The Challenges of Being a Vegetarian in Korea

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Last Updated on July 7, 2021 by Christine Kaaloa

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Having dinner with an old and dear college friend… & not knowing how to navigate my issues with non-vegetarian, mystery food. On the table: fish,  egg, silkworm larvae, snails, mystery sushi.

Updates: 1) Whether I got the Korean Crud or not, I don’t know but I did get a cold vs. a stomach virus and I think it had to do with 2) the onslaught of Yellow Dust season which i’ll be blogging soon, along with 3) the annual Cheongdo Bullfighting Festival and 4) buying a phone/plan when you don’t speak Korean.

So how hard is it for a fun-loving vegetarian travel gal to acclimate to Korea? I’ll tell you- friggin hard! …

Being a Chaeshick-chu (aka ‘Vegetarian’) in Korea

Chaeshickchu means vegetarian and I don’t want to be a whiny Chaeshickchu who complains about not being able to eat the food here. Korea does have food I can eat; my choices are just narrower and finding new veggie options to live my year by, when I have limited knowledge of the country foods, can feel rough. Well, more than rough…starving!

Korean food is often well-prepared, low on fat and a bit spicy, and it will make you lose your mood for cooking entirely, because Korean food is delicious! Many of its panchan (appetizer dishes) have generous quantities of red paste, pickled, spiced and garlic vegetables that will make your mouth squeal with joy… Food here is also cheap (sometimes cheaper than cooking). This is my vegetarian frustration as I find myself living via hunger, few veggie meal options and the knowledge that food here tastes really amazing.

Then there are the Fear Factor Korean foods (aka ‘scary mystery foods’) that you’ve never seen before, much less feel the inkling to try. Often these foods are a cultural delicacy.

My good friend Sean, a collaborative film partner from grad school lives in Seoul and after 7 years, we were finally meeting again.  I was starved- during EPIK orientation, I lived off of kimchi, rice and soups- so Sean wanted to treat me to a very good dinner (good inadvertently,  also means expensive— seriously, sometimes, I have the world’s rockin’est friends). Our dinner table had all the hidden mysteries of Korea that they don’t talk about in travel books- silkworm larvae, snails, mystery sushi,.. and me and my “hungry self” were the special guests. Help?

Technically and on very rare occasion do I allow myself seafood (mostly shellfish) and the occasional “traveler adventure food” (aka insects); just that much of an meat allowance saves me in countries like these. In a situation like this- sometimes, you have to bite the bullet, start with the least scariest option and focus on the dishes that fool people into thinking you’re eating when you’re really not! I concentrated on the fried fish and the baby snails (the silkworm larvae I had tried before and didn’t like). Next time I have a Korean friend take me to dinner, I’ll suggest pizza.

mystery fish that I found later, was a part of my dinner.One of the mystery fishes that I later found was also part of my dinner table!
The one fish in the tank I told myself NEVER!

Busan fish ff

Vegetarian Barriers in Korea …and more barriers

People all say that Korean food is “vegetable heavy”.

This is no myth… it IS vegetable heavy. It’s just unfortunate that most of these dishes have finely diced meat in them. Learning to say “I don’t eat meat”, “I’m Vegetarian”, “Without Meat” isn’t enough. This only means you don’t eat RED meat.  Meanwhile, poultry, eggs, seafood, etc… are still open game to being tucked into your meal!  For instance, in my school, the cafeteria folk know that I’m vegetarian so they let me pile extra vegetables upon my tray in substitution for meat. Today, we had chicken rice soup and I declined this. The cafeteria cook saw this and confused as to why I didn’t take it, came to ask. One of the teachers had to explain that chicken was meat to me.

In general, unless you know your Korean vocabulary list of meats, you’ll find a challenge in ordering food. I’ve done everything from mimicking game show X’s to clucking like a chicken to arrive at the realization, whatever I’m doing ISN’T working! My mother – my spool of wisdom-  suggested sayingVegetables Only“. Brilliant. I’ll try it, as at this point, I can’t think of any other phrase or charade to try. As you’ve probably guessed, vegetarian foods in Korea are pretty rare (although Seoul has a few more options).


The inability to read signs & menus

Everywhere you look, Korea is over-spilling with signage that’s lit up with enough wattage to make the Las Vegas Strip look sad.  These Koreans are serious about ad space competition, but you won’t find many signs or menus written in English. It’s written in Hangul (aka Korean characters). For the average vegetarian new to hangul- this spells ‘brain overload’.  Reading a menu takes time and there’s no guarantee you’ll even know what it means in the end.

Advice : If it doesn’t have a picture next to it, pass it by.

food 1960

Fail-safe food and chain restaurants

Korea (specifically, Daegu) does have restaurant chains such as Pizza Hut, Mac Donalds, Burger King, Outback Steakhouse, Bennigans, and a ton of Baskin Robbins. I’ve been stubbornly against resorting to any of these yet, but don’t think I haven’t been tempted. It’s just that many of them don’t have very good (or ‘at all’) veggie options either other than maybe, a salad.

Instead, I look to healthy fail safe foods such as yogurt, tofu, kimchi, rice, dried & salted seaweed (aka laver) and fruits.

On a good note, I found a vegetarian chain restaurant in Daegu, so I am a bit relieved.

Until,  Christine


Next article:  Being a Vegetarian (Part II): Weight-loss in Korea.

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  • hi there. i’m in daegu as well, and although i am not a vegetarian, i do like to watch my meat intake (i’ve found that you can really inadvertently eat a TON of meat here). i’m sure you’re already found it, but have you been to the loving hut? they have a handful here, but the one that i go to is near 교대역, off of the red line. they appropriate pretty traditional korean dishes for non-meat eaters. also, they have a freezer with a decent selection of veggie/soy protein based “meats.” my boyfriend and i eat here at least once a week, and the fake franks have saved my life on occasion!

    i blogged about it here, if you would like to read…


    • @koreanschooled: Ha ha.. thanks for sharing your find and thanks for posting your blog post on the Loving Hut. I discovered them too and then posted their restaurant on Happy Cow! Whether you’r vegan, veggie or meat, the restaurant is still good. I actually like their Kimchi jigae. I go to the one at the National University of Education stop. I currently have some of their soy chicken nuggets and mushrooms. Now they also have some great jerky’s. Total lifesaver! My blog is 😉

  • I don’t know if the monks are strict vegans, but I do know that they can’t eat some roots like garlic of ginseng out of fear of getting aroused. I know that they don’t eat milk products or eggs. I didn’t know that vegans don’t eat roots so that is interesting to know.

    I stayed at one temple in kyongju called goo gool sa. That place is famous because you can go there and practice a martial art called sun moo do, which is a kind of monk martial art where they stretch and meditate a lot (there is also a lot of painful knee bending.) The food there was pretty good, and it was supposed to be vegetarian. They had things like seeweed and dwen jjang soup with rice, and your favorite ban jaan.

    I don’t think that it is 100% necessary to use fish sauce when you make kimchi it just makes the flavor a little bit richer. Thinking back, I can’t really remember any kimchi at that temple, but even with no meat or fish broth the food was pretty good.

    • @3gyupsal: Yes, the temple food is pretty good. I recently got to do a templestay in Daejeon. I think there are different kinds of vegans and Buddhists. In Thailand, some eat meat but it has to be offered to they by a second party so that they aren’t responsible for the actual killing. With the vegans that don’t eat roots (it’s not all vegans, but a specific type) it’s because they don’t believe in killing even plants.

  • Foods served at temples are pretty much vegan since Buddhist monks can’t eat anything vegetable. They don’t even make their kimchi with oyster juice. The trick is finding a temple that serves food.

    • @3gyupsal: Interesting. I wonder how they do make their kimchi. There is almost always at least fish sauce or oyster for the flavor. Buddhism– I guess it varies according to sect & this is confusing. The sanchae bibimbap is made of “root vegetables”, thus the ultra strictly vegan monks wouldn’t be able to eat it, whereas the vegetarian ones are fine with it. Correct?

  • being vegetarian made me a lot healthier and leaner~~.

  • Your blog keeps getting better and better! I’ve been reading your posts for a couple of weeks now and I gotta say that your older articles donÕt offer as much insight as the newer ones. Your writing is constantly improving! By the way, if you’re looking into putting some advertisements on your blog, you should really do it.

  • Jayden Thomas
    May 9, 2010 10:48 am

    I am also a vegetarian and my body has never been in a very good shape. Being a vegan can really make you much heathier.,..

  • Aloha 😉

    This is a fascinating blog to be at, Christina. I wish you lots of luck for your new expat experience!
    It takes one to know one as they say; I’m US born & living in Europe since many years. I love travel & pics too!

    And your Hawai’ name “flashed out” to me; I grew up on Oah’u ! Hele on to my blog if you like 🙂

    • Aloha Barbara & apologies for the late reply. Adjusting to my new life in SK has been taking some time. I appreciate the warm wishes & its always awesome to meet Hawaii folks on here. Love that you’re living abroad in Europe- will have to check out your blog. 😉

  • Cant wait for part 2 and that yellow dust article session….
    did you weigh yourself lately?

  • Oh God. Silkworm larvae??? You are SO brave.

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