One of the many things we love about the living in Korea is the abundance of insanely delicious eats for the carnivores among us. This country LOVES its meat and you won’t walk more than 5 minutes in most places without seeing a BBQ restaurant.
This was not welcome news for two of our guests who visited us here- they are vegetarian. Before their arrival, Oli and I had to rack our brains and completely rethink how we thought about Korean food.
We were a little worried. But we shouldn’t have been. Although the variety is incredibly small compared with Korea’s meat options, the Korean vegetarian food there is is delicious.
Let us take you on a vegetable lovers journey through Korean cuisine…
Doenjang Jiggae 뒨장 찌개
This soybean soup is a Korean staple which is ever present in almost every Korean BBQ restauramt we have frequented (which are many!) but is in fact deliciously meat free. Served piping hot in a clay pot, this dish sizzles with a rich, lightly spiced broth that is bursting with flavour. Inside you’ll find soft potato, soft tofu and soft vegetables to munch along with a spoonful of rice. This is a very simple dish but very satisfying. If your meat eating friends drag you along to a BBQ, know that this dish will be waiting and you won’t feel left out. It is also sold in most other restaurants too,
Kimchi Jiggae 김치 찌개
Although often served with meat or fish, this classic Korean stew featuring Korea’s most famous and loved ‘superfood’ can easily be made vegetarian. Hot, spicy, slightly sour and full of healthy kimchi, you cannot come to Korea and not try this dish! Even for the Kimchi-phobes out there, Kimchi stew is a whole different ball game as the cooking of the cabbage takes away much of the fermented taste, leaving only delicious spice.
Sundubu Jiggae 순두부 찌개
Yet another soupy stew- I hope you veggies like liquid dinners! My food critic skills fall short of describing the unique differences between these three spicy soups but I hope the photographs will do a bit more justice. I’m not much of a tofu fan but this dish I love. The tofu is intensely creamy and takes on all that deep spicy, smoky broth. You know the drill, just add rice!
Bibimbap literally means mixed rice and rather than your usual stir fried Asian rice dishes this is a fresh, salady affair that is seriously good. Each restaurant will have their favourite vegetable additions including the humble lettuce, beansprouts and probably one or two kinds you won’t have seen before. Topped with an egg and a dollop of spicy Gochujang paste, the whole lot is mixed together and eaten with a spoon. The dolsot (돌솥), hot stone, version is the best and comes with a raw egg to beat into the mix, making it a little creamy.
If your bibimbap comes with rice already on top, make sure to check underneath for any hidden animals. In fact, it’s advised to give all your food a quick stir to check that it really is meat free before chowing down. Vegetarianism is pretty much unheard of in the Korean, apart from strict Buddhists, and thus someone may not have quite understood your request for no meat.
Kimbap is like a Korean sushi sandwich, with vegetables, and usually meat, wrapped inside rice and then inside seaweed. Vegetable only kimbap should be quite easy to come by as restaurants will make it up fresh and you can see what goes in. Dipped in a little soy and chilli, this is the perfect lunchtime snack.
Pajeon is one of our veggie friends favourite Korean snacks and ours too. A Korean style pancake packed with crunchy veggies, this is one of few dishes you can enjoy without rice! Be sure to ask for only veggies as the most common restaurant pajeon is made with squid.
And then there is Bing Su
Ok, ok, I know it isn’t a meal but we are all grown ups here and that means being old enough to have desert for dinner! If the above options begin to wear a little thin, Bing Su is sure to save the day.
Whilst this is not an exhaustive list, these are the foods we have found most easy to come by when travelling around Korea with our vegetarian friends. Usually when you are off exploring you want to be able to pop into any restaurant when you feel hunger pangs and not traipse around in search of specific vegetarian friendly ones. These dishes are incredibly common as well as being delicious, so it’s a win-win really.
What’s also great about Korean restaurants is that no matter what you order, a plethora of side dishes come with and many of these are vegetarian. These are free and can be refilled, usually, as often as you want.
If you are looking for a vegetarian restaurant, you can try out Korea’s chain of vegan and vegetarian restaurants Loving Hut. The best branches can be found in Seoul while smaller towns such as our local Andong, have more limited menus.
And to finish off here are a few very simple sentences (hopefully all correct) to aid you in hopefully getting by with any meaty surprises:
I’m a vegetarian. 체시 사람 이에요. chey-she sa-ram ee-eh-yo
Is there meat in this? 이고 고기 있어요? ee-go go-gee i-soh-yo?
There isn’t meat. 고기 없어요. go-gee op-soh-yo
I don’t eat meat. 고기 안목어요. go-gee an mok-goh-yo.
Lots of vegetables please. 야체 마니주세요. ya-chey ma-nee ju-se-yo
Update: Are you interested in more delicious Korean food tips? Our Korea Journey Handbook is now available on the Kindle Store for only £2.58 and full of recommendations!