Accidentally vegan food in Korea - bibimbap

Vegan Korea: 11 National Plant-Based Dishes You Can Eat

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Vegan Food Korea: 11 National Plant-Based Dishes You Can Eat

Is it possible to be vegan in Korea?

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 Korea uses meat and seafood as a base for the majority of its food, including stocks and seasonings. Therefore, South Korean cuisine is regarded as one of the most unfavourable towards a vegan diet.

However, 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 salad leaves), whilst making continuous adjustments by adding more of something or choosing another element. If you get the opportunity to dine with South Koreans, then you definitely should!

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 (coming soon). 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).

Vegan dishes in Korea:

1.  Bibimbap (비빔밥)

Korea's famous dolsot bibimbap - food easily made vegan by leaving out the egg
Dolsot bibimbap.

A traditional Korean dish made from steamed rice, assorted vegetables, gochujang (hot chilli paste) and usually 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 dish!

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 is suitable for vegans. Although this is typically served as a side dish (and therefore usually cold), it is sometimes possible to ask for this as a 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)

Vegan kimbap from Maru JaYeonSik Kimbap, Seoul
Gimbap, tteokbokki and mandu from Maru JaYeonSik Kimbap, Seoul (plant-based food stall).

Fancy some vegan fast food in Korea? 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)

Glutinous rice flour porridge that 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! Saelsim 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:

  • 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)

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.

7.  Rice cakes (떡)

Yakbap, chaltteok and yeongyangtteok (3 different types of vegan rice cake).
Yakbap, chaltteok and yeongyangtteok (3 different types of vegan rice cake).

There are hundreds of different rice cakes eaten in Korea, 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 honey and sesame seeds are regular fillings, so the first two options are vegan. Here is a list of just a few 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.
Box of vegan Korean rice cakes
My co-teachers regularly bring in boxes of rice cakes. I usually get given bagfuls of the stuff, because they know I can eat them!

8.  Kongguksu (콩국수)

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 vegan food in Korea. 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!

Accidentally vegan kongguk (kongguksu without the noodles) found at the food market in Gohyeon, Geoje, Korea
Kongguk (kongguksu without the noodles) found at the market in Gohyeon, Geoje.

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.

10.  Jumeokbap (주먹밥)

Lucy and I enjoying making our own rice balls in Gohyeon, Geoje
Lucy and I enjoying making our own rice balls in Gohyeon, Geoje.

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)

Lucy about to enjoy her first somaek experience in Seoul, Korea! Although not strictly food, it is vegan!
Lucy about to enjoy her first somaek experience in Seoul!

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. Modern drinking culture of course! A glass of beer and a shot of soju (spirit made from starch) mixed together with chopsticks. Luckily, both Korean-made soju and Cass Light/Fresh (local beer) are vegan – huzzah!

So there you have it…hope this helps you to find vegan food in Korea! 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!

One of the vegan sisters, Alice, on her search to find vegan food in South Korea
This blog was written by Alice Johnson, the better, older and wiser half of the two Vegan Sisters…currently travelling around Asia!

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