Five days (almost) in vegetarian Seoul

October 9, 2011 at 12:10 pm (Trip report)

I just got back from a two week trip to Seoul and Tokyo. I’m going to write a little (okay, a lot) about the Korean food here, and reserve Japan for a second post.

My previous experience with Korean food was limited to a few visits to Korean restaurants in Pittsburgh. I remember trying some kind of ice cold noodle and (another time) a Korean hot pot. Both times I found the food completely foreign and unappealing, and I couldn’t get myself to eat much of either dish. So I was quite apprehensive about the food in Korea. Luckily, my friend Ahra was kind enough to take four entire days just to show me around Seoul, acting as both tour guide and interpreter. Ahra was a great guide, especially of the food.  She’s not only a local but a chef, so she could answer all kinds of food questions.  

One of the great things about food in Korea is that it’s very cheap, and you only need to order one dish because every meal comes with an array of banchan, little colorful side dishes.  And you can get free refills of any side dishes you particularly like.  Ahra said up to two or three refills is perfectly normal. (And unlike in Germany, in Korea restaurants also give you free, ice cold water!)

The majority of the side dishes at most restaurants appeared to be vegetarian (although there could have been hidden fish sauce or broth).  The most famous of these side dishes is kimchi, a fermented vegetable dish that can be made from various vegetables, but is most often made from napa cabbage. It’s traditionally made with fish sauce but Ahra said that young people don’t like the smell of fish sauce so much, so the amount of fish sauce used has dropped significantly over time.  And in Northern Korea, apparently they don’t use usually use any seafood in their kimchi (according to Wikipedia).  I tried kimchi a number of times, and although it wasn’t nearly as spicy or salty as I expected, I couldn’t really get used to the sour, fermented flavor. Probably if I lived there I would learn to like it, but four days wasn’t enough.  In Korea, however, kimchi is the second most consumed food, after rice.  In 1998 the average daily intake was about 3 ounces (source).  It’s such an important part of the diet that when weather conditions in 2010 led to a bad harvest of cabbage and other kimchi vegetables, and kimchi prices spiked, the government temporarily reduced tariffs on imported cabbage.[24]

Other side dishes that I tried included a very tasty sweet and sour dried radish dish (apparently a white radish like daikon is dehydrated a bit, which gives it a really interesting, chewy texture); a dish of peanuts and slightly undercooked black soybeans that were coated with a shiny, sticky, soysauce-spiked sweet syrup;  pickled soybean sprouts tossed with chili sauce;  pickled perilla leaf; and even acorn jelly.

I really like the ever-present gochujang (a savory and pungent fermented red pepper paste).  I was worried about the Korean food being too hot for me, but nothing I ate was particularly spicy.  Instead you could just season with gochujang to your own taste. Koreans really love their pepper paste. When Ahra and I visited a department store we saw floor-high stacks of enormous boxes of dried red peppers. (The boxes were around 2x1x1 feet.)  Ahra said the peppers were for making gochujang.  I asked Ahra how they grind up all those peppers and she said they take them to a local shop in their village or neighborhood where the peppers can be ground.  I asked why people didn’t just buy the peppers pre-ground, and she said because then they couldn’t be sure that the peppers were the right kind, and from Korea. They’d be worried about getting pawned off with some cheap Chinese peppers!

Gochujang is only one of four primary fermented foods that have been made by Korean families at home for hundreds (thousands?) of years.  Ahra told me that her mother always had five or more earthenware jars of miso around the house.  Each one would be from a different year, and they’d generally be eating out of one that had been fermenting for about five years. In contrast, modern city-dwellers in Korea today typically buy commercial miso that has only been aged for a year or two at most, and (according to Ahra) is much less healthy.  In addition to fermented red pepper paste, kimchi, and miso, the fourth primary fermented food is soy sauce.  Ahra said that most modern families don’t typically make all four—they specialize and then trade with their neighbors.  Still, she said, at any one time her mom usually has something brewing in about 20 earthenware pots of various sizes (like the ones shown at right).  It seems like quite a lot of work.  On a sunny day her mom will uncover the miso, because the sun is supposedly good for it. (I don’t know why.)  But if it looks like it might rain she runs outside to cover it up.  You don’t want your miso to spoil from a little rain after you’ve been babying it for over four years!

Rice is the most often consumed food in Korea. I wasn’t expecting it but I really, really like the Korean white rice.  It’s very sticky but each grain still stays separate. When properly cooked the Korean rice has an almost al dente, pop-in-your-mouth quality to it. At one tofu restaurant that Ahra took me to they cooked the white rice with a little bit of black rice, which made all the white kernels have a beautiful purple sheen to them.

The day I arrived Ahra and Gil took me to the Dragon Hill spa, because it had gotten rave reviews in the New York Times. (I was surprised they had looked in an American rather than a Korean source–maybe they’ve been living in Europe too long!) My favorite part of the spa was the swing on the roof and the women-only hot tubs that were located outside on the ground floor. There’s something very fun about lying around naked in a very hot tub of water with a bunch of Korean women and looking at the stars…  We had some snacks at the spa (like a smoked, hard-boiled egg), but after spending all afternoon there we were hungry.  We crossed the street to a department store and walked into some kind of a chain restaurant that specializes in bibimbap. (Ahra had scoped it out ahead of time.)  The name of the restaurant was Junju Bibimbab.

In Korea, plain steamed rice is served with almost every meal, but there are also lots of composed rice dishes.  Bibimbap, the most famous rice dish, is actually often vegetarian.  (Bap means rice and “bi bim” means something like “mixed”.  The mixed part can be veggies and meat or just veggies.)  The bibimbap chain had two veggie options.  The regular bibimbap or one in a hot pot.  They ordered the hot pot one for me (dolsot bibimbap) and Gil got the regular one.  The stoneware pot is heated on the stove and comes to the table extremely hot.  Ahra told me to sprinkle on a little sesame oil and lots of chili paste and then use my chopsticks to stir, stir, and stir. You want the rice and veggies and egg all to get cooked evenly, rather than the rice on the bottom burning.  If your technique is good apparently you’ll end up with a single layer of nicely crisp, browned rice at the bottom.  My bi bim bap came with lots of raw veggies (bean sprouts, leafy greens, radishes, carrots, nori,…), but once they were all cooked there seemed to be substantially less of them.  So in some ways I preferred Gil’s non-hot-pot bibimbap.  I especially liked the uncooked sprouts and leafy greens.  But I liked my cooked veggies too.  Ideally I’d get a mix of cooked and raw veggies.  Ahra told me later that in a Korean restaurant you can always ask for more veggies, and they’ll just bring over a divided tupperware and give you as much as you want of each. If only I had known!  Still, I was really pleased with my bibimbap, which cost under 5 euros, and came with lots of sides.  Derek and I got bibimbap at the end of our trip too, at Gogung in Insadong (a restaurant recommended by both of my guidebooks).  He got the hotpot bibimbap and I got the regular one, but neither of us cared for it.  I don’t know what the difference was.  The rice wasn’t as nicely cooked and the vegetables just weren’t very tasty.

On the second day of my visit Ahra took me to a tofu restaurant  called Tofu senggak (which I think translates to “Thinking Tofu”).  After some discussion she chose two dishes for us to share.  The first was Tofu ssamjang, squares of tofu mixed with korean miso, chili paste, sesame oil, and other aromatics.  The dish comes with a plate of different raw leafy greens, including perilla leaves and something Ahra called “Korean baby chard”.  You’re supposed to put some rice on a leaf and then smear on a bit of the miso mixture.  I liked the dish in principle but found the miso mixture to be a bit intense for me.  (Ahra said I was putting on too much miso.)  The second dish was simply a block of silky smooth korean tofu that had been lightly fried on each side.  It came topped with some sauteed enoki mushrooms. The dish actually reminded me a lot of how my mom used to cook tofu for breakfast when I was a kid.  It was a simple dish but the tofu was so fresh that I really enjoyed it, especially when eaten along with all the sweet and sour side dishes.  For “dessert” Ahra ordered us a cup of some kind of fruit tea.  Ahra called it plum tea but I think maybe it was actually made from persimmons (Sujeonggwa)?  It was sweet and just a tad sour and a quite lovely way to end the meal.  Then came the check.  Even though we had eaten probably ten different foods, and I was totally stuffed (we didn’t come close to finishing the food), altogether my half of the meal cost under 6 euros!

Later in the afternoon when we needed to get off our feet and out of the sun for a while (it was very sunny and hot), we stopped at a coffee shop and I treated myself to a mocca latte, which I haven’t had in years. Wow was it delicious!  Korea has a huge coffee culture.  There are coffee shops everywhere, lots of chains but also quite a few independent coffee shots (especially in the more upscale areas).  Lots of the shops advertise that they roast their beans themselves.  And the coffee is almost always very good to excellent.  I would say that the average quality is way, way better than in Saarbruecken. Coffee is expensive though.  A basic coffee costs around 4000-5500 won (about 3 euros), which might not seem that expensive, but it is when you realize that most of my lunches and dinners were under 5 euros.

For dinner on the second night Derek chose a more upscale restaurant that served traditional Korean “court” food, and also had a set vegetarian menu.  When we got there we were surprised to find lots of non-vegetarian foods on the veggie menu.  But apparently the translation was just awful, because they confirmed that there was no meat or fish in any of the veggie dishes.  There were tons of little courses, with lots of emphasis on “delicacies” like ginseng root.  In general the food didn’t leave a very lasting impression, but I do remember a perilla seed stew which I didn’t care for, and a salad of wild greens that was delicious.  There were grilled mushrooms (fine, not exciting) and a few kinds of greasy little pancakes that Derek liked (one with red bean paste inside), but I didn’t care for.  The tempura was tasty as always, but what I really loved was the Gujeolpan. Gujeolpan is the name of a nine sectioned platter in which eight different vegetables (and sometimes meats) are placed in each compartment and (extremely thin) wheat flour pancakes are stacked in the center.   It’s an elaborate dish usually served at weddings or other special events.  I no longer remember what our 8 vegetables were, but burdock was definitely one of them.  They served it with a vinaigrette.  (I don’t know if that’s traditional.)  Also one of my soups had a piece of Korean zucchini in it, that was way more flavorful than the typical zucchini you get in America or Germany.  I just wish there had been more than one bite!  After the meal was over, everyone agreed that the food and service didn’t live up to the prices (especially considering how cheap Korean food normally is).  Ahra and Gil said “maybe we just don’t like traditional Korean food anymore.”  There’s probably some truth to that, but I suspect this restaurant just wasn’t that good.

On our third day Ahra and I wandered around Insadong, which has lots of touristy shops but also some interesting art galleries.  We had lunch at a place that specializes in rice treats, specifically juk (rice porridges) and tteok (rice cakes).  Ahra picked out one kind of rice cake for us to try.  They were extremely sticky cakes make from glutinous rice and filled with sweet red bean paste and some kind of green pea, and topped with what I think was ground up soybean powder?  At first I found the cakes to be really strange, but they kind of grew on me after Ahra forced me to eat a third one 🙂  Ahra said that Koreans eat these cakes for breakfast when they’re in a rush and don’t have time for a proper meal.  It seems like a much healthier, more balanced breakfast than something like cornflakes.  Along with our rice cakes we had a bowl of pumpkin porridge.  It was quite simple (tasted pretty much like pureed pumpkin and water and more glutinous rice powder), but the consistency and flavor were very filling and comforting.  It wasn’t nearly as refined or rich tasting as the pumpkin porridge I got at Hangawi years ago–much more like peasant food.  But I liked it.  I would have liked to try some of the other “juks,” like the one made from adzuki beans (patjuk).

After our lunch we headed to a nearby neighborhood where there are still lots of the old, traditional style Korean houses.  We got a map from the tourist office and wandered up and down the hills exploring and enjoying the gorgeous views.  Afterwards we wandered around a nearby upscale area for a long time looking for a traditional tea house that Ahra had read about.  We ended up not finding it and just choosing a random tea shop.  I wanted to try something I can’t normally get, so I ordered Yujacha, which is made from yuzu.  Ahra told me that yuzu is a kind of Korean orange.  I looked it up later and it turns out it’s not an orange, but its own species, believed to be a hybrid of sour mandarin and Ichang papeda.  The yuzu tea is made from cooking the rind of the yuzu in a sugar syrup .  My tea had long, skinny pieces of rind in it.  After I drank the tea I ate the pieces of rind.  Delicious!  I loved it so much that I bought two jars of Korean yuzu syrup back with me, and a bag of freeze-dried yuzu (from Japan).

For dinner that night Ahra tried to take me to the food section of a department store, but we got there too late (9pm) and they were closing.  So instead we just walked down the street in the business part of town and ate at the first non-American chain restaurant we came to.  Ahra ordered us two of the vegetarian dishes on the menu, a rice porridge for her and bibim guksu (noodles with mixed veggies in a spicy sauce) for me.  The noodles were tasty but not so spicy, and there weren’t enough vegetables.  So Ahra called the waiter over and asked for more veggies.  They brought over their divided tupperware and filled our dishes with the veggies we picked.  I enjoyed both the rice and the noodle dish.  For some random place we just picked off a busy street full of chain restaurants, I thought it was surprisingly good.  In America I think if you just walked into a random restaurant in such a situation the odds are it would be awful.  But Ahra said Koreans are very picky and internet savvy, so if a place is bad it doesn’t last long.

On the third (and final) day I spent with Ahra we explored one of the university areas, walked down a new waterway that was built in the middle of the city, and then wandered through one of the markets, trying lots of street food.  One of the veggie options was a greasy, hot-dog shaped dough full of tiny vegetable pieces. Ahra squirted mustard and chili sauce on it and tried to get me to eat it off the stick.  <shudder>  It was awful.  I did like some of the fresh fruit we tried though, and the Hotteok, which are kind of like pancakes but the syrup is in the filling rather than a condiment.  We shared two of them from two different stalls.  In the first stall they were grilled with some oil and so a little greasy, and filled with a little syrup, spices, and chopped nuts.  The second stall had little hot presses that they baked them in, and so they didn’t need any oil.  They didn’t have any nuts in them but they had lots of cinnamon, and I enjoyed them as well.

On the last day of our trip, Derek and I visited one of the royal palaces and I checked out two of the museums on the site.  One of them had a reasonably interesting exhibit on traditional life in Japan, which included some interesting exhibits about the traditional diet and food way of life.

At the end of my visit Ahra said that she had been very apprehensive about finding vegetarian food for me, but it was actually much easier than she expected.  When Derek and I wandered around Gangnam on our own though, it was impossible to find anything for me to eat.  So it certainly helps to speak Korean and know the cuisine and what kinds of restaurants to seek out.

A few (potentially) vegetarian dishes that I never got a chance to try: brown rice and other whole grains, barley cooked rice (boribap), tofu jiggae stew, uncurdled tofu, bibimbap with tofu, red bean porridge, red bean paste over korean ice cream, korean dumplings (they always had meat in them), and mung bean pancakes.

A few words about the Korean diet and how it has changed over time

The GNP increased more than 17 times between 1962 and 1996 [ajcn].  That kind of economic change always has a big effect on lifestyle and diet. But Korea is unique in terms of how little the diet has changed in comparison to the rapid change in standard of living.  An interesting article entitled The unique aspects of the nutrition transition in South Korea gives some startling statistics: Although this economic shift has resulted in significant changes to the diet, the “dietary shift has not been linked with a level of fat intake commensurate with its income level.”

In a study of the relationship between GNP per capita and dietary fat intake (of 121 countries), researchers predicted that the proportion of energy from fat in South Korea would be 35.5%.  But the actual percentage of energy from fat was 16.7 percentage points less than this expected level.   Still, daily per capita fat intake has more than doubled from 1969 to 1998:  from 16.9 to 41.5 grams per day.  However, only 13.7% of this fat came from vegetable oils or fats, a much lower percentage than found in other Asian countries. And essentially no fat came from animal fats (like lard or butter).  I definitely noticed this in Seoul.  With the exception of the greasy fried dough and a few of the fried, doughy pancakes (which are quite small), I didn’t eat anything greasy the entire visit.  I did notice that some of the vegetable side dishes had a touch of sesame oil on them, but the amount was tiny.  Most of the traditional Korean foods seem to be fresh, pickled, or boiled. They simply don’t cook with oil.

Obesity levels are also lower than predicted, around 1.7-3% in 1998 and 4% in 2010.  I was surprised to read (and see with my own eyes) that there are lots of overweight Koreans (around 30% in 2010 [oecd]).  However, these obesity and overweight levels are based on the European BMI cutoffs, which are probably not appropriate for the smaller Korean bone structure.  So the actual levels are probably somewhat higher. Another interesting statistic from the OECD:  Women with poor education are 5 times more likely than more educated women to be overweight (the greatest disparity in any wealthy country), yet virtually no disparities exist between men of different educational levels.

The article summarizes the major dietary changes in the South Korean nutrition transition as “a large increase in the consumption of animal food products and a fall in total cereal intake.”  According to the ajcn article, the percentage of plant-food intake decreased consistently, from 97% in 1969 to 79% in 1995.  Rice consumption decreased from 12.3 ounces per person in 1985 to 8 ounces in 2003. The decrease in rice consumption has been accompanied by an increase in the consumption of bread and noodles. (See how other food groups fared here.) These changes are typical of developing countries.  What isn’t typical is the relatively low intake of fat and the relatively high intake of vegetables (constant at about 10 ounces a day from the 60’s to the 90’s) .

Korean vegetable intake comprises about 20% of all food eaten, and is among the highest in Asia.   In 1998 about 40% of all vegetables eaten were in the form of Kimchi, i.e., fermented.   That said, kimchi intake does seem to be falling.  (I couldn’t find total soy consumption, but in 1998 average tofu consumption was 24.3 g–less than once ounce per day.)

Although vegetable consumption remained relatively steady throughout the nutrition transition, fruit consumption went up, with a more than tenfold increase from 1970 to 1998.  Still, average fruit consumption in 1998 was only about 7 ounces a day, which doesn’t sound that high to me.  I  certainly didn’t see much fruit being eaten in Seoul (except at the market), but I guess it’s not the sort of thing people get at restaurants.

In terms of macronutrient intake, this article reports “Carbohydrate intake decreased gradually after 1940 from 81% of total energy intake to 64% in 1995. Total protein intake was relatively constant throughout the period…. Fat-derived energy intake increased gradually throughout the whole period, from 6.2% to 18.8%.”  Although percentage of calories from carbs is slightly higher than in America, sugar consumption is much lower.   According to this article, annual per capita sugar consumption in 2010 was about 48 pounds, compared to about 82 pounds per person in Germany and 140 pounds per person in the U.S.

One thing I don’t understand about all these statistics, is how they can be true given the prevalence of western food (at least in Seoul).  There were tons of American chain restaurants (I think I saw three Outback Steakback restaurant on one block downtown), and Western-style coffee shops and bakeries were everywhere.  How can they eat all this Western food and still eat so little sugar and only 1/2 Tbs. of added oil per day?  Either things have changed a lot since 1995 or people aren’t actually buying many of those pastries or other Western-style food.  (A side note about Western food.  In Seoul I tried to stick with Korean food, but I did end up at one Western restaurant: Dos Tacos in Gangnam.  I had read many positive reviews on the web, so I was shocked at how bad it was.  The tortillas were stale tasting and the beans weren’t fully cooked.  Only the salsa was acceptable.)

One last interesting factoid from Wikipedia.  Apparently rice is not indigenous to Korea, and it’s likely that millet was the preferred grain before rice was cultivated.  Other grains that were common in the pre-modern era include barley, sorghum, and buckwheat.  During the Japanese occupation of Korea apparently almost all the rice was shipped to Japan, and the average Korean could only afford to eat rice once a year!


  1. kathy said,

    thanks rose! I learned a lot reading this.

  2. austingardener said,

    I like the idea of eating something called Bibimbap. and I like the idea of the tofu restuarant, but the food didn’t say “eat me” very much from your descriptions. I would however like to try the kimchi’s as I love cabbage and spicy. My chinese cabbage i planted when I got back from Germany is ready to harvest now.

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