“What’s it like being a vegetarian in Korea?”
“Are there any vegan restaurants in Seoul?”
“Oh, Korean food isn’t veggie friendly.”
“You’re gonna lose so much weight living here.”
These are the words I regularly hear from foreigners and Koreans alike when I tell people that I’ve never eaten meat or fish. And I honestly wish I could say that the last one was true. Yes, trying to spot a good veggie burger in Seoul is much trickier than London, but it’s certainly not impossible. So whether you’re a new veggie, a veteran, or v-curious, don’t hesitate to translate your lifestyle in the BBQ-lined streets of Seoul.
Even though many sites advertise Seoul’s vegan bakeries, burger joints and sandwich shops, what about authentic Korean goodies? Before Korea had its big industrial boom in the late 20th century, much of the country lived in poor conditions. Putting fish and meat bits into everything was a challenge. Which meeeeaaaannnsss… many of the dishes were originally vegetarian or vegan! So, instead of checking Happy Cow for the nearest Indian haven, why not go for something considerably more local?
I’ll be introducing foods you can scope out on a menu, or snacks to search for at the market. These are also great if you want to try your hand when cooking at home. For full recipes, check out Maangchi, a renowned Korean food blog. Or buy the book Korean Vegetarian by Young Jin Song. I use this book all the time for everyday meals, as well as prepping my own kimchi.
A note about kimchi: kimchi is considered a banchan 반찬, a side dish, in Korean restaurants. Cooks choose which side dishes to serve (for free), so requesting a specific type isn’t an option. You get what you get. Don’t be disappointed! Most come from family recipes or they’re chosen according to which taste matches the main course. On the plus side, you can always ask for free refills!
Chinese Cabbage Kimchi 배추김치 (Baechukimchi) – This is the classic kimchi. Decorated in pepper flakes, the delicate leaves soften during the fermentation period but leave that extra crunch. The best one – vegan friendly – is it at Jinju Hoegwan 진주회관 near City Hall station.
WARNING: Kimchi is usually fermented with anchovy paste, so ask before eating/purchase.
Pok Choi Kimchi 겉절이 (Gotjoli) – Not too commonly seen in restaurants, this is a great option to cook at home. Pok choi has a similar snap to the spine of a cabbage leaf, only it’s much smoother and thicker for fans of all things crunchy.
Cubed White Radish Kimchi 깍두기 (Ggakdugi) – This is my favorite type of kimchi. These little cubes maintain a lot of their moisture but have all the tight-mouthed kick that a good banchan needs.
White Kimchi 백김치 (Baekkimchi) – Another sight not too commonly found, this may be a good option for those not too fond of overly spicy munchies.
As I mentioned, side dishes are served in all restaurants and are personally chosen by the chef. If you want a wide range of options, head to a local food market with your reusable Tupperware (save the planet!) to take some home! This offers many homemade options that are guaranteed to send your taste buds whirling. Some great options are Mangwon market 망원시장 (Mangwonsijang) or Gwangjang Market 광장시장 (Gwangjang Sijang) – a hot spot for tourists. Check out more info on Gwangjang in Hannah’s post HERE!
Spinach Namul 시금치나물 (Sigeumchinamul) – Although I’m personally not a huge spinach fan, this is a popular option for many diners. The texture is somehow gooey, soft and crunchy at the same time. Look for the bright green leaves!
Sweet Lotus Root 연근조림 (Yeongeunjorim) – One of my absolute favorites, this syrup-y delight is a first-time snack for many tourists visiting the peninsula. Usually brown in color, look for the circular shape with holes all over. My top choice is at the famous vegan stop – Osegyehyang 오세계향 – in Insadong.
Sliced White Raddish 무생채 (Musaengchae) – Probably my favorite banchan, this is something you can find in Asian supermarkets around the world. Long, thin strips of radish are soaked in vinegar and pepper flakes for the perfect combination of juice, tartness, and spice.
Sliced Cucumber 오이생채 (Oheesaengchae) – One of the first banchan I ever ate, this refreshing side is one that won’t fill you up before a meal. Perfect for those looking for a cool taste on a hot summer day.
Now here are some main dishes you can actually order! These are obviously just a few of my favorite choices, and luckily they’re all very easy to cook at home. Before you shell out 8 bucks, check a homemade recipe and give it a try.
Korean Omelet 계란찜 (Gyeranjjim) – A large, puffy egg folded like a blanket with bits of green onion inside. It’s super easy to make at home, so skip your scrambled eggs and try something more unique.
Blanched tofu with dressing 두부 (Dubu) / Tofu Kimchi 두부김치 (Dubukimchi) – Both are a classic dish that are as simple as they sound. Head to Baeknyunok near Seoul Arts Center for the best blanched tofu. An unmissable tofu kimchi experience can be found at Story of the Blue Star in Insadong – come for the food and drink; stay for the intoxicating atmosphere.
Tofu and Chive Dumplings 두부부추만두 (Dububuchumandu) -Rarely found at most dumpling joints, this may be one for the freezer aisle in the grocery store.
Stir-fried kimchi rice 김치볶음밥 (Kimchibokkeumbap) – A fantastic and easy meal for spice lovers to cook! Also, you can choose just how crispy you want your rice. I go for a full crisp on the bottom layer, which is better achieved in a frying pan or wok.
Pumpkin porridge 호박죽 (Hobakjook) – A healthy dish for those hoping to increase their brain power. Most people eat porridge when they’re not feeling well, but I suggest grabbing a bite any time. Check out the chain Bonjook 본죽 for a cheap and easy-to-find option.
Red bean porridge 단팥죽 (Danpatjook) – A hit or miss taste for many, but one restaurant that NEVER gets it wrong is Seoulseo Duljjaero Jalhaneun Jib 서울서 두번째로 잘하는 집 near Gyeongbokgung station. This is one of my absolute favorite food stops in Seoul, run entirely by Korean grandmas. Beware the weekly Monday vacation day.
Beansprout rice 콩나물밥 (Kongnamulbap) – This is a dish that many Koreans love, but one that I think is somewhat passable. When you’re short on time, it’s undoubtedly a quick meal with a variety of textures.
Korean Pancakes 전 (Jeon) – All you need is a bit of flour to make this popular treat. Choose from potato (감자전 kamjajeon), kimchi (김치전 kimchijeon), chive* (부추전 buchujeon), green onion (파전 pajeon), or mung bean (녹두전 nokdujeon) flavors. Similar to a hot cake, these savory options are particularly yummy with a cold pint. Head to Muwol 무월 in Gangnam – either branch – to try these with a Korean rice wine smoothie.
WARNING: Check with your waiter about the kimchi ingredients. Chive pancakes somtimes include seafood. Jeon is usually cooked with egg. The potato jeon at Story of the Blue Star is vegan friendly and out-of-this-world.
Korea gets HOT in the summer. I mean depths of Satan’s lair hot. I just spent a week in Florida and I was cold most of the time because nothing quite compares to that sticky, Korean summer. Here are a few fab choices that are perfect to munch on under the sun – or in the chillier seasons too.
Cold Noodles 냉면/콩국수 (Naengmyun/Kongguksu) – A special treat for the summer days, this is a classic dish that reigns supreme in both Koreas. The best type of cold noodle, in my opinion, is kongguksu, made purely from soy beans and best found at the previously mentioned Jinju Hoigwan (but only in the summer!). Totally vegan, but check with the chef just in case.
Bibimnaengmyun 비빔냉면* is also a great option, the best of which comes from Pyeongyang in North Korea. Head to the North Korean food streets near Dongdaemun Design Plaza for the most jaw-dropping flavors.
WARNING: Bibimnaengmyun doesn’t come with any meat broth, but sometimes the cook includes a piece of beef on the top. It always includes a hard-boiled egg, so vegans should also request that this be removed.
Cold Radish Kimchi Soup 동치미 (Dongchimi) – This is one of the only dishes that I haven’t tried, but the simple look of it is enough to make my mouth water. Head to a local soup restaurant or ask a friend to brew this classic recipe up for you.
Cold Glass Noodles 잡채 (Japchae) – The pure look of these translucent noodles against freshly stir-fried veggies is enough to make me swoon. If you spot it on the menu, expect a large portion to be shared with the whole table. Or if you’re like me, just keep it all for yourself.
WARNING: Some chefs like to toss a bit of beef in their japchae. Check before ordering.
Bibimbap 비빔밥 – Probably the most famous Korean vegetarian food option in and outside of its native country, you can choose between hot and cold (stone pot – 돌솥 / dolsot) options. This mixture of sliced vegetables and rice has its heavenly match with creamy, red pepper paste sauce (고추장 gochujang).
WARNING: For vegans, ask for the egg to be removed. Some restaurants also include sliced beef on top – double-check for safe measures!
We all have one – a sweet tooth – and Koreans are certainly no exception. Most of the snacks you’ll find at the convenience store are sickeningly sweet and full of scary chemicals. To combat that sugar-craving, be on the lookout for something more traditional. These suggestions will leave a smile on your face until the last bite.
Shaved Ice 빙수 (Bingsu) – Not vegan friendly, but a MUST for vegetarians visiting Korea. Bingsu is shaved ice with different toppings ranging from traditional rice cake to Oreo sundaes. Head to the chain Sulbing 설빙 for the most popular options, and try their injolmi 인절미 (rice flour) cheese toast while you’re at it!
Cinnamon Pancakes 호떡 (Hoettok) – This is one of the most famous Korean desserts. You can find this at the little stalls in local markets or even just around the streets during the wintertime. The best and most famous among Koreans is Ssiat Hoettok 씨앗호떡, which can be found in central Busan.
WARNING: These are usually cooked in butter and are not vegan friendly.
Sweet Potatos with Almond Syrup 고구마맛탕 (Goguma Mattang) – I’ve come across this more from Korean ex-pats than actual cooks in Seoul, but it’s definitely a top choice for something sweet and warm to fill you up on a cold winter day.
Well, folks. That brings me to the end of my post. There are SO many more meals to discuss and so little time. Being a veggie in Seoul is a sometimes stressful, but meaningful experience. There are plenty of local shops that you can support to keep our community alive. We’ll continue to keep you updated with the best veggie shops, restaurants, and cafes here and on our social media pages. As always, there’s much more to look forward to.