I have some experience of being a vegetarian in a foreign country other than Korea. One of my strongest memories of holidays as a child is of eating assiette de frite after assiete de frite in that most meat loving countries, France. That was on holiday however, and spending a year in a country is different.

Yum Yum

I must admit that I really like Korean food. Not so much that I’d want to eat it for every meal every day, but enough that I know that I will sporadically eat it for the rest of my life regardless of where I am. When I came to Korea in the winter of 2009 I was an avid meat eater. As such, I found that Korea had a cuisine that was more than adequately varied for my tastes. In October of last year however I made the decision to become a veggie (not for the first time: I spent 7 years as one as a youth). The effect that this change had on my eating habits was dramatic to say the least. Although the changes were not altogether bad, it did present some problems when it came to negotiating dinner time. Korea is a country that loves its meat, and it is not entirely accepting of those who choose the way of the carrot. Vegetarianism isn’t exactly an alien concept to Koreans, thanks mostly to the Buddhist influence on society, but sometimes it certainly feels as though it is. Consequently, even without the language barrier, navigating Korean cooking can be tricky.

Language – Some Basic Useful Phrases for the Vegetarian in Korea

(Sadly, I don’t have a Korean keyboard so I will romanise as best I can the Korean words.)

  1. I’m a vegetarian – Na Nun Jae-shik-Ju-ee-Ja
  2. I don’t eat meat of seafood – hae-mool hago, gog-ee an-mogoyo
  3. Does the […….] Have meat in it? – […………] goggee iss-o-yo?
  4. No meat – goggee op-soh-yo

Eating out

Due to the sheer number of cheap restaurants in Korea, eating out is a part of my daily routine. It is often much cheaper to spend 4000 won (£2.50) at a restaurant, than it is to buy and prepare food for myrself.

Kimchi Bokkeumbap

In Korea there are roughly types of restaurant: traditional (where you sit on the floor and everyone eats the same dish), fusion (kind of a café vibe where you can order individual dishes) and western (as opposed to eastern, rather than where cowboys eat). Western restaurants are as you’d expect, although the y are expensive and it is an awkward experience to eat there on your own. Easily your best veggie bet is at the fusion style restaurants where you can almost certainly find something vegetarian such as Kimchi iBokkeumbap (fried rice with Kimchi) or the bibimbap (a rice of rice and assorted cold vegetables with a chilli paste). Just be sure to check that they don’t contain some form of subtle meat.

Bibimbap

Easily the most fraught with fleshy danger are the traditional Korean restaurants. This is mostly because they only serve one specific kind of meat. Thus going to a beef restaurant and enquiring about vegetarian options will almost inevitably result in a bowl of disappointment (or plain rice, which is essentially the same thing). The other problem is that these places usually only cater for groups of at least 3 people. Thus if you go with 2 meat eaters, you’ll certainly end up feeling left out.

On top of this, it is not uncommon to order some food, having told the waiting staff (or shown them in a phrase book) that you can’t eat meat or seafood, and to have it arrive with octopus tentacles or gorilla forearms (or whatever… I only made the second one up) nestled cosily within your fried rice. I in no way want to blame the staff of these restaurants, as I’m sure I’m at fault linguistically, but never the less it is a frustrating and embarrassing experience for the both of you.

In some ways I think that this problem is caused by Korean pride in the national cooking. I always imagine the restaurateur baulking at the notion of a snotty westerner coming in and asking for a severe alteration to the proud heritage of Korean cuisine. On the other hand I think that part of the problem is down to the conception of what constitutes meat. I like to think of this problem as “subliminal meat”.  If I order Kimchi fried rice for example, I have no reason to assume that it will contain meat and I’ll be surprised if I subsequently find small pieces of spam in it. I get the impression however, that “a little bit of chopped spam” does not constitute meat content in the same way that a whole piece of steak or chicken hefted on top might. I may be wrong in the assumption, however it would help in explaining the issues that I have been having on this front. The bottom line is: check, check and check again.

School Dinners

Yes I know it's delicious. No, I don't want to eat it.

If you are working at a school in Korea, the chance s are that you will have to eat out with your colleagues sooner or later. Regardless of the food I have always found this to be a pleasurable experience, and one of the only times that my co-workers loosen up a bit.

Sadly, as a veggie it can be an excruciating experience. In my experience, my co-workers will veer erratically between embarrassingly sympathetic (my co-workers at my last school ended up ordering pizza into the school for my leaving party, thus sacrificing a much needed night away from work) and a sadistically teasing mentality. As I mentioned above, I adore the taste of meat, and having people try and tempt me back to the dark side is an irritating experience that I haven’t experienced since I was at school.

I certainly don’t want to be the kind of veggie that begrudges other people eating meat, but it can be hard sitting down to a bowl of rice and some Kimchi (which by the way occasionally contains fish oil) whilst my colleagues chow down on delicious smelling Korean barbeque and what-is-more having them tell you repeatedly how delicious it is. Like I don’t (sadly) already know.

Eating at Home

Ah beloved kimchi. Watch out for the fish oil

One of the best things about becoming a veggie was that it made me cook more for myself and made me plan my meals better. For this I am very grateful. There are however still some issues with doing this in Korea as opposed to back home.

For one thing, the price of western food is expensive in Korea. This even extends to vegetables. Like I said earlier, it often makes prudent financial sense to eat out than to eat in, particularly if you are living on your own. Then you have the problem of finding ingredients. It’s all too easy to find a great veggie recipe online only to find that you’re not going to be able to get some of the ingredients (cheese in particular is a nightmare to find). Lastly, the lack of an oven can be a real pain. I was lucky enough to be given a toaster oven by my director and it is immeasurably useful. Without one, there are many dishes unavailable to you. (Toaster ovens can be found at large supermarkets for around 50,000 won (£30).)

Tips For Surviving as a veggie in Korea

1. Become a regular at a conveniently placed restaurant.

You’ll probably get bored of the food, but at least you’ll know it’s safe.

2. Shop where you know there’ll be real cheese

I now define a good supermarket on the availability of cheese

3. Get a Korean friend or co-worker to write out a card in Korean explaining exactly what you don’t eat

My friend has one of these for nut allergies, but it just occurred to me that it could be put to the same use for vegetarians. Just make sure  that whoever writes the card doesn’t have a weird sense of humour.

4.  Try and find a vegetarian restaurant in your city

There are two that I know of in Ulsan, and I’m sure that more must exist.

5. Kimchi bokkeumbab and bibimbap

6. If someone offers your boshintang. Don’t.Eat.It………

7. Beware the “subliminal” meat

All in all I must confess that being a vegetarian in Korea is not so bad. There are times when it is frustrating, but it is far from impossible.

All together now, GOGGEE OP-SOH-YO!

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