5 Vegetarian & Vegan Dishes in South Korea


New in the country and not speaking one word of Korean? How do you manage? Being a plant-based eater doesn’t exactly help as Koreans have an increasing appetite for meat dishes while fish has always been part of their staple diet. 

But, of course, with some good will, (hand) gestures, and a few basic tricks you will quickly learn not just how to survive but, even better, to indulge in Korea’s culinary delights, some of which are based on surprisingly simple ingredients.

Memil Guksu, vegetarian dish in South Korea (©Coen Wubbels)

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1. Kimbap, or gimbap (김밥)

Here’s the first tip: bap means steamed rice and many dishes end with these characters (밥). Memorize them and at least you’ll know you are not ordering noodles.

Kim, or gim means ‘seaweed’, and kimbap are Korean seaweed rice rolls. It’s the Korean version of the, generally better known, Japanese sushi.

Kimbap restaurants offer a list of varieties, including for take-out, but the basic and cheapest one, on top of the menu list, generally includes yellow pickled radish, egg, spinach, sliced carrot, and ham. Sometimes a slice of surimi is added or comes instead of the ham. So while not a vegetarian dish in itself, it is easy to order as such, as well as in a vegan version. 

So how do you ask for a vegetarian/vegan version?

  • Ask for yatze kimbapyatze, or yachae, (야채) means vegetables.
  • Kimbap ingredients are always visible in containers as the food is prepared on a counter along the windowpane of the restaurant rather than in the kitchen. Simply point at the ingredients you don’t want and make a ‘no’ signal with your finger, or cross your lower arms – a common gesture in Korea to indicate ‘no’, ‘no have’, or ‘not possible’.
Kimbap, vegetarian dish in South Korea (©Coen Wubbels)

2. Bibimbap (비빔밥)

Remember the bap? So here is another steamed rice dish. Bibim (비빔) means ‘mixed’, thus you’ll get a mixed steamed rice dish. You will get a bowl with vegetables and mushrooms colorfully displayed alongside each other in a bowl, topped with a fried egg plus a stainless steel bowl with hot rice and a side dish with a thick, deep-red chili paste called gochujang.

On the table will be an additional array of side dishes, most of them vegetables and mushrooms. Tofu, meat and/or fish dishes may be part of them as well. 

You mix the rice with the contents of your bowl, adding as much spicy sauce as you like, and eat it with your spoon (in Korea rice is eaten with a spoon), while nibbling from the side dishes with your chop sticks. Is a side dish empty and you’d like more? Just ask for a refill, it’s included in the price.

While the egg is an integral part of the mixture, you can order your bibimbap without it:

  • Gyeran (계란) means egg, and to ask to leave out the egg you can say, “Gyeran pe djuseo” (pe means ‘no’, and djuseo means ‘please’ – no egg please).
  • Or say “Gyeran mot mogoyo” (litt: ‘egg can’t eat’).
Bibimbap, vegetarian dish in South Korea (©Coen Wubbels)

3. Jeongsik (정식)

Jeongsik, also called baekban jeongsik (백반 정식), is Korea’s set meal. You pay a fixed price for which you will get a bowl of steamed rice and a number of side dishes (called banchan). This is a perfect way of trying a lot of Korean foods. If you finish a dish (or your rice), you can ask for more. 

Jeongsik is a dish that you will eat with at least two people, otherwise it can never be profitable for the restaurants. The price is based on the type and number of side dishes  – the expensive version is called han-jeongsik (한정식).

The dishes will include a variety of leafy greens, mushrooms, seasoned seaweed, kimchi, vegetable pancakes, pickles, as well as fish or meat. I have found, thus far, that most of the dishes are vegetarian, but, of course, you can simply ask the waiter to omit the animal foods using the above-mentioned tips.

Jeongsik, vegetarian dish in South Korea (©Coen Wubbels)

4. Memil Guksu (메밀국수)

Two handy words to memorize: memil (메밀) is ‘buckwheat’ and guksu (국수) means ‘noodles’ and these ingredients come in different combinations.

A perfect hot-summer meal is makguksu (막국수). I have to add that the buckwheat noodles are cooked in broth, which may be based on meat or on vegetables. When I asked if the dish was vegetarian this was answered positively, but due to the language gap I have never been sure about the broth.

As vegetarian food isn’t that common in Korea, not all cooks may realize that broth based on meat does not fit into a vegetarian lifestyle, so this part may always be a bit of a gamble when it comes to dishes prepared in broths.

Makguksu is served in ice-cold water with slices of cucumber and radish and with seaweed and sesame seeds.

If you don’t want to take a chance with this because of the broth but still would like to try a buckwheat dish, go for a memil jeon (메밀전), a pancake prepared with a batter of buckwheat flour and water that comes with a filling of scallions and/or cabbage.

Memil Guksu, vegetarian dish in South Korea (©Coen Wubbels)

5. Dubu Jorim (두부조림)

Tofu is an excellent meat substitute and many Korean restaurants have tofu dishes on their menu. Dubu jorim, braised tofu, is a good option for the lovers of spicy food. Slices of tofu are fried in oil until they are crisp and then braised in a sauce of soya sauce, garlic, onion, green onion, salt, hot pepper flakes, sugar, and sesame seeds. The braised tofu, will be served with a number of banchan (side dishes), just as with the above-mentioned dishes. 

Tip: if you want other dishes with tofu, look for the characters for dubu (두부), which means tofu.

First published on Paste Magazine.

Dubu Jorim, vegetarian dish in South Korea (©Coen Wubbels)

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