Vegetarians in Korea
Share this on

Vegetarians in Korea

In 2006 the Hankyoreh 21 magazine ran this article about Korean vegetarians, which I found while searching around for information about, well, Korean vegetarians. The article mentions a Korean vegetarians club, but there is also an expat vegetarian club — you can check out their blog — and useful information for veggie expats is on the Galbijim wiki’s vegetarian portal.

For vegetarians there is a “moment of truth” when they must act. Many vegetarians say that they chose vegetarianism after witnessing the slaughter of animals. From that moment forward they understand that “meat is the corpse of an animal” and that awareness naturally prevents them from eating meat. So vegetarianism that starts from the goals of health or wellbeing does not last particularly long, because that refusal does not come from the gut reaction that “meat is disgusting”. If they get lazy, they eat meat.

In the west there are standard phases of vegetarianism depending on the food eaten. There are those who eat fish but not red meat (“pesco”), those who eat milk and eggs (“lacto” or “lacto-ovo”) and “vegans”, who don’t eat any animal products at all. But this classification doesn’t fit the Korean situation. This is because in the west they must only worry about dishes such as steak, but in Korea meat is used in seasonings and bases.

So Park Ha-jae (29) advises, “vegetarianism should start from anti-lumpism.” ‘Anti-lumpism’ (비덩주의) is vegetarianism that does not eat large masses of meat. Foods such as samgyeopsal and donkkas are easily associated with the idea that, “meat is the corpse of an animal”. But this is much more difficult in the case of miyeokguk made with beef or dwenjangguk made with anchovies. Of course a strict vegan would object, “you can’t say that!” but there is no need to be so hung-up like that. Among 100 vegetarians there will be 100 kinds of vegetarianism. Let’s look at the different kinds.

29-year old Woori, who is a vegan at home and a lacto-ovo vegetarian outside, says, “I have to be a vegetarian when I’m studying.” She started eating a vegetarian diet in 1998 and has experienced breaking down after a few months.

“In the beginning I didn’t know that you had to eat a well-balanced diet. I ate mostly rice with lettuce and chicory. I got dizzy, had low blood pressure, and fainted.”

She went to the hospital and was told that her diet was insufficient in protein. After that she joined a vegetarians association and began studying vegetarianism. She learned that vegetarians must eat whole-grain rice or brown rice, and get protein through tofu and beans. She read classic books about vegetarianism and the meat-eating society including “The End of Meat” (육식의 종말), “The Food Revolution” (음식혁명), and “Helen Nearing’s Simple Food for the Good Life” (헬렌 니어링의 소박한 밥상). One who is sympathetic to those books’ logic will transform from a casual vegetarian to an ethical vegetarian.

After that is the coming-out phase. When ordering in the restaurants you say, “please make it with no meat.” At first it is not easy. Worse, there are restaurant owners and workers who don’t understand your intentions. Bewildered cooks will ask, “oh, really, and should I leave out the pickled radish, too?”

Stick to your guns and say once, “I am a vegetarian.” But don’t act arrogant. Always be humble, and keep in mind that you are a “goodwill ambassador for vegetarianism”. Kitchen ajummas should be the allies of vegetarians. That won’t happen if people to have the preconception that “vegetarians are so picky”.

Towards this end the vegetarians association 지구사랑 베가 ( has started a project for vegetarian-friendly restaurants. The project puts the association’s stamp of approval on restaurants with vegetarian-friendly menus or which are accomodating to vegetarians. The list includes vegetarian buffets owned by vegetarians, of course, as well those which will make vegetarian kimbap, or kalguksu without shellfish.

When going out to eat you need to have places where you are a regular. For example every restaurant makes dwenjangjjigae with anchovy stock. Kimbap has fish in it, obviously. Ddeokbokki is made with oden stock. When you order jajangmyeon in Chinese restaurants, you have to ask for “kanjajang (간자장) with the meat left out”. Park says, “you have to be really careful of the dwenjangjjigae in galbi places. They use beef or pork stock.”

In the coming-out phase meat-eaters will attack you. When you’re in a samgyeopsal house and you put lettuce on your rice, they will ask you, “isn’t lettuce a living thing?” It’s good to have some standard answers ready. “Don’t spoil the atmosphere, just try to get along,” says Mr. Park, a vegetarian for five years. 27-year old Ryu Hyeon-jeong, a vegetarian for over seven months, advises, “use a metaphor to persuade them.” She explains, “if animals are fingers then vegetables are fingernails. If you cut your fingers off they don’t grow back, but fingernails do. Animals are different from vegetables in that they have the seeds of consciousness and can be cultivated.” The foundation of vegetarianism is that though they must eat they are conscious of the lives they consume.

Don’t argue with people. Doing so in restaurants will just make people think vegetarians are “autistic”. You will have fewer chances to eat together with people and then your relationships will suffer. Sitting together at the table is a time to promote vegetarian food, not to fight. Don’t treat meat-eaters like barbarians.

Dishes that arrive with meat in them, whether through an incorrect order or a mistake by the restaurant, is a test for vegetarians. “One day I, wanting of course to eat vegetarian, ordered bibimbap, but it came with heaps of beef and I was in a pickle. At the time I just swallowed it down and chewed quickly.”

Other vegetarians, however, would be unable to eat, their mood having been spoiled, and put it in the trash. Every vegetarian has a different reaction. For example there is 35-year old Kim Min-yeong, who would just eat quickly, other who would not eat it and toss it away, and others who would wrap it up and give it away to someone else.

Vegetarians have to be careful about something — snacks. Park said, “if exciting flavors seem far away, I might wind up eating a bunch of snacks.” For Woo-ri it’s gum. “When I miss the feel of something chewy I get some gum.” They appear on the vegetarians association site’s list of non-vegetarian ingredients, but in fact many are also bad for you because they have sugar. If you indulge in lots of snacks it’s just as unhealthy as not being a vegetarian. The same is true for faux meats with lots of additives.

Lee Won-bok of the 한국채식연합 said, “if you want to successfully live on a vegetarian diet you need to think carefully about your principles.” Being a vegetarian can be an intense, daily battle.