Koreans love their rice, a necessary staple at every meal, but they also love their BBQ. It’s no secret that meat, dairy, and seafood are widely consumed in Korea. In fact, many Koreans are unfortunately under the illusion that meat, dairy, and seafood are integral parts of a healthy diet.
From my observations, a contributing factor to this disillusion is collectivism vs. individualism. An integral part of Korean culture is living community-oriented lives where sameness is encouraged and differences are concealed, for fear of being shamed. Given their collective approach, it doesn’t come as a surprise that many are ignorant when it comes to meatless diets and the reasons why people choose to go meatless. However I must note that they do understand those who abstain for religious reasons.
Prior to moving here, I researched online and became educated on the challenges I’d face if I pursued a vegan lifestyle. It seemed likely that it would require extreme effort to be vegan while sustaining my health. As a result, I made a conscious decision to eat a mostly vegetarian diet with a little seafood on occasion, so in other words, pescatarian. Although I’m in rural Korea, I have found a way to make it work and it’s not as difficult as you may think. Don’t get me wrong, there are many instances when I’m frustrated with the situation, but if you adopt a diet similar to mine, then it’s feasible. And even a vegan diet is doable.
Here are some pearls of wisdom that will help you along the way and things you should remain aware of:
1. They really don’t get it.
Many Koreans truly don’t understand the concept. And I’m really not trying to be rude or crass, it’s just the reality. Eating meatless isn’t a diet their culture entirely supports. Not to mention, children aren’t typically exposed to empathy or compassion towards livestock. In their eyes, raising animals for food consumption is just the way of life. You will come across some who understand what a “vegetarian” is, but even so, it’s not widely accepted because of collectivism. They will be polite, but don’t be surprised if your reasons are questioned. On a rare occasion, you may even feel judgmental vibes emanating from an individual who asks. Generally speaking though, Koreans are more so interested in your reasons.
One thing that is particularly alarming is their lack of acknowledgement when it comes to the connection between the meat industry and climate change. Koreans are extremely passionate about the environment and take drastic measures to participate in the global awareness surrounding global warming, hence the hypocrisy is a bit ironic.
2. School lunches are vegetarian friendly.
This is purely based on my experiences working at two schools. Lunches contain meat on most days, but it is generally easy to eat around. Luckily for us herbivores, Korea has this amazing thing called 반찬 (banchan) or, in other words, side dishes. Most of the side dishes are vegetable based, so on days where meat is the focal dish, you can load up on extra banchan. Sometimes they’ll even make a vegetarian version of meat dishes.
Related: are veggies living-wiser?
3. Beware of any hidden ingredients.
Korea is infamous for including ingredients in dishes that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in there. For example, I bought a vegetable croquette one time and when I opened it up at home, can you guess what I discovered? Meat. It may not be characteristic of you to ask a lot of questions, but don’t be afraid to inquire when you’re purchasing something that you’re going to be ingesting. There’s no harm in asking, especially if it’s due to dietary restrictions.
4. Examine everything (even after questioning).
There have been a number of instances when I’ve ordered something, questioned the cashier, and somehow still ended up with meat in my dish.
There was a time when I ordered a curry dish, asked if it contained any meat, was told no, and it turns out there was ground beef in the sauce. Luckily I caught them in time and instead was served meatless sauce they had set aside. In the end, the dish contained bits of beef here and there, but I still ate it anyways – just took some extra time to meticulously pick around the meat.
Korea is notorious for these mishaps, so for those of you who are strict vegans, I highly recommend that you double, triple, and quadruple check everything before taking a bite.
5 . Tofu is readily available.
So don’t worry! You’ll find tofu in many soups and side dishes. Grocery stores are always fully stocked in that department. Although you may be sick of it towards the end of your stay, know that endless tofu scrambles are always an option. You’ve got to get your protein somehow!
6. Even at BBQ restaurants, you can order bibimbap (비빔밥).
Every single BBQ place I’ve been to has had bibimbap on their menu. It’s a really nice option because BBQ is an extremely popular group activity, so everyone can join in regardless of their lifestyle choices.
7 . If you’re exclusively vegan, living in rural Korea will be a challenge.
Firstly, kimchi is everywhere and as delicious as it is, it contains fish sauce. Secondly, seafood is commonly found in school lunches and if you’re already excluding meat, then your options are pretty scarce. Thirdly, eating out will pose several challenges because of everything I’ve discussed thus far. Even bibimbap includes kimchi in the mix (more often than not).
In order to make it work, you’d probably have to supplement school lunches with food from home or better yet, pack your own lunch altogether. And when eating out, you should identify a couple dishes you know you can eat, no problem, and stick to those.
8. The 5 survival words you should know.
- i] Let’s start with the obvious. Vegetable = 야채 (yachae)
- ii] The next obvious, is meat. Meat = 고기 (gogi)
- iii] When asking if a dish has a certain ingredient, for example meat, you would use the word 있어요 (isseoyo). Bibimbap sometimes contains meat, so you would say “bibimbap, gogi isseoyo?” Which quite literally means, is there meat in the bibimbap? If the person’s response is “isseoyo,” that means there is meat in the bibimbap.
- iv] However, if the response is 없어요 (upsseoyo), this means the bibimbap does not have meat. You’re safe to go, most likely.
- v] Most importantly, without = 빼고 (bbaego). So if the response is isseoyo, then you would say “bibimbap, gogi bbaego juseyo” or in English words, I want the bibimbap without meat please.
9. Practice self-compassion, always.
You may be the strictest vegan in the world, but you’re going to have to make some sacrifices here and there and be okay with compromising at times. You may think you’re doing a fantastic job at avoiding certain things, but chances are you’ve accidentally and unknowingly inhaled some byproduct or trace of meat somewhere along the way. And it’s just something you have to swallow, literally and figuratively, and be okay with.
You can only do the best that you can do. If that means being okay with the lunch ladies using the meat ladle for your vegetable version of the dish or being gracious if you find a piece of meat in your meal or whatever it may be for you, then great. The more you can surrender and simultaneously love yourself despite the slip ups, the better off you’ll be.
Know that you’re already doing the world and animals a great service and enormous deed by dedicating your life to eliminating meat consumption, so if it becomes too difficult and you need to include seafood or some other food group or byproduct to maintain a balanced diet while you’re in Korea, then that’s okay. Be content with minimizing.
No matter what anyone says, you are healing the world and making a difference by choosing this lifestyle. Given your limited control over outside influences, work with what you can. Take pride in your choices and be good to yourself. Most of all, practice self-compassion every single day.
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A version of this article was originally published on EPIK e-Press.