What is the secret to Korean food for vegetarians? I’ll get straight to the point. Korean food is plant-based, and it’s delicious. It’s as simple as that. We think about it, we crave it, we enjoy it like hell. Once we’re surrounded by it, there’s no going back. Vegetables become a desirable part of life.
The three food celebrities
Kimchi. Bibimbab. Korean barbecue. If you ask people what Korean food is most known for, these are the three answers you’re likely to receive. There are restaurants and recipe books named after the fermented cabbage. Likewise, you’ll find eateries and blogs named after that multi-vegetable rice dish that often comes with beef. And Korean barbecue restaurants? Don’t even get me started.
A novel way of eating
You might not know what Korean barbecue is, but chances are you’ll either have been to one or have put it on your list of things you’d like to try. The novelty of Korean barbecue in the West is the way of cooking: grilling the meat yourself on the grill around which the eating party gathers. Waiters may or may not help, depending on service and your personal preferences. The term ‘Korean barbecue’ has likely caught on. It’s unusual, it’s DIY, it’s commensal – eating it with a group is key. But a side effect is that Korean food is often heavily associated with meat – to the point that even some Koreans think about their food in that way.
Don’t forget tradition
Korean barbecue has meat. And lots of it. There’s no reason to deny it, because it’s juicy and it’s tasty and it’s the food you want to eat when you go to a Korean barbecue restaurant. But Korean barbecues are more than just about the ritual of grilling your own food with a bunch of friends. There’s also that ssam ritual of placing a piece of grilled meat in a lettuce leaf of your choice, topping it with garlic and sauce and chilli and sliced spring onion salad until it’s filled to the brim, and then popping that crisp parcel of deliciousness into your mouth. Depending on the size of the latter, you may even have trouble putting the former all in at once. That’s how much veggie excitement you’re getting in one mouthful: 80% plants, 20% meat.
Rules and worries
Now I get that vegetarians eat 0% meat, and there are some reasons for being a vegetarian that make this a non-negotiable number. Let’s break down the main reasons for being a herbivore:
- Animal welfare
Religion (such as Buddhism) and animal welfare often go hand in hand. Animals are respected as sacred beings and it is not considered ethical to kill animals for food, no matter how well or poorly they are treated. It is a matter of principle and eating even 1% meat is not considered acceptable.
But budgetary, health and environmental concerns can be placed on a scale. The less meat we consume, the less we spend, the healthier we are and the more environmentally friendly our behaviour. In theory that makes sense, but depending on where we are and what we eat instead, this scale becomes more complex. In fact, we need to look at this as multiple scales.
One such scale might show how our health decreases, because we lack vital nutrients from meat that we don’t consume in our alternative diet. Another might see us spending more money, because vegetables in some parts of this world are relatively expensive. And we may be helping the environment by not consuming that pound (450g) of beef which it took farmers 1 gallon (4.5l) of gasoline, 2,500 gallons (4.5l) of water and 12 pounds (5.4kg) of grain to produce. But we’re suffering for it, because we’re struggling to keep up with the costs, we’re feeling exhausted, and our craving for the closest thing to a beef patty hamburger – a fake beef patty hamburger – isn’t quite satisfied.
I eat veggies and I like it
What if we started craving vegetables? What if we started craving plant-based foods to the point that a plain old beef patty burger didn’t get us as excited? It’s a matter of habit and it’s a matter of culture. It’s bigger than ourselves but even though we’re not in it, we can still attain it. Korean food culture is one that is heavily based on basic crops and a plethora of vegetables. With more than two thirds of the country bathed in mountains, the remaining arable land has rarely been used for feeding cattle in the peninsula’s history, as this would provide only little food. And like many other food cultures, not long ago people in South Korea simply didn’t have the money to afford the little but expensive meat that was produced. But they had to eat and they took what nature gave them – literally.
A little goes a long way
Mountain vegetables give Koreans the variety that makes Korean food still exciting today. Whether prepared as a kind of salad or pickled/fermented as a dish on the side, the choice is plentiful. The rice provides the energy, and the soup that refreshing added extra. They are, in fact, the three basic staples of Korean food: soup, kimchi, and rice. Sometimes fish would be served as well, sometimes chicken. But more often than not the only meat that could be found was in the broth of a soup or stew. Meat not as the main meal. Meat not as an ingredient. But meat for flavour. Imagine how much less beef, pork, and chicken would have to be produced! And yet no one is losing out on that umami taste.
The side effect? Eating vegetables becomes a habit and you start enjoying them as well. You like the texture of this leaf, the flavour of that root, the heat and crunchiness of the fresh chilli. Fast forward to 2019: You develop or try out new dishes, because now you can. You’re able to afford beef barbecue and you go with friends. But you love vegetables too and so you can’t do without your ssam.
The case for flexitarianism
Vegetarians I have spoken to often complain that when they go to Korea, there is barely anything they can eat. Even a soup will have traces of meat, because that’s the way they flavour it. If these vegetarians have a 0% meat rule, I feel for them. They’ll have to cook most of their food, because then they can choose to leave it out. But if you’re a vegetarian who is concerned about her health, budget, or the environment, it’s worth taking a 180 degree approach to vegetarianism. Call it flexitarianism, call it new age vegetarianism, call it anything that works for you and doesn’t make you think in terms of black or white. Wouldn’t it be nice to be focused on vegetables in our diet because we actually can’t wait to gobble them down?
Long story short
Korean food is good for vegetarians, because you actually enjoy – dare I say crave! – the many available vegetable-based dishes, meaning you are emotionally satisfied and more likely to stay a plant-eating human. The catch? There is none, if you’re a little flexible and allow for some meat for flavour to be included in your food. If you’re a strict 0% meat vegetarian, then you’ll need to make some tweaks to replace the meat flavouring usually found in Korean food. Or, simply leave out the soups, stews, seafood and some types of kimchi, and focus on the rice and vegetable side dishes that will fill your tummy with happiness.
It’s not for no reason that world-renowned Spanish chef Jaume Biarnes has referred to Koreans as “masters in making vegetables delicious.” He believes Korean soybean fermentation is key to that, and rightly so. If we think on a global scale, it’s also more accessible than vegetables found deep inside Korean mountains. If there’s anything we can take from Korean food, it’s that the myriad of vegetables are given the love they deserve. And when effort becomes habit, there’s no going back to before. Plain, side gig vegetables? Not when there’s care and zest involved – let’s ssam to that!