushroom curry, and paneer mutter (just to name a few).
The White House in Dong-gu has falafel! Enough said.
Lastly, you can also use these helpful vegan/vegetarian search engines
10) Ddeokbokki. Whoops. I couldn’t come up with 10 tips so I figured I’d give my last tip to all those fish eating readers. Dear pescatarians, your diet will be difficult to maintain here, but not nearly as much as those strict vegans and vegetarians. A whole article could be written about the seafood available to you in this coastal city. I’ve decided to leave you with one tip. You can eat ddeokbokki on the street for as little as 1,000 won and can fill up for 2,500 won. It’s a little spicy, with pounded rice cylinders, fish cake, and onions – a winter staple for many Koreans. Ask for mandu on the side for an extra 500-1000 won (it’s vegetarian). You’ll thank me later.
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