I am a vegetarian and any vegetarian who has stayed in Seoul for a week or more will tell you how difficult it is to find food here. (Read my disclaimer for this post first, here). The first problem (for me) is that many people working at the restaurants do not understand what Vegetarian really means, some won’t even understand the word.
I get asked a lot of times if I eat shrimp even after I have said Vegetarian in as many accents as I can say! A couple of times, I ordered fried rice and said no seafood, no meat, no chicken, no beef or pork (even though for me the word meat includes them all) and then my fried rice arrived with scrambled eggs! I had to go back home (pay the bill of course because I couldn’t explain myself enough) and cook!
Yes it happens and people can blame me for not learning Korean and ordering food that way but I think knowing basic English can do a lot of good to others as well. So anyway.
I have loved and embraced South Korea and Seoul in every other way. I have had a beautiful time here, I just have to plan my meals and just carry my own food/choose the options I am going to show you in this and upcoming Vegetarian’s Woes posts.
Even though I didn’t learn Korean language completely, I did learn a few words that help me explain myself – Kogi bego (no beef), chei-shik (veggies). They still do not understand me, probably because of my pronunciation.
I have found a few things to eat outside that I can order without hassle and eat when I am out and about. Usually I pack something from home especially if I am going to be out for more than one meal (yup travel plans revolve around my meals, I am a vegetarian foodie and a picky one at that)!
So let’s get started with the food and food joints that offer a quick satiation of hunger and taste buds (because let’s be honest they are not always the same).
Select potato chips, Cheetos or anything pre-packaged after at least looking at the front cover. The main ingredients like potato, tomato, type of meat (if any) are always on the front of the packaging. I have never bought one by mistake.
I love potato chips and nachos (packaged) AHEM! so sometimes I have to double check contents to see if I am getting it right. If in doubt, I leave it or come home and translate the ingredients.
Paris Baguette and Paris Crossiant – bakery and cafes have Vegetable Croquettes which I do not really like but tolerate in emergencies (if there are any fast-food emergencies!). Once I went for Potato Croquette and then I was told it contained beef or pork. My croquette landed in the trash-can 5 seconds later.
The only vegetarian-safe options (that I like) are Croissants and bagels (again!). I do not like bakery sweets here, even garlic bread is sweet here! So try everything only after asking about its contents. Of course cookies are there, and contain eggs. I am not a huge fan of those either but suit yourself!
So when you are at coffee shops, whether they are American cafes like Starbucks or Korean cafes, you will hardly find anything vegetarian except bagels – plain bagel, blueberry bagel, oatmeal bagel, cheese bagel, onion bagel, whole wheat bagel! Of course there are 2-3 options at a time in a café but whatever! I’ll take it – with Cream cheese (for which I pay extra of course) else they hand it with Strawberry jam and if your are lucky, butter.
I got a vegetarian sandwich once. When I opened it, it had a few pieces of meat or Korean vegetable. I had to throw it (of course I check my food before biting) and order a bagel.
So if you are a strict vegetarian (only allow egg in bakery goods), then save yourself the hassle and order a Bagel. Of course you can order desserts but I like something salty with my coffee than sweet.
Dunkin’ Donuts: Select Dunkin’ Donuts outlets have hash-brown potatoes for a reasonable price and I can attest that they are good, just ask at the counter to “toast it” if they do not heat it in the microwave.
Another option in even fewer Dunkin’ Donuts outlets is a Kimchi burrito (vegetarian). I have never tried it but my friend swears by it so I would still recommend it. Decide for yourself!
KFC, Burger King, McDonald’s all of the burger shops that have vegetarian options in India, do not have one here. So if all of your friends (who eat meat) want to eat a Burger at these burger joints, you have no option but to eat french fries (and onion rings at the most!)
Lotteria: (A Korean burger joint) The only place I get a customized veggie burger. Look for the European Frico Cheese burger and ask for only cheese patty in your burger (the other is beef patty). They make a new burger and only add cheese patty to it. I think it tastes okay.
If you can say it well, try saying Kogi-bego. Or just point at the dark brown patty and make a cross sign with your arms (which you have learnt living in Korea by now). Out of the many times I have had the European Frico Cheese burger, twice I got the beef patty (I always check before eating) so I promptly returned it. They got me a new one (in 5-6 minutes). I do not angry when this happens because I didn’t eat it and no one did it intentionally. The expression on their face more than makes up for the apology I never get (not that I am looking for it since that is not going to change anything).
Oh man. I loved both Pizza Hut, Domino’z Pizza and Papa John’s Pizza in India but here only Pizza Hut offers 1 (yes only 1) vegetarian pizza. They no longer do home delivery for it so you have to eat or get a take-away. But it is good. I only like Pan Pizza as I hate the other bases – Sweet potato filling, cheese crust yada yada yada.
You can get extra toppings but good luck with making yourself understood because only 4 out of 10 will understand you! And there is still no guarantee that you will get what you think you ordered.
I remember drawing a pineapple in the air once, it was not a good experience!
Do you remember Gobi 65, spring rolls, Chowmein, sweet corn soup, Veg Manchow soup, Veg. Chopsey, Manchurian?
Just forget about it. It ain’t gonna happen.
I tried 3 different restaurants – at each one I had to send back the dishes twice and finally pay and come back hungry. It was my mistake for being so desperate. I ordered fried rice (I didn’t want to take a chance with noodles because I am picky, if have not already noticed) while explaining no meat in all ways I could think off and got shrimp rice. I sent it back. She (I saw at the counter) removed shrimp with a chopstick and brought it back. Of course I noticed the eggs in there. (Why Go Why!). I did get to eat pickled cucumbers and radish.
So I just now dedicate one day every month to making Chinese food that I want to eat. Trust me that is your best bet.
French Fries and Potato stuff
If you hate the limp french fries of McDonald’s or Burger Kings. Try Irish Potato (outlet) or Mr. & Miss Potato head (outlet). Both of these outlets feature potato products and I love their ‘fat’ french fries. They are filling too! And the flavours are awesomesauce!
Or go for the normal American fries at Johnny Rockets (in Shinsegae stores). If you ever order cheese or garlic fries, it is not a vegetarian ‘dish’.
This is all that I have discovered during my 1 year long stay in South Korea. I did have the opportunity to eat some customized Korean food thanks to a few Korean friends (all very nice people) who ordered on my behalf. But for me alone, I cannot do it.
I hope you find this information helpful and I hope this post will save you some money and heart break (dramatic?). Let me know if you find a new awesome place or dish for me to add to this post!