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Is South Korean Food Vegan-Friendly? (a 2020 guide)

Is South Korean Food Vegan-Friendly? (a 2020 guide)

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Do Koreans Eat Vegan Food?

It can be a real challenge finding vegan food in Korea! In western countries, it is often quite easy to ask for ingredients to be substituted with vegan alternatives or removed from a dish, whereas the majority of Korean food has meat and seafood as a base, including stocks and seasonings. Therefore, South Korean cuisine is regarded as one of the most unfavourable towards a vegan diet.

Traditional Vs. Modern Korean Food

This was not always the case, as the Koreans traditionally ate a lot of vegetable dishes. They still do, but over the last century, animal-derived products have become more readily available and have crept into a lot of the national dishes.

Nowadays, there is a renewed interest in vegan food and many Koreans are beginning to experiment with plant-based ingredients, especially within baking. With the introduction of new vegan dishes in Korean convenience stores, such as gimbap, mandu and burgers in the CUs and 7 Elevens, there appears to be a growing trend.

Korean Food Culture

When I think about my experiences of Korean food culture, it doesn’t just bring to mind meat and seafood (and thus vegan starvation). Instead, it evokes memories of fermentation, preparation, time and consideration, sharing and socialising.

There is something quite ceremonial about eating out with friends and family in Korea. Everyone takes the time and care to add all of the different ingredients to their plates (or sesame leaves), whilst making continuous adjustments by adding more of something or choosing another ingredient. If you get the opportunity to dine with South Koreans, then you definitely should!

How to Order Korean Vegan Food

I think it’s important to add that it’s much, much, MUCH easier to ensure your food is safe to eat if you can speak a little Korean. Consequently, check out these handy Korean words/phrases every vegan should learn. If not, then Google Translate is a must, as mentioned on my blog 5 secrets to survival as a vegan traveller in South Korea. In addition, the majority of restaurants will serve side dishes and, even if the server understands that your main meal should be vegan, they will usually still bring out kimchi, amongst other things. You can either let your friends eat these, or you can ask them to not bring you any side dishes.

Ok, now that’s all been said…below is a list of dishes that can be easily veganised (please feel free to add your own discoveries/advice in the comments section). I have made a note of the Korean foods that are naturally/accidentally vegan – but please make sure you still follow the advice below.

National Korean Food for Vegans:

1.  Bibimbap (비빔밥) – Naturally Vegan

A traditional Korean dish made from steamed rice, assorted vegetables, gochujang (hot chilli paste) and sometimes beef and egg. Bibimbap translates to ‘mixed rice’ and it’s quite simple to order a vegan version, as long as you use some basic Korean to explain your dietary requirements. Lots of vegans in Korea rely upon this food!

Bibimbap is often served in a dolsot pot (hot stone), which continues to cook your meal after it has been served. This is super yummy, because it crisps up the rice, giving your food a lovely crunch! Make sure you mix all the ingredients together and add gochujang if you want to spice things up a little. Be careful though, gochujang can have seafood in it! Use the chopsticks to pick up any long and stringy vegetables and your spoon to scoop up the rice.

2.  Japchae (잡채)

A stir fry dish made with squidgy sweet potato noodles (glass noodles), vegetables and…you guessed it…meat and/or fishcakes! Once again, you can use key phrases to ensure that this Korean food is suitable for vegans. Although japchae is typically served as a side dish (and therefore usually cold), it is sometimes possible to ask for this as the main course, which will often be served on top of rice.

3.  Pajeon (파전)

Green onion pancakes that are frequently made with seafood. The batter consists of water, cornstarch and flour (usually rice and/or wheat), which is added to the spring onions and other variable ingredients. An egg is then cracked over the top towards the end of cooking.

If you’re feeling confident with your grasp of Korean, then why not go to a restaurant and ask for pajeon made without egg and seafood? A few places might refuse to make such a thing, but I have been to many restaurants where the chefs have been more than happy to help. Some of them like to make up for the fact that there are no squids swimming around in your pancakes by adding other ingredients – I’ve had a few very spicy red pepper pajeons in my time!

This dish is often found in restaurants that also serve makgeolli, a Korean rice wine. This is worth a try, especially mixed with cider (a drink that tastes similar to Sprite, not apple cider). It’s usually vegan, but there are a couple of brands that contain milk, so watch out!

4.  Gimbap/kimbap (김밥)

Fancy some South Korean vegan fast food? It is possible! Try their version of sushi, made from rice (bap) and other ingredients, such as egg, crab sticks, spam, pickled radish and other vegetables, wrapped up in dried sheets of seaweed (gim). There are lots of sit-in and takeaway cafes in Korea that make gimbap to order, so it’s relatively easy to order a plant-based version as long as you ask them to remove the stuff that you don’t want.

5.  Juk (죽) – Some Flavours are Naturally Vegan

Glutinous rice flour porridge (juk), which is popular as a snack, pudding or breakfast and commonly given to the elderly, babies or recovering patients. There are many types of juk, including seafood and meat versions, but there are also a few suitable for vegans. Small glutinous rice cake balls, called saealsim (새알심), are often added…you know, for that extra boost of starch! Saealsim directly translates to bird’s egg, but have no fear, because the name is only due to their visual resemblance.

If a warm bowl of steaming goodness takes your fancy, then keep an eye out for restaurants that specialise in rice porridge. They can also be bought in little microwaveable tubs at the supermarket. Below is a list of vegan-friendly juk that you might want to try:

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  • Hobakjuk (호박죽) – a silky smooth and naturally sweet pumpkin porridge, although more sugar is frequently added, especially if it is a store-bought pack or if it is had as a pudding.
  • Patjuk (팥죽) – red bean porridge. You can have this salty or sweet, but be careful of honey.
  • Heugimjajuk (흑임자죽) – black sesame porridge.

6.  Hotteok (호떡) – Naturally Vegan

Vegan hotteok bought from a street food vendor in Gamcheon, Busan, Korea
Hotteok bought from a street food vendor in Gamcheon, Busan.

These gorgeously hot and sweet vegan pancakes are a popular street food served at food stalls in Korea during the winter. The dough is made from flour, water, and yeast and filled with chopped nuts or seeds, sugar, and cinnamon. They are fried until crispy on the outside and softly caramelised on the inside. I can’t get enough of these! Just watch out, because some vendors will use honey.

As always, it’s best to check with the chef to see if they use dairy or egg in their personal recipes. Why not use our Korean vegan phrases to help you out?

7.  Rice cakes (떡) – Some flavours are Naturally Vegan

There are hundreds of different Korean rice cakes, with many that mark special occasions, such as weddings, Chuseok and 100 day baby birthdays. The ingredients used to make these include rice or rice flour, beans, seeds, nuts, fruit, herbs, sugar, salt and sometimes vegetables. Red bean paste, chestnut paste, and honeyed sesame seeds are regular fillings, so the first two options are vegan. Here is a list of just a few Korean rice cakes that are usually vegan (if you get the right filling/sauce):

  • Shaped tteok – e.g. songpyeon, gyeongdan, bupyeon, etc.
  • Steamed tteok – e.g. baekseolgi, mujigae tteok, sirutteok, etc.
  • Pounded tteok – e.g. injeolmi (often coated in bean powder), garaetteok (used to make tteokbokki, which is hardly ever vegan, but you can buy them plain in supermarkets or local markets if you want to make your own sauce), jeolpyeon, chapssaltteok, etc.
  • Pan-fried – e.g. hwajeon (made with edible flowers), etc.

8.  Kongguksu (콩국수) – Naturally Vegan

I wish this dish was available all year round because its beautifully nutty flavour is to die for – so deliciously light and refreshing! Unfortunately, this vegan delight is usually served cold during the Korean summertime and quite difficult to get your hands on at any other time of the year. If you can stand the humidity, then this season might be a good time to visit if you want to find Korean vegan food.

Kongguksu is made from soybeans, sesame seeds and wheat noodles and is served with fresh cucumber and/or watermelon. The only thing to watch out for is a boiled egg that is sometimes served on top!

Kongguksu, South Korean food that is accidentally vegan, is made from soy beans
Kongguksu is made from soybeans

9.  Mul naengmyeon (물 냉면)

This is a pretty cool dish to try if you can because it’s served in ice…ba-dum-tshh! Mul naengmyeon is a seasonal noodle dish made with beef broth and/or dongchimi (radish water kimchi), so it’s only vegan if made with the latter. It is served with beef and a boiled egg on top, which you can ask restaurants to remove.

You are more likely to find the vegan version of this dish in Buddhist temples or rural mountainous regions of Korea, where they cook more traditional food.

10.  Jumeokbap (주먹밥)

Jumeokbap, otherwise known as fist rice, are seasoned rice balls that you make yourself at the table. There are many variations of this dish, including non-vegan options, but you can often get these with ingredients such as rice, salted seaweed, sesame oil and seeds, herbs, finely chopped vegetables and gochujang. It’s usually served as one big pile in a bowl and you are given plastic gloves to mix everything together before squashing it all into bite-sized balls. Tasty and fun to make!

11.  Somaek (소맥) – Naturally Vegan

Ok…this isn’t strictly food, but what can I say? No trip to Korea is complete without experiencing somaek! “What is somaek?” I hear you ask. Korean drinking culture of course! A glass of beer and a shot of soju (a spirit made from starch) mixed together with chopsticks. Luckily, both Korean-made soju and Cass Light/Fresh (local beer) are vegan – huzzah!

Somaek - a concoction of beer and soju (Korean spirit that is vegan!)
Somaek – a concoction of beer and soju (Korean spirit)

So there you have it…hope this helps you to find South Korean vegan food! Things are gradually getting easier and there is a growing movement of veganism in both Seoul and Busan. Find out more by visiting the Vegan Korea Facebook group!

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