As a traveler and vegetarian many people ask me how I travel the world without eating meat. The truth is that I became a vegetarian before I became a traveler. I have not known traveling without the nuisance of trying to find vegetarian food or communicating that I don’t want meat. Trying to communicate with a language barrier that you are vegetarian can be very difficult. I am so used to having to dissect a foreign meal before putting a bite in my mouth or having to get a friend “meat-taste-test” for me. Many countries don’t understand the concept of vegetarianism so I have even had to go to the extent of pretend that I am allergic to meat- just so that they won’t put meat in my meal.
Being a vegetarian has amazing benefits for the world, but its struggles when it comes to seeing the world.
Out of all forty countries that I have visited I have to say that South Korea was by far the hardest to eat a vegetarian diet- and I chose to live there for a year and a half.
Why exactly was it so difficult to be a vegetarian in South Korea?
First off, once you go anywhere in the country other than Seoul, the concept of vegetarianism is as foreign to South Koreans as palm trees are to Iceland. There isn’t even a word for vegetarian in Korean. The idea of not eating meat is so absurd to South Koreans that if anything happened to me, it was blamed on the fact that I didn’t eat meat. If I got sick it was because I wasn’t eating meat- not because I worked with hundreds of kids all day with runny noses who never washed their hands.
Besides Korean’s lack of awareness of a vegetarian diet was the language barrier. When reading a menu in countries like Nicaragua and Austria, even though the menus were in different languages I could always still make out the words. In South Korea, however, they have their own alphabet called Hangul. As a vegetarian it was important that I learned Hangul. Luckily, I learned it pretty quickly but even though I could read it I still didn’t know what I was reading. Ddeokbokki, kalguksu? What were these!?
I soon had to educate myself on what dishes did not have meat- or where more likely not to. Once I learned the names of these dishes it was easier for me to read a menu and recognize what I could and could not order. But the struggle didn’t end there.
Even a vegetable dish didn’t guarantee that there would be no meat. My favourite vegetarian food of all was bibimbap. It is a popular dish in South Korea made up of fresh vegetables served on top of rice with an egg and spicy red pepper sauce. You use your chopsticks to mix it all together into one yummy and flavorful dish. This was my saving grace for South Korea because it was available in many restaurants. However, even some restaurants would occasionally add meat to bibimbap so I always had to double check- which was difficult given the language barrier. I ended up learning many different Korean phrases asking for no meat until I finally found one that seemed to work best.
The translation into English sounds something like this “No ham, no meat, no seafood, and no fish please.” I literally had to state every type of meat that I did not want in my food, because in South Korea the word ‘meat’ doesn’t apply to seafood or ham. Even with this phrase I could still end up with small pieces of meat in my food. This was quite disheartening.
My Korean wasn’t perfect so you think you could blame this on my poor pronunciation. However, even when my South Korean friends would order for me I would often still get meat in my food!
The reason for this is that meat is in almost every dish in South Korea. It’s not always a lot of meat, but meat non-the-less. Because meat is seen as a sign of prosperity in South Korea, they feel the need to add it to everything, even if it is just shavings of fish or tiny pieces of Spam (yes Spam!) Waiters would tell me that there was no meat in a dish even when there was, simply because they never had to think about it before. I learned early on to always make a friend taste test my dish for me before I dug in.
So how exactly did I cope?
I stopped eating the lunches provided at the school where I worked and instead would bring my own. I did a lot of my own grocery shopping and cooking at home. This required learning new recipes using the Asian vegetables available to me. For breakfast I invented a Kimchi (spicy, fermented cabbage) omelet which was delicious!
Going out to eat with friends was difficult but I learned to expect that. Often, I would try to suggest a restaurant where I knew that they had a vegetarian option. Otherwise, I would fill up on rice and side dishes as I watched all of my friends slurp up their Korean barbecue.
I remember one instance when I went out for dinner with a friend. We walked into a little hole-in-the wall restaurant at random. Already, I knew this was a mistake because the chances of walking into a restaurant in South Korea and it serving vegetarian food are slim to none. I didn’t recognize anything on the menu but my friend was sure that he recognized a soup and could get it without meat.
He was very confident in his Korean skills and decided to order for us- naïve to the issues involved with trying to communicate ‘no meat’ to South Koreans. He had a long conversation with the small restaurant owners as I sat there shaking my head. I’m not going to lie- it was entertaining seeing someone else try to deal with my daily struggle. When my friend was finished confirming in Korean that the soup was vegetarian I suggested that we should just share one bowl because I was positive that it would contain meat.
When our soup was served, my friend gazed into the deep dark bowl of broth with a look of defeat. It was pig intestine soup. Even my friend who was a meat eater was disgusted. I learned that in Korean the word ‘meat’ does not apply to fish or Spam- and now, pig intestines.
While situations like this were common, I soon learned all of the restaurants in my town that served at least one or two vegetarian dishes. I also stuck to restaurants whose owners understood me when I told them “no meat”. This came with a lot of trail and error. It got to the point though where some of my local spots recognized me and knew not to put meat (including ham, fish and pig intestines) in anything. This was a hard earned victory for me.
While my choice to be a vegetarian may have limited my dining experiences in South Korea I feel like I managed to try enough variety of dishes during my time there to gain a sense of the local cuisine. If anything, I sure watched enough people eat Korean food.
It was a struggle but I successfully managed to eat a vegetarian diet in meat-heavy South Korea for a year and a half. If it is possible to eat vegetarian in South Korea then it is possible to travel and eat anywhere as a vegetarian. However, when my time there came to an end you can bet that I was dreaming of falafels, hummus and guacamole. I booked a flight straight for India where I could indulge in all of the delicious vegetarian food that my little animal loving heart desired.