“This isn’t the best country to be in if you’re a vegan,” my boss told me. This was my third week working in South Korea. The first couple of days were a bit of a challenge because I wasn’t sure how to get around, so I was living off of carrots and rice from a tiny market that always seemed to be open late and was only down the road from where I live. My boss was right, in a sense. My first week here, I could tell that I had already lost a substantial amount of weight. My clothes were loose and I just looked tired and was bruising easily. My mother kept calling and asking me what I had been eating and I just responded with “rice.”
Truth be told, I’ve never been the best cook in the world. Once my boyfriend got to South Korea, a while after me, he seemed to have no problem adjusting to the new foods. I came over the weekend he arrived and ate so much while I was over that my stomach hurt. He introduced me to these large grains of rice, to curries, and different ways to cook tofu.
My first vegetarian meal I was introduced to was bibimbap. Bibimbap is basically rice and vegetables in a chili sauce. It’s a traditional Korean meal that’s pretty delicious. On top of the vegetables there is a runny egg. My first time eating it, I plopped the egg off my dish and hid it in my teacup. I was told that it was considered rude to not eat everything on your plate, so I didn’t want to offend. However, the woman working at the restaurant noticed and from then on, every time I came in, they have made my bibimbap without an egg on top.
Porridge is another meal that is pretty popular. You can get vegetable porridge, which is pretty delicious. If it’s too plain, you can add chili sauce. Koreans really love their spicy food.
Most of the baked goods you get here are not going to be vegan. As far as street food goes, I wouldn’t even bother trying to find vegan food. If you’re going out late with friends, eat before you leave because you’re going to have a hard time finding anything to eat. While out on a drinking spree with friends, I was overwhelmingly hungry. I ran into a small convenient store and bought a large carrot while my friends stopped at a Korean BBQ joint.
The more I’ve explored, I’ve discovered a number of Indian restaurants that have a number of vegetarian options. There are several Loving Huts spread all around South Korea. Loving Hut is entirely vegan and has some really great food. My first Loving Hut I visited was in Daegu, South Korea. I ordered Dumplings and vegan ramen; it came with a side of large grains of rice and kimchi (while kimchi is just spicy fermented cabbage, sometimes it is made in fish sauce, so it’s not always vegan). If you can make kimchi, or get your hands on vegan kimchi, make sure to try it. It’s delicious.
Having lived in Europe for five years, I had heard people tell me that it was extremely challenging being a vegan in certain European countries. I never really had a hard time until I moved to Asia. It’s a little harder, partly because I know very little Korean and I took German for eight years. It just takes time—before you know it, you’ll be making delicious vegan Korean food. If anyone tells you that this isn’t the right place to be vegan, just say “not with that attitude!”