In 2014, a Huffpost article included South Korea amongst twelve other countries that are the most difficult in the world for vegans. The author wrote how Korea was famous for its barbecue and seafood.¹ “Korea is a difficult place for vegans and gluten-free eaters,” says Lucy Santiago, a vegan who lived in Seoul for most of the last decade. Things have changed since the days that Santiago first lived in South Korea. “Years ago it was very hard, but slowly Seoul, and in particular Itaewon, was the catalyst of change for vegetarianism and veganism.” In a wide-ranging interview , Santiago draws upon years of experiences to put together a list of tips for vegetarians, vegans, and gluten-free eaters living on the Korean peninsula. She believes that people with alternative diets should be active, ignore resentment in the workplace, socialize on their own terms, have simplicity, be open-minded about friends with different diets, always carry snacks, explore and try new things, and to be on the look out for kimbab shops. She also shares about options for vegetarians, vegans, and gluten-free dieters, when possible, as she alternated between these diets over the years and knows about accommodating them.
#1. Be Active
Apply yourself when it comes to finding restaurants and grocery shopping by using a translator, asking clerks about food, or having friends help. It’s important to get the correct food when following a special diet and living in a foreign country.
“Find the appropriate restaurants that cater to vegans and vegetarians. In addition to the popular restaurants on Korean vegan blogs, there are other restaurants out there that could fit a vegan or vegetarian diet. It is important to make sure that any restaurants that are not advertised as vegan or vegetarian don’t use animal products. Additionally, it would be good to find out about one’s allergies to any native foods or vegetables. Third, have a translator app ready on the smartphone, like Papago or Google Translate.
Often when shopping at supermarkets, there’s a common dilemma that occurs repeatedly. One will find a food product that looks vegan, but there’s no way to check. The situation could arise that the phone’s translator doesn’t work well. The translation might give a bunch of garbled text, or even worse, the food might not have a label. So then one has to ask the clerks but they can’t give proper assistance. In such a case, what is a vegetarian or vegan supposed to do? This happens more often than you would think. Remember, just because it looks vegan doesn’t mean it is.
If possible, ask a Korean friend to help you with translation. Especially at the big hypermarkets like Home Plus or Emart, a friend’s help is indispensable. Or if you happen to be with a friend while shopping, they can easily help you with translation. My friends usually used Naver to translate and explain what an herb, food, or product has in it.”
#2. Ignore Resentment in the Workplace
It’s not easy to be a vegetarian or vegan, especially at work.
“Ignore resentment at the workplace because its unavoidable. It was one universal of my years living as a vegetarian and vegan in Korea. There were often cultural differences and many people didn’t get that I had to follow my diet seriously. I would have to remind co-workers about my diet. They might not one hundred percent get it. They would think going to a barbecue place or having salad or kimchi and rice was fine while they ate meat. That’s the number one issue. No one shares the commitment to the diet so they might think its okay. Or they might think that a restaurant is good enough but then find out there is only a salad available. I’d go to work dinners and have a salad and it wouldn’t occur to anyone there was anything wrong until I said no.”
Generally, a lot of people wouldn’t get that the diet had to be followed.
“Another big issue is you would just try to conform to please others. I had occasions where I felt pressed to eat something that was cooked in meat, and I would want to keep the relationship on positive terms and just eat what was in front of me. Co-workers would think its fine to just remove the meat. The removal doesn’t make it vegan. Vegan means no meat or fish products. They would say to just push the meat away. They didn’t really get that just removing the meat was disrespectful towards the diet, especially the older people. It would lead to misunderstanding.”
Another problem comes up when eating out with friends. When it comes to socializing, the problems are that the food one’s friends would want to eat didn’t match a vegan’s dietary needs.
“I’ve had problems with friends. Of course, they often want to help with finding a vegetarian friendly restaurant. But it doesn’t always work out. One or both of you might get frustrated. They won’t say it to you, but there might be resentment as a result.”
#3. Socialize on your own terms
Being a vegan or vegetarian in Korea can be an impediment to making new friends. Eating food, which often includes meat and drinking, brings people together and can be the basis of socialization.
“For someone who’s strict about it, it’s quite challenging. In Korea, you eat or drink together. That’s how you make friends. The way to get around it is by meeting in the daytime to do cultural things that don’t require eating. Options include visiting museums, galleries, parks, and cafes. A person who doesn’t enjoy the nightlife, drinking, or eating out might make friends by doing team sports, yoga, meetups, the gym, and so forth.
With my friends, we would go to cafes for coffee or tea and they would eat sweets. Or they would have traditional rice cakes or pastries. Going to cafes never really interfered with my diet, as none of the food or drinks we had at them included meat. When I went to actual restaurants, my friends would say I was allergic to meat when they talked to the restaurant staff. That helped a lot. Restaurant staff would have to prepare the dishes in accordance with the diet. Of course, many restaurants didn’t have dishes that were vegan. So we skipped many restaurants. We would choose temple foods. We would go to Buddhist temple food restaurants, like the ones in Insadong. Friends found them for me. I also bumped into a few by accident. Things are improving overall for people with alternative diets. Seoul has a lot of options nowadays. The Loving Hut is a great place for vegans. That’s the number one place I recommend. It’s the perfect place to arrange a hang with friends at. If you are gluten tolerant you are A-okay. It’s a place to go. But sadly, you most likely can’t find gluten-free options in Seoul. The only advice I have for gluten-free in Korea is to eat at home.”
It’s important to be resolute, Santiago suggests.
“I’m not going to socialize with others because of obligation, so I put my foot down. I refuse to eat food that doesn’t fit my diet. So, sometimes I did my own thing and stayed home and cooked instead. As a last resort, staying comfortable at home is better than giving in to other people if it means betraying your principles. You’ve got to stand your ground. If you feel a certain way of eating is best for you and your way of being, then that’s all that matters. Others can’t push you to eat a certain way.”
It’s good to cook simply.
“Always go with what’s in season. Find the produce and fruits that are in season. Keep it simple. You can cook with your favorite fruit and vegetables and use soybean paste to make Korean-style soup. Cooking at home is essential. Do it all at home. Just do your cooking with the supermarket food that is available. Use simple herbs, and stay away from refined salts. Also, save money and eat what’s in season. It’s fresher, local, and more connected to the environment. Years back, there was only Iherb or family sending food and there wasn’t always lots of herbs and spices available. That has changed and its easy to get herbs or international products anywhere in Korea nowadays.”
#5. Be open-minded about meat-eating friends
Engaging friends with different diets might reveal surprising developments.
“Spend time with friends that tolerate your lifestyle. People are always curious about why you don’t eat meat. They are always eager to try non-meat food.
Usually, I introduce my friends and acquaintances to Spanish cuisine or vegan food. For example, I’ve made vegan Korean soybean soup and friends have liked it. One friend liked the Spanish beans I made so much she asked me to cook them for her again. You will always find a friend who is open-minded enough to try vegetarianism. You’ve got to give people the freedom to be themselves. That extends to people who don’t share your diet, like people that eat meat. It’s ok to be around meat eaters. I don’t want to be around the smell of meat or meat restaurants, but meat eaters are fine. You have to be respectful and mindful of everyone.”
#6. Always carry snacks
Vegans and vegetarians always have food options, even if they are traveling or restaurants have closed. Still, by carrying snacks, one can be confident in their dietary independence.
“If you live in central Seoul its easy to go home after a day of meeting friends and have a meal. If living outside of Seoul, having any special diet can always be hard. It’s because Seoul acts as the central hub in the country and most times you socialize, you have to come to Seoul. It’s difficult. Most foreigners don’t have a car and have to take a bus or train to get home. There are times you might be in trouble without snacks, though convenience stores always have bananas, apples, or nuts on their shelves. Being far from home and doing a lot of walking, as usually happens when visiting Seoul, makes people hungry for food.
Remember, there is always an option, like fruits, nuts, and kimbab, which are sold at convenience stores. But you don’t have to buy them unless it’s an emergency. And it’s best to prepare so there are few emergencies. Anytime I was leaving the home to meet a friend, I wouldn’t leave without some snacks prepared. The golden rule is to always carry snacks. In my case, I would go so far as to carry homemade drinks. Bringing tea or coffee with you on treks or social gatherings saves you time and money in the long run. When in doubt, carry snacks and homemade drinks. I usually prepared chopped-up apples, pears, bananas, and mixed nuts. Don’t forget that vegan friendly street snacks also exist on Seoul’s streets. The best street snacks, in my humble opinion, are sweet potatoes and chestnuts. Those were my go to snacks. You can find them in central Seoul’s neighborhoods around the old palaces.
You always have to have snacks in your bag because you won’t always have restaurants or options that have vegan-friendly food. Gluten-free can eat nuts and fruit, but little else at the convenience stores. Though Korea has opened up, it still needs to improve its alternatives, as far as having options for gluten-free dieters.”
#6. Exploring and trying out new things
Getting out and trying new things is important for engaging life in Korea, and growing as a vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free eater.
“Explore and try new food. You might discover new taste buds. For example, the lotus root is a vegetable used in Korean cuisine. I had never heard of it before living in Korea. It grew on me. Now, it’s one of my favorite vegetables to cook out of all the vegetables sold in Korean markets.
On that note, it would be good to explore the local markets. Meet friendly ajossis and save a couple of bucks rather than buying in the big chain stores. By doing that, you are supporting local farmers.”
#7. Find a kimbab shop
Santiago recommends one of Korea’s most famous foods, kimbab.
“Kimbab is always a safe choice. Just say, ‘gogi anio.’ Kimbab will always be an option, but make sure the attendant doesn’t add crab meat or eggs. Also, make sure the knife and surface are clean when the kimbab is prepared. You don’t want the knife or surface to have meat residue.”
1. “The 13 Worst Countries to Visit as a Vegan.” huffingtonpost.com, Huffington Post, April 3, 2014, Accessed September 7, 2021,<https://www.huffpost.com/entry/vegan-travel-food_n_4985590>.
This interview was conducted over the phone. Lucy Santiago lived in South Korea for over a decade as a vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free, alternating between the three. She is an educator and yoga teacher, and can be reached at shanti_om_anahata on Instagram.
David Kute has an appreciation for Seoul’s distinct neighborhoods. From Dongdaemun’s market stalls to Hongdae’s rock music venues, the city continues to fascinate him. After spending many years living and working in Seoul and South Korea, he started the blog Rooftop on the Hanok. The blog is a place to share information as well as explore facets of life on the Korean peninsula. He enjoys writing fiction and playing basketball when he’s not researching or writing Rooftop on the Hanok posts.