Being Vegetarian

Category : Food/Nightlife / Surviving in Korea
Nov 28, 2014

At first, being a vegetarian in Korea may not seem like the easiest of tasks. However, having a meat-free diet here isn’t as impossible as some may think. Many meat-free dishes had evolved prior to Korea’s recent development. Before, when Koreans made their living in the rice paddies instead of high-rise apartment buildings, meat was in short supply. Economically, it just made more sense to eat cheaper foods, like vegetables! Nowadays, many traditional Korean foods use little meat. As well, more and more international cuisines are beginning to gain popularity in Korea, giving vegetarians a variety of meat-free options to choose from. Equipped with the right knowledge and tools of how to eat meat-free in Korea, vegetarians should do just fine most of the time. With that said, vegetarians may still face a few challenges in social settings when big feasts of meat and seafood will be hard to avoid.


The Challenge

Pork, seafood, and beef have long held important places in Korean food culture. In the past, meat, especially beef was fairly expensive, and was usually reserved for special occasions like company dinners and weddings. Although, today, times are changing and meat is now affordable and eaten daily, it is still served for special nights out on the town, at company dinners and when friends or families get together. A favorite, especially among young people and families is delivery fried chicken. Indeed, it is almost its own food group in Korea!


As a vegetarian, it’s easy to feel isolated in social situations where you can’t eat anything, especially because socializing almost always involves a meaty meal. Korean BBQ, for example, is designed to be a social experience in itself, as people crowd around the table-embedded grill and happily take turns cooking the meat. When friends get together to go out, you choose a restaurant based on the type of dish you want to eat, not based on the menu style. Therefore, when you dine at a Korean BBQ joint, there won’t be vegetarian options on the menu. The group can choose from a selection of BBQ cuts like pork ribs, thick bacon, beef tenderloin or rib steak.


Another annoyance for vegetarians can come when it’s time to pay. Dividing the bill according to what each person had may not always be accepted. So, even if you only ate rice and kimchi with a couple glasses of beer while everyone else ate the same plus meat, you’re going to be expected to pay for an equal portion. Requests to “just take my kimchi stew off the bill and I’ll pay separately” will either be misunderstood or just go ignored by the server.


The Solutions

Here is a comprehensive list of rules every vegetarian should follow when living in Korea. Then you won’t have to spend your time in Korea cooped up in your apartment eating steamed potatoes.


Rule #1: Know your Options

Korean cuisine has a wide variety of vegetarian dishes. Some can be served as a main dish (like kimchijeon), while most are served as side-dishes known in Korean as banchan /반찬.


Below are 13 well-loved Korean vegetarian dishes:

  1. Bibimbap (비빔밥): Bibimbap is one of Korea’s most popular dishes among foreigners. Consisting of rice on the bottom, and several vegetables (including cucumber, mushrooms, zucchini, spinach, and/or soybean sprouts), bibimbap can either be served at room temperature in a cold metal bowl, or sizzling in a hot clay pot (this variation is called dolsot bibimbap /돌솥 비빔밥).  
  2. Bungeoppang (붕어빵): Literally translated as “fish bread”, bungeoppang doesn’t actually contain any seafood. In fact, it’s sweet! Instead, this fish-shaped pastry is filled with red bean paste. Served straight from the waffle-like iron, bungeoppang is a popular winter street snack in Korea.
  3. Dwoenjang jjigae (된장 찌개): Soup is an essential in any vegetarian’s diet in Korea. Doenjang jjigae (soybean paste soup with vegetables) makes a great meal on its own, but it can also be served as a banchan. Seafood is sometimes included in this soup.
  4. Dubu-kimchi (두부김치): Another banchan, consisting of stir-fried kimchi served with soft tofu, dubu/두부. The kimchi can occasionally be served with tuna or pork, so be sure to ask someone beforehand if you can get the vegetarian variation.  
  5. Dubu-jorim (두부조림): As a vegetarian, you should be getting used to the world “dubu” (tofu) here in Korea. Dubu-jorim is tofu marinated in soy sauce and garnished with chopped green onions. It’s usually served as a banchan.

Gamja jorim (감자 조림): Gamja jorim, glazed potatoes, are a popular banchan. Seasonings like soy sauce, garlic, and brown sugar are combined to give gamja jorim its lovely sweet flavor and sticky texture. It’s also very easy to prepare at home and can be a desert or snack.

  1. Gyeran-jjim (계란찜): Gyranjim is simmering seasoned eggs served in a hot pot. It’s essentially a really soft omelet. It is always served as banchan.
  2. Kimchi bokkeumbap (김치 볶음밥): This is a favorite among vegetarians and meat-eaters alike. Always a main dish, kimchi bokkeumbap (kimchi fried rice) is served with an over-easy egg on top. You need to mash the whole thing together – the result is a deliciously greasy (and slightly spicy) mound of comfort food, sure to please anyone.
  3. Kimchi-jeon (김치전): A favorite especially among foreigners, jeon is the ultimate comfort food: a greasy, deliciously crispy pancake mixed with any combination of things. The kimchi variety is guaranteed to be meat-free. But, the more popular version, haemul-pajeon/해물파전, is served with green onions and some shrimp, octopus and. Be sure to confirm the size with the server, as jeon can range from the size of a hockey puck to an extra large pizza.
  4. Kongnamul (콩나물): This popular banchan consists of cold, steamed bean sprouts dressed with sesame oil. You can also get a soup called Kongnamul gukbap/콩나물국밥, which is a soup chalk full of sprouts in a spicy broth.
  5. Yache gimbap (야재김밥): Gimbap, Korea’s version of rolled sushi, makes a tasty and inexpensive snack, especially if you’re in a hurry. Be careful though, most varieties come with Spam, egg, cheese, and/or seafood inside. The yache (which means “vegetable” in Korean) variety will only contain veggies.
  6. Yache twigim (야재튀김): Yache twigim are battered and deep-fried vegetables, which are almost identical to Japanese tempura. They’re most commonly found as street food, but they can also be ordered as menu items in Japanese restaurants. Like gimbap be sure to order only veggies as there are also shrimp, octopus and sausage twigim.
  7. Yonkun-jorim (연근조림): Yonkun-jorim is candied, stir-fried lotus root. While it may sound a little weird at first, this banchan is actually really delicious.


Rule #2: Be Cautious when Modifying your Meal

In many other cultures, it’s nothing unusual to go out to eat and order a dish off the menu in the same way someone would order their specialty Starbucks coffee. If you say something like:

Okay, give me the stir-fry, but leave out the beef, add extra peppers, take out half the amount of bean sprouts, and ABSOLUTELY no MSG, salt or gluten. I will die from even the smallest amount, so ask the chef to sterilize the entire kitchen before making my meal. Oh, and I’m in a hurry, so make it fast.

I hate to break it to you, but you will be sorely disappointed. Even a request as small as “please leave out the meat” may not be taken seriously, or even understood for that matter. If you find a bone floating around in your tofu stew, well, let’s just say you’re not the first vegetarian that’s happened to.


Don’t try to modify menu items. Stick to what you know is vegetarian. Otherwise, you’re going to confuse the server and you’ll likely end up with a dish that still has some traces of meat in it.


If you must modify a menu item, here are some phrases to help you out. For a super easy experience, print out this list and keep it in your wallet for when you eat out.


Essential Vegetarian Phrases:

I’m a vegetarian.

저는 채식주의자입니다.

Chonun chae-sheek-joowee-ja imnida

I can’t eat red meat (seafood and cheese are fine)

저는 고기를 먹지 않습니다. (생선 류와 치즈는 괜찮습니다.)

Chonun gogi lul mokji an subnida (saeng-son ryuoee jijeuh nun gwaen jan subnida).

I can’t eat animal products (I am vegan)

저는 고기류가 포함된 음식을 먹지 않습니다.

Chonun gogiryuga pohamdoen eumshik eul mokji ansubnida.

I can’t eat seafood

저는 해산물을 먹지 않습니다.

Chonun haesan moolul mokji an subnida.


If your memory fails you, or your printer has another breakdown, just memorize this super cheesy (yet strangely addictive) song for vegetarians in Korea, courtesy of A transcript of the phrases used in the song can be found here.


Rule #3: Be Open-Minded

Some vegetarians come to Korea and only end up eating French fries, instant noodles, and chocolate bars. Just because you are unsure about the new foods in Korea, it doesn’t mean you need to hop on a yo-yo diet and rotate between rice, lettuce and kimchi when you eat out and cheap junk food when you eat in. Tied with Japan for the lowest obesity rate in the developed world, Korea must be doing something right! So why not give some of its national dishes a try?


In other words, it’s not that the options are not here! The next time a Korean friend suggests a vegetarian dish to you, be brave and try it (no matter how strange it may look).


For example, possibly the most popular vegetarian dish in Korea, bibimbap (비빔밥) may not look very appetizing at first. However, it turns out that after mashing all of these ingredients together (usually zucchini, cucumber, spinach, lettuce, mushrooms, and bean sprouts) the result you get is a delicious medley of veggies and rice – and of course, extra goju-chang (고추장) sauce is a must.


Rule #4: Cook at Home

If you have a stove top, a pot and a frying pan in your apartment, an obvious idea is to just cook for yourself: it’s cheap, you know what you’re eating, and if you’re anything like me, the whole process of experimenting is a fun experience in itself.


Try re-creating some of your favorite Korean dishes at home for cheap. Kimchi fried rice, savory pancakes (like jeon), and tteokbokki/떡볶이 (chewy rice cakes in hot pepper sauce) are all easy recipes that can be found online. The ingredients are cheap and readily available in any Korean grocery store.


If you’re a little wary of using Korean ingredients in the kitchen, then fear not. Foreign food markets abound in Seoul (and some other parts of Korea), so you can easily whip up a veggie quesadilla or spaghetti marinara without a fuss. While the ingredients may seem expensive, the more you experiment (or substitute Korean ingredients) the easier cooking as a vegetarian in Korea will become.


à Click here to read WorknPlay’s article on Western groceries in Seoul.


Rule #5: Become a Foodie and Try New Restaurants

Good news: vegetarian restaurants do exist in Korea! You’ll be able to appreciate them a lot more, no doubt, knowing that you can order whatever you want off the menu.


The best restaurant options for vegetarians in Korea are:

  1. Buffets: an obvious advantage of buffets is that you can see which dishes are meat-free and choose accordingly. Socially, they’re a great option because your meat-eater friends will still get their chicken and beef, while you can dine happily on veggie fare. Some even offer “all-you-can-drink” options, so it makes for a great start for a night out!
  2. Hanjeongsik (한정식): Hanjeongsik restaurants feature a meal made of several different banchan. It’s perfect for vegetarians, because almost every dish is meat-free. There might be the odd seafood dish, but for the most part, it gets the vegetarian stamp of approval. Think of it as a sampling session: every dish is about the size of a CD, and as is Korean style, sharing is expected. Although, you will get your own bowl of rice and soup (the broth usually will be made from chicken or beef, so keep that in mind).
  3. Indian Restaurants: Indian food is beginning to gain popularity in Korea, and it’s easy to see why: many characteristics of Indian food cross over into Korean cuisine, such as the uses of rice as a staple food and chili peppers as a favorite seasoning! Most Indian food is vegetarian, so you won’t have a problem eating out with your friends.


To learn more about vegetarian-only restaurants, the WorknPlay’s directory on them here.


Rule #6: Get Your Vitamins!

As some meat-free, protein-rich foods like peanut butter, quinoa, and tempeh might be hard to find in Korea, it’s important to find other sources of essential vitamins you may be missing out on.


Some vitamin supplements, such as the Deva Vegan Multivitamin, can be purchased online through Amazon.


Two other online shops that cater exclusively to foreigners in Korea also ship vitamins. You can visit their websites below:

  1. Fatbag: 12 vitamin supplement products;
  2. EZ Shop Korea: 29 vitamin supplement products;


Rule #7: Join Seoul’s Veggie Community

While sometimes it may indeed seem that nobody else can relate to your diet in Korea, that’s certainly not the case. Many vegetarians live happily in Korea and have even started social groups who get together to share recipes and experiences. A popular group is the “Seoul Vegan Potluck”, which attracts omnivores and carnivores alike. Attendees swap recipes and cooking tips at monthly meetings held all around Seoul. They post info about their events regularly on their facebook page here. Another popular veggie group is the “Seoul Veggie Club” with 1,380 members and counting in their active facebook group. Members swap recipes and restaurant reviews, along with occasionally planning group events. Hey, if you’re going to be a veggie in Seoul you might as well make some friends at the same time!


Gabrielle interned as a Content Creator for Work'n'Play during her exchange trip to Chung-Ang University in 2012-2013. She graduated from Vancouver Island University in May 2014 with her BA in Global Studies. She is now a Master's student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ottawa, Canada. The things she misses most about her year in Korea are: going for makgeolli + jeon with friends, exploring Seoul's new and old hidden treasures and getting to practice Korean every day. You can connect with her on Twitter at @MsGabrielle or email her at