Sticking to a strict vegetarian diet in Korea is not always easy. Unless you cook all your meals exclusively at home, you can be sure that you will often eat dishes which contain meat or are made from beef or pork stock. In addition, some older Koreans don't consider ham to be meat, and many dishes labeled as "vegetable" do contain meat.
However, the good news is that many people do keep to a vegetarian diet here, sometimes for many years. The Seoul Vegetarian Club is one place where you can find them. The best way to stick to a vegetarian diet is to cook at home quite a bit and learn some key phrases for when you go out, such as how to politely say that you don't eat meat; to ask if a certain dish has meat; and to ask if the dish can be made without it. Even so, you can expect that some restaurants will get your order wrong; others may openly laugh -- usually kindly, out of surprise -- even as they accept your request. It may be best to think of it as just one kind of culture shock which you'll have to get over. For you, learning some basic Korean will be even more valuable than for other expats.
- 저는 채식주의자예요
- 이 친구는 채식주의자예요 My friend is a vegetarian.
- 저는 _____을/를 안먹어요 I don't eat meat.
- 저는 고기를 안먹어요 I don't eat meat
- 저는 조개를 안먹어요 I dont eat shellfish.
- 저는 계란을 안먹어요 I don't eat egg.
- Are there any vegetarian dishes here?
- 여기는 채식요리 있어요?
- Does this city have any vegetarian restaurants?
- 이 도시에는 채식요리 식당이 있어요?
- Is the ______ vegetarian?
- ______은/는 채식요리예요?
- Does the _____ have _____?
- _____은/는 _____이/가 있어요?
- For example: 김치볶음밥은 햄이 있어요? Does the kimchi boggeumbap have ham?
- I'll have the _____, but with no _____, please.
- _____는 _____를 빼고주세요
- _____는 _____이 없이 주세요
- For example: 김밥은 햄 없이 주세요
- 고기 meat
- 쇠고기 beef
- 돼지고기 pork
- 닭고기 chicken
- 햄 Ham
- 해물 seafood
- 조개 shellfish
- 계란 egg
- 야채 vegetable
- 채식 vegetarian food
- 채식 요리 vegetarian cuisine/cooking
- 채식 식당 vegetarian restaurant
- 채식주의 vegetarian principles
- 채식주의자 vegetarian person
Typical vegetarian dishes
In addition to these, plenty of banchan -- side dishes -- are vegetarian.
- Kimbap can be made vegetarian easily enough.
- Bibimbap is a dish of rice, gochujang, and assorted veggies. It usually has a fried egg and often some beef, but if you ask the restaurant not to put them in they will have no problem.
- Jjolmyeon and bibimguksu are basically bibimbap with noodles instead of rice, but never has meat. It does come with a hard-boiled egg.
- Doenjang-jjigae is a stew of tofu, vegetables, and shellfish in a soybean paste base. The shellfish can easily be taken out.
- Sundubu-jjigae is a spicy tofu stew which usually has shellfish and egg, which you can ask be removed. It does rarely have beef.
- Dubu kimchi is a common bar food made with stir-fried kimchi, meat, and plain steamed tofu. It can always be made vegetarian if you ask, though the kimchi is likely made with fish or oyster sauce.
Dishes to watch out for
Fried rice dishes, especially kimchi bokkeumbap and omurice, tend to have ham in them, even when they are called "vegetable fried rice" (야채볶음밥). "Vegetable kimbap" (야채김밥) has ham, egg, usually imitation crab meat, and sometimes odeng; "salad kimbap" (샐래드김밥) usually has mayonnaise. Naengmyeon is normally made with a chicken broth base, and usually with a slice of pork and a hard-boiled egg besides.