South Korea – a Vegan’s Nightmare?
South Korea is arguably one of the most difficult countries in the world to sustain yourself in as a vegan. There’s no doubt the country has a fondness for meat and seafood, with anchovy broth being a prominent ingredient in many of the national dishes. Anyone who has been to a city or town in Korea can tell you that you are bombarded by fluorescent restaurant signs advertising bulgogi, fresh eels, pork BBQs and various other non-vegan friendly foods every time you turn to walk down a different street.
The sheer abundance of meat and seafood on offer can be quite overwhelming for vegans and that’s why I have compiled a list of top tips to help you survive and to enable you to enjoy exploring this otherwise fantastic and spectacularly unique country. If you’re planning on staying in South Korea for an extended period of time, then watch this space for my blog on living in Korea as a vegan TEFL teacher.
5 Survival Secrets for a Vegan in South Korea
1. Download the HappyCow App on Your Phone
HappyCow is undoubtedly one of the best guides for vegan travellers. This app is excellent value for money and can help you search for plant-based establishments in different locations around the world. Not only does it recommend restaurants and cafes, but it also provides information on supermarkets, bakeries, juice bars and farmers’ markets. You can also use filters to narrow down your search, such as vegan, vegetarian and vegan options, so that you can find a suitable result for your requirements.
This app has made my life so much easier and revealed hidden gems in Korea that have impressed even the most carnivorous of my friends. You can view pictures and reviews uploaded by other users and read advice on how to find places, when to go and what you should order. The map and the “search nearby” feature make it effortless to search for places that are easily accessible and to navigate to your chosen destination. HappyCow enables you to find incredible vegan needles in a haystack of meat-eating establishments, which is why this is number one on my list!
2. Join Vegan Korean Facebook Groups
I can’t stress enough just how vital these Facebook groups have been for me as a vegan in South Korea! There are numerous groups that you can join, including Vegan Korea · 채식, Seoul Veggie Club, Pragmatic Vegans in Korea and Busan Veggie Club.
Each group has its own personality, with differing outlooks on veganism. However, they have all proven extremely useful to me whilst exploring Korea. The group is multicultural, with many Korean members, who are happy to help you if you need any translations. You can also search the group pages for advice on all sorts of vegan-related queries, such as restaurants, culture and what snacks you can eat from a convenience shop!
3. Google Translate is a Vegan’s Friend
If you don’t speak Korean, it can be a little difficult communicating your dietary requirements. In fact, even though there is a translation for the word vegan (비건), the majority of locals will not understand what this means. Therefore, I have found it is a lot easier to use their word for vegetarian (채식) and then ask them to remove food that you can’t eat individually (meat, eggs, seafood, milk, cheese, etc.). This may seem long-winded, but it’s the only way I have found to be 100% effective.
Learning some phrases before you go to South Korea is one of the best pieces of advice I can give you and having these printed out on a piece of paper to show to your server at a restaurant is a fantastic way of making your life easier. Want some help? Check out my post on handy Korean words/phrases that every vegan should learn!
However, if you haven’t had time to print these out or master the pronunciation, then Google Translate is your friend! This app is invaluable, as it allows you to download the Korean language, whilst connected to wifi, to enable your phone to translate to English (or vice versa) when you are offline. It also has a convenient feature that allows you to scan images from your phone’s photo album, or directly through your camera, for text and have it translated right there on-screen. This makes looking through food menus a whole lot more painless. In addition, there is an audio button, which reads out the translation for you.
4. Try These Accidentally Vegan Korean Dishes
Believe it or not, there are a few dishes in Korea that are accidentally vegan, or can at least be veganised relatively easily. Foods such as hobakjuk (pumpkin porridge), gamjajeon (potato pancake), hotteok (sweet cinnamon pancake), chapssaltteok (sweet red bean rice cake) and songpyeon (another type of rice cake – beware, as some of them contain honey!) are all great plant-based snacks that you can find all over Korea. Main dishes are slightly more difficult to acquire, but bibimbap, gimbap and japchae can be veganised without too much hassle.
You should always watch out for non-vegan ingredients, as each food establishment will differ and veganism is not a well-understood concept in Korea.
5. Zen Yourself at a Korean Buddhist Temple Retreat
Buddhism has played a major part in South Korea’s history and there are many temples scattered over the mountains. Many people who visit this beautiful country decide to stay at a Buddhist retreat, enabling them to experience the peace and tranquility that the stunning scenery offers. The food served at these temples is inherently vegan, which makes it a pretty safe place for vegans to stay! If you fancy a zen escape to experience the monastic life of Buddhism, then you can find out more at Korea’s official Templestay program. If the monastic life isn’t for you, then temple restaurants also exist, but are few and far between.
If you spot any western restaurants, go there! They are more likely to speak English and will probably be able to knock up a vegan dish for you. Indian restaurants are great for this (although watch out for places that cook with ghee)! As exciting as Korean food is, I’m sure we all know that feeling when you’re tired after a long day exploring and it’s just less hassle to go with the safe option…am I right, or am I right?
Check out our review of some great vegan establishments in Seoul, South Korea
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The older and nerdier half of the Vegan Sisters. A plant-based microbiologist & public health scientist who loves to write and travel. Can currently be found staying safe at home.