A guide to some amazing vegan gems found in the heart of South Korea, despite the country’s fondness for anchovy broth and animal innards.
South Korea and Veganism
A trip to South Korea can be quite daunting for vegans. Popular national dishes mostly include anchovy broth, more anchovy broth and…wait for it…even more anchovy broth. On top of this, you’ll be bombarded by flashing street signs advertising restaurants and steam from street food stalls offering bulgogi (spicy marinated meat), chicken, seafood, silkworm larvae, egg and random parts of animals you didn’t know existed. This is enough to put any vegan off travelling there. However, read on to find out why you should still make a trip to this wonderful city!
As a vegan traveller, one of the most important things to find out before exploring somewhere new is whether or not you will be able to survive on the food there. So many places across the world are still completely unexposed to veganism, so much so that there are people who have never even heard of a vegan before. Whilst this does present an intrepid vegan with an enticing reason to travel there, with intentions of unearthing previously undiscovered “accidentally vegan” foods, the sheer plethora of meat and seafood can also be extremely daunting.
Therefore, research is key. Websites like Happy Cow can be a life saver when entering into the unknown, but even then, who is to say there isn’t more that can be discovered?
Getting to Know Seoul
Seoul, the capital city of South Korea, is renowned for its quirky culture, crazy nightlife and street markets. It’s easy to see why people love visiting this bustling city. However, the supposed lack of plant-based food can be a major put off.
Despite this common preconception of South Korean food, hidden within Seoul are quite a few vegan gems. There are numerous fully vegan restaurants, ranging from western foods, to traditional Buddhist temple foods. Moreover, Olive Young (a popular health and beauty store) stocks products such as Oatly and other vegan snacks and there are even a few cafés that serve their coffees with the option of plant-based milks. In addition to this, there are various local dishes that can be adapted to suit your vegan diet, such as bibimbap, but this may require help from some trusty translation apps (or our handy Korean phrases – coming soon!).
Maru JaYeonSik Kimbap. A great little street food kitchen serving up vegan versions of famous Korean dishes. No need to miss out on all the renowned Korean dishes that you hear about, you can try them all here. The portion sizes are great and the food is delicious. Perfect for a taste of Korea. They even make a soy-based version of Korea’s famous fried chicken AND vegan fish cakes!
Plant. A fully vegan restaurant in the trendy area of Itaewon. Their menu is very western, including burgers, pasta, salads and sandwiches. It is a very popular restaurant, so can be quite difficult to get a seat at the weekend, but it’s well worth the wait. They have a great selection of vegan alcohol and some great cakes for after.
Vegetus. Another fully vegan restaurant with very delicious café-style food. Their plant-based bulgogi panini is great for those craving something meaty. The restaurant has a very nice feel to it and the staff are lovely. They make their own kombucha on site and also have a mini shop inside the restaurant.
Coffee@Works. A chain of coffee shops that have begun serving Oatly Barista lattes. These cafés are scattered all across the city, so if you are in need of your coffee fix, definitely head here. Their Oatly lattes are perfect!
Vegan Space.A vegan shop just down the road from Vegetus restaurant. This shop has all the vegan essentials, including various household items, plant-based milks, soy-based meats, nut butters, chocolate and kombucha.
Veganisable Food and Drinks
Bibimbap. You may have heard of this, as it is probably one of the most famous Korean dishes, loved by many all over the world. I see bibimbap as the buddha bowl of Korea, but a little naughtier. Full of fresh veg served on top of rice, which is usually fried within the bowl your dish is served in and topped with optional gochujang (watch out for fishy ingredients), this is true comfort food.
Traditionally, bibimbap is served with a fried egg on the top and often comes with bulgogi mixed in. However, it is relatively easy to ask for the egg and meat to be left out. The best thing about this meal is that if you are stuck somewhere without any vegan options, you’ll at least find bibimbap pretty much anywhere.
However, beware of side dishes! Even if you have successfully communicated to your server that you would like a vegan bibimbap, most restaurants will serve it alongside various non-vegan side dishes, such as kimchi and an anchovy broth-based soup. Our top tip would be to translate some useful phrases in advance and have them to hand when you order something to eat.
Hotteok. A Korean pancake, deep fried with sugar and cinnamon and stuffed with nuts once cooked. This dish may often be served with honey, but there are a few stalls that just use sugar, just make sure you double check! These are super tasty and the perfect street food to munch on whilst wandering around market stalls.
Buddhist temple food. These establishments adhere to the Buddhist religion, so you can rest-assured that your food won’t contain any animal products. They also avoid the “five pungent vegetables” so as not to disturb concentration during meditation, but don’t let that put you off – the food is still delicious!
Being a vegan traveller in Seoul is easier than you might think. Although it’s a little behind other big cities in terms of plant-based opportunities, it is a trendy place and increasingly more people are discovering the benefits of veganism.
If you do decide to venture outside of Seoul, things can get a bit more tricky, particularly in smaller towns and rural areas, but don’t forget to stay on the lookout for Buddhist temple restaurants, bibimbap establishments and always make sure to check Happy Cow. You never know when you might find another hidden vegan gem!
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The younger of the two Vegan Sisters. She is the Founder of a vegan digital marketing agency. She also runs Edible Ethics vegan recipe hub.