Getting by as a vegetarian in Seoul

CNN recently published an article naming Seoul as one of their 10 best vegetarian destinations in the world. I’ve been a vegetarian for 13 years, and have also been fortunate enough to travel fairly extensively in that time. As a result, I’m no stranger to the struggles of finding a meat-free meal – in Cuba, I ate nothing but omelettes for two weeks straight – and I can confirm that Seoul is in fact one of the worst places I’ve been as a vegetarian. I don’t mean to put anyone off the city by saying this; I managed 3 months, and will return without too much of a sense of dread about my diet. However, I’d be lying if I said my first trip wasn’t hard, and hopefully I can share some tips to help other vegetarians get by.

In many cultures, ‘no meat’ is a concept that is impossible to understand, and certain things – usually ham, bacon and even chicken – ‘don’t count’ as meat. This is as true in Korea as anywhere else. I’d read that meat was a staple of Korean diets, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the extent to which this is the case. You’ll find little bits of meat slipped into almost everything, including things you would never have imagined could need such an addition. Furthermore, most Korean restaurants tend to serve one specific type of dish, i.e. a lot of chicken restaurants will only serve different types of fried chicken, many barbecue places will only serve meat (and even here they often have a limited selection of meat, i.e. just 삼겹살/samgyeopsal, pork, or just 불고기/bulgogi, beef), and so on. This can make going out for dinner with non-vegetarians something of a challenge.

However, there are few staple dishes which you should be able to find and eat fairly easily:

Bibimbap at a BBQ restaurant, served in a traditional hot stone bowl. Slightly pricier than usual.
Bibimbap served in a traditional 돌솥 (dolsot, hot stone pot)

The easiest thing to have a vegetarian is probably 비빔밥 (bibimbap), a dish of rice topped with various vegetables and eaten with 고추장 (gochujang, a spicy pepper paste). Often it is served with an egg (raw or fried), though it’s simple enough to order it without and make the dish vegan should you need to. Meat (usually beef) is also a common addition, but if you ask, they can simply omit this as well. Only one restaurant actually served me bibimbap with meat, and it was a barbecue place. This happened every time we went there bar the first (when I took the above photo), even though I asked for it without, and they just took the dish to the side and removed the tiny pieces of beef for me. Not ideal, but I fussily picked out what was left and still enjoyed the meal. I ate bibimbap practically every other day. Despite its simplicity, it’s delicious, and I never got sick of it. Sometimes I would feel a little disheartened that it was, once again, the only thing available to me, but it was always good. I think I ate it so often that, upon returning home, I suffered bibimbap withdrawal.

Another staple is 김밥 (kimbap), rolls of seaweed filled with rice and vegetables (things like pickled radish, carrot, and cucumber). The simplest kimbap also usually contains spam, though I just removed the cubes from each piece before eating. Kimbap is often pre-prepared, especially if you’re buying it on the go – it can be found at many street and station stalls – so it might be necessary to do this. If it has yet to be made, it’ll be easy enough to request it without spam.

Almost every meal in Korea is accompanied by 반찬 (banchan), side dishes set out on the table for all to share. A few of these will probably be seafood, but the rest tend to be different vegetables – anything from pumpkin to pickled radish. Countless dishes are provided with whatever you order, so your fellow diners won’t begrudge you having more than your fill to compensate for your lack of meat. Some places provide more at lunch time than with an evening meal, so it might be worth eating a larger meal during the day. In addition to these dishes, barbecue restaurants also provide cloves of garlic, pieces of onion and so on to have with the meat. If you don’t mind cooking them on the same grill as the strips of meat then these, along with the salad leaves used to wrap the meat, can really add to your otherwise dull meal of plain rice (which is, on multiple occasions, all I was able to eat).

My last meal in Seoul: 치즈순두부찌개 (and lots of soju)

두부 (dubu, tofu). Thankfully, there are a lot of tofu dishes in Korea. However, just because they contain tofu instead of meat doesn’t mean they’re still meat or fish free, so be careful! One restaurant we ate at a lot had a 치즈순두부찌개 (chiju sundubu jjigae, tofu cheese stew) which was my dish of choice. The first time I ordered it it came with anchovies, though, and so after that I (or rather, my friend Min) had to ask for it without, and they would kindly replace the fish with egg without us even requesting it. It’s always worth checking, just to be sure.

Without fail, 김치 (kimchi), which is the nation’s beloved national dish of spicy pickled cabbage, will always be present at every meal. Contrary to what the CNN article I mentioned at the beginning of this post suggests, kimchi is usually made with fish paste, making it not suitable for vegetarians. This isn’t true in every case, but to be safe, I always steered clear. Certain vegetarian restaurants such as those in the Loving Hut chain (see below) serve vegan kimchi, and thanks to such places I was still able to enjoy this crucial part of Korean culture.

While in Seoul I looked up a lot of vegetarian places, but I never got around to visiting too many of them. Often they were expensive and/or far away, or for whatever reason we just never made it to them. My biggest regret is not trying Buddhist temple cuisine. I had intentions to do so in my last week, but by that point I’d almost run out of money and a little research revealed that even lunch would be more expensive than I could afford. I’m also sad not to have eaten at Plant in Itaewon, a vegan bakery which also serves some hot meals. It was recommended to me by a friend, and just a few minutes of looking through their various social media pages had me salivating. Unfortunately, we only went to Itaewon once, and it was before I’d heard about Plant. As the main area for foreigners/ex-pats, Itaewon probably has the most vegetarian and vegan restaurants of all the districts in Seoul. Alien’s Day Out has a good list of vegetarian-friendly places across the city.

Below are a few places I visited which were affordable and served good food:

Jack’s Bean, Hongdae

Falafel sandwiches at Jack's Bean
Falafel sandwiches at Jack’s Bean

A couple of friends wanted to go out for chicken and beer one day, and I tagged along. When asked what I’d like to eat afterwards, I said falafel on a whim, knowing full well I wouldn’t actually be able to satisfy that craving. However, my friend headed to Google, and it turned out there was a falafel restaurant just ten minutes’ walk from where we were. I couldn’t quite believe my luck.

Jack’s Bean is tiny, with just a few small tables inside and a couple more outside. It’s run by a Korean couple, who were the only people working there whenever we returned (which was a fair few times) and were always friendly. The menu and signs inside are all in English. Everything they serve is made from scratch, which is great, but it does take them a while to prepare the food, so try not to arrive when already ravenously hungry; you’ll probably end up waiting another 20/30 mins or thereabouts, even if you’re the only customers.

The food is excellent, though, and well worth the wait. You can have falafel in sandwiches, a wrap, or a salad. They also serve vegetable soups, a chickpea potato dish, and houmous. Everything costs around ₩5000-6000, some things a little more, some a little less. You can save a bit of money if you buy a soup set, which comes with either the wrap or sandwich. They also have a few packets of things like muesli which you can purchase to take away with you. You can buy their falafel mix, too, but it must be preordered. Not every dish they serve is vegan, but they’re very accommodating, and there’s a sign at the counter asking you to let them know if you are so they can prepare the food differently for you.

Overall, I adored this place and would highly recommend it. We went back several times. It’s down some of the more winding, small streets of Hongdae, so it can be a little tricky to find first time around.

Jack's Bean, Hongdae
Jack’s Bean, Hongdae

서울특별시 마포구 서교동 339-1
339-1 Seogyodong, Mapo-gu, Seoul

Nearest subway station: 홍대입구/Hongik University – exit 8

오세계향 (Oh Se Gye Hyang) Vegetarian Restaurant, Insadong

오세계향 Vegetarian Restaurant
오세계향 Vegetarian Restaurant

Frustratingly, it took poor Anisa and I an hour to find this damn restaurant, due to its being located down some winding back alleys, of which there are an abundance in Insadong. (Of course it didn’t help that I apparently can’t read a map to save my life, a realisation I stubbornly came to in Seoul after it took us twice as long as it should to get pretty much anywhere.) Anyway, once you find it, the food is worth it, even if the inside is a little weird.

Though not technically a Loving Hut branch, it’s run by the same people. As a result, the entrance is full of strange, propaganda-type books and pictures, and inside, the otherwise pleasant interior of traditional tables and beautiful upholstery is a little destroyed by the art and artefacts belonging to Ching Hai, who is the ‘Supreme Master’ of a weird ‘spiritual movement’ and heavily involved with Loving Hut. There are screens on every wall playing bizarre videos of her and her followers, with subtitles in every language imaginable crammed into the shot. It’s all a bit cult-like, but if you know what to expect before you arrive, it’s probably easier to deal with it all. We had no idea, and laughed our way (somewhat uneasily) through the meal. The food is delicious, though, and if you have some good company, you’ll be fine.

Much to my surprise, most of the customers were Korean. The menu lists dishes in English, and there’s a huge variety – so huge, in fact, that I spent far too long poring over the menu, amazed that I could eat every single thing listed. It’s not too pricey; I probably spent somewhere around ₩12,000-15,000 for lunch, but that’s because I ordered more than one dish. What I found exciting was that the restaurant makes traditional Korean dishes with soy meat, and I ordered Korean barbecue-style ‘meat’ with vegetables and rice, as well as some dumplings. The dumplings could have been better, but my main dish was excellent. We got banchan, too, including vegan kimchi, which I was incredibly excited to try. (Anisa tells me it was just like regular kimchi, though a little spicier than normal)

Dumplings at 오세계향
Dumplings at 오세계향
Korean-style vegetarian barbeque at 오세계향

 

Overall, though the dining experience was quite bizarre given the owners of the restaurant, the food was good and it was certainly a novelty to have so much to choose from.

서울특별시 종로구 인사동12길 14-5 (관훈동)
14-5, Insadong 12-gil, Jongno-gu, Seoul

Nearest subway station: 안국/Anguk – exit 6

Google Maps isn’t too helpful in locating this place, and given how lost I got, it’s probably best to follow the directions listed here instead of any I could give you: ‘Anguk station (Seoul Subway Line 3), Exit 6. Go straight for 80m to arrive at Crown Bakery and turn left. Go straight for 150m along Insadong-gil. Turn left and go straight for 70m along Insadong 12-gil.

Loving Hut (Rainbow Branch), Sinchon

Though this branch serves dishes they have at Oh Se Gye Hyang, the atmosphere is much more of a fast food restaurant, both because of the interior and due to the addition of things like burgers to the menu. Though there are elements of Ching Hai propaganda, it’s nowhere near on the level as I’ve described above, and it feels like a normal restaurant.

The first time I visited it was a Saturday evening, and it was busy, with almost all of the customers foreigners. The four of us ordered several dishes and shared between us (and as the only vegetarian, I ordered a burger for myself in addition, just for good measure). The guy behind the counter was a little baffled by the sheer amount of food we were ordering, and it took a while for it to all get churned out; each dish was ready at a different time. This is understandable given how busy it was, though. We got a lot of food, but I only paid ₩10,000. I returned a few days later, around 4pm on a weekday, and with only a couple of other customers present, our food was ready within minutes.

Overall, Rainbow Branch provides the same food (plus burgers!) with a much less creepy experience than its sister, Oh Se Gye Hyang. It’s far easier to find, too; come out of exit 2 of Sinchon station and walk straight, in the direction of Severance Hospital. It’s on the left, towards the end of the street (before the big church on the right).

Loving Hut Rainbow Branch, Sinchon

35, Yonsei-ro, Seodaemun-gu, Seoul
서울특별시 서대문구 연세로 35 (창천동)

Nearest subway station: 신천/Sinchon – exit 2

Other branches of Loving Hut in Seoul

Indian food

I’d like to be able to list at least one good Indian restaurant, but we only had Indian food once, in Hongdae. This is because we were on a considerably limited budget, and it’s pretty expensive at every restaurant, at least comparatively speaking. The one place we actually went to – the name escapes me, but it was just along from Daiso – wasn’t amazing, and when we arrived, we were the only people. Two Korean girls came in a little later, but that’s as busy as it got. The dishes were expensive to begin with, yet you had to pay extra for rice. However, this was the first time since arriving in Seoul that I’d looked at a menu and been able to eat more than one thing, and the excitement combined with my hunger (surprise, surprise, it had taken us a long time to find…) gave me hiccups. I had a vegetable curry, naan bread, and samosas, and it cost me close to ₩20,000.

However, I don’t want my one experience with Indian food to put you off. Generally, it’s supposed to be pretty good; you just have to be prepared to fork out for it. There was an Indian restaurant, Sitara, very close to our hostel in Hapjeong, but it was expensive. I’ve read some excellent things about it, though, and I’ll be sure to try it out when I’m next in Seoul.

So, is it possible to get by as a vegetarian in Seoul?

Yes. Is it hard? Yes. I was fortunate in that we were often accompanied to dinner by our friend Min, who could enquire about dishes for me and translate my dietary needs. In a few places, however, it was even a struggle from him as a native speaker to explain that I couldn’t have meat or fish. Don’t despair, though – even when alone, I managed to communicate my needs, usually through the medium of somewhat crude Korean, i.e. pointing at something on the menu and asking ‘is there meat?’. Eventually, with the help of patient waiters and broken sentences, I would manage to order something edible, and more often than not, it was delicious. Meat and fish are used in almost everything, though, and just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean that it isn’t present. I’m sure I consumed stews with non-vegetarian broths, sauces with meat bases, etc., and I know I unintentionally ate spam and ham on several occasions. I entered the country as a fairly strict vegetarian, but as the weeks progressed, my rule kind of became ‘as long as it doesn’t have huge chunks of meat in, I’ll eat it.’ I know this isn’t ideal for everyone (to tell you the truth, I didn’t realise I would be able to become that relaxed), and so my advice to strict-as-can-be vegetarians would be: prepare to eat a lot of bibimbap, stick to vegetarian restaurants, and cook for yourself. To less strict vegetarians: prepare to eat a lot of bibimbap.

And never fear: you can eat delicious cakes, pastries and wonderful breaded items such as the one below to your heart’s content! (These will get a post all of their own at some point)

Honey bread
Honey bread

A few useful words/phrases:

고기 – gogi – meat

해물 – haemul – seafood

생선 – saengseon – fish

돼지고기 –dwaeji gogi – pork

소고기 – so gogi – beef

닭고기 – tak gogi – chicken

야채 – yachae – vegetable

두부   dubu  tofu

알레르기 – allerugi – allergy

채식주의자 – chae-shik-ju-ui-ja – vegetarian

저는 채식주의입니다 – cheonun chae-shik-ju-ui-im-ni-da – I’m a vegetarian

저는 ____ 못 먹어요 – cheonun ____ mot meogeoyo – I can’t eat ____

____ 빼주세요 – ____ bbae juseyo – please remove ____

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