South Korea is a carnivore’s paradise. Cuisine in Korea is largely based around meats, seafood, and rice, although as ever, there are some options for vegetarians. Meals in Korea are generally served to the whole table, often in the form of side dishes, from which every member of the table may eat. One side dish that accompanies every meal is kimchi; most commonly fermented cabbage smothered with chilli paste. Short grain white rice is also served at every meal and it is important to note that many people in Korea do not discern differences between breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When eating in Korea, it is normal to use only chopsticks and a spoon, although if you are really struggling, most restaurants will provide a fork upon request. Gochujang (fermented red chilli paste) and doenjang (fermented bean paste) are used in many dishes.
It is very typical for each Korean restaurant to only serve certain types of Korean food; thus if you would like a Korean pancake, you have to get it from a Korean pancake restaurant. If you are looking for a solely vegetarian chain, go to Loving Hut. Loving Hut is a wonderful vegan chain with restaurants all over the country and serving food at very reasonable prices.
When in non-vegetarien restaurants (almost every restaurant in Korea), you have to be rather careful as there is very little concept of vegetarianism and many of the soups and sauces will contain fish or very small bits of meat, even if the restaurant staff claim that they don’t. It isn’t that they are trying to trick you; they simply don’t understand the concept of being a vegetarian. In the modern day, as Korea became more affluent, people would only avoid eating meat if they couldn’t afford it. Within Korea, there are literally hundreds or thousands of versions of every dish so if you order it in one restaurant, don’t expect it to be exactly the same if you order it in the restaurant next door the following day. As a side note, the idea that all Koreans eat dogs isn’t true. Eating dog is fairly uncommon in Korea although it does happen.
Dishes to Try
Kimchi [ 김치 ]: the pride of Korea; fermented vegetables, primarily cabbage in a variety of seasonings. Each kimchi is a little bit different but vegetarians must ask to ensure that the particular version they are trying hasn’t been made with saeujeot 새우젓 (shrimp sauce) or aekjeot 액젓 (fish sauce). Kimchi is like marmite. You will love it or hate it. I am the latter. Kimchi is available everywhere.
Bibimbap [ 비빔밥 ]: it roughly translates as mixed rice and is a normally a mixture of both rice and vegetables. Often they will put an egg on top and very occasionally, they like to sneak a little beef surprise into the bottom. Try to get the version without the beef. Bibimbap is a cheap dish available from most orange shops (small, cheap, often 24 hour restaurants with orange signage outside).
(Spam free) Gimbap [ 김밥 ] is a collection of strips of pickled vegetables (and sometimes spam), laid onto rice and sheets of seaweed that is rolled into a sausage shape. It is very cheap and available as street food and in orange shops.
Somandu [ 소만두 ] or Napjak-mandu: dumplings that can be grilled, fried, boiled, or steamed. They are often filled with glass noodles and vegetables. Don’t get other types of mandu (dumpling) because they are filled with meat or fish.
Bam [ 밤 ]: nothing more than roast chestnuts. A delicious street food available all over the country.
Gamja Jon [ 감자 전 ]: a tasty fried Korean pancake featuring potatoes that can be sliced or shredded. Cheap food that is great for sharing. Check this page for other types of jon that might be vegetarian.
Doenjang Jigae [ 된장 찌개 ]: a soup made with doenjang (similar to miso). Be careful that seafood or pork isn’t added.
Jap chae [ 잡채 ]: a glass noodle and vegetable dish that is served cold, sometimes with ice. Once again be careful that a little meat surprise isn’t included.
Everything at Loving Hut: No meat worries, eat EVERYTHING.
Apologies for all the warnings of meat above, but Korean food really does vary from one establishment to another. Use the following vocabulary to help you out when trying to order vegetarian food.
I’m a vegetarian.
Jeoneun chaeshikjooeeja imnida
[NOTE: Just saying 채식주의자 chaeshikjooeeja and gesturing to oneself worked well for me]
Which dishes are vegetarian?
요리 중 어떤 것이 채식 요리입니까?
Yori jung eotteon geosi chaesik yori imnikka?
I’m a vegan.
저는 비건 채식주의자입니다
Jeoneun Bigeon Chaesikjuuija imnida
Can you make a vegetarian (vegan) version of this dish?
혹시 이 요리를 (비건) 채식주의자용으로 만들어 주실 수 있나요?
Hoksi i yorireul (bigeon) chaesikjuuijayongeuro mandeureo jusil su innayo?
Thanks to the Korean Tourism Organisation for help with translations.
Credit for the thumbnail image is given to Ekke. The original photo can be found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/ganbei/5041530535/