Does she find something to eat? Well, kind of. The following is only my experience, which was limited by the tour bus and my lack of knowledge of Korean, but here’s some things I learned during my week in the Hermit Kingdom.
- Trying to eat vegetarian in a Korean restaurant is like going to a barbecue joint and thinking they will have tofu. Not all Asian cuisine is meat-free. Most of the restaurants we found were smaller places with limited menus and apparently not many are getting requests for vegetarian entrees. One place suggested if we didn’t eat pork, perhaps we’d prefer a beef entree.
- Vegetarian? It has vegetables in it, sure! The concept of leaving out a food group is not completely understood in Korea.
- The appetizers (banchan) served at Korean restaurants IS vegetarian. Mung beans, seaweed (I think), kimchi, daikon were all things we could happily eat while others enjoyed a bowl of soup (with a bone floating in it.)
- It helps if you eat seafood. Shrimp fried rice was an appetizer for most, and dinner for us.
It helps if you like pancakes. While others enjoyed meat on a stick at the market, we found Korean pancakes, which were (in this case) dough and Chinese onions, which were good. Sure it’s carbs. It’s either that or meat, folks!
- It helps if you’re the big city. In Seoul, we found plenty to eat. I had pizza with pansies on it. I had a delicious tofu and eggplant dish. We even had a lovely buffet with plenty for everyone on it. Outside of that? Well, your choices are more limited. And, you might want to consider not eating Korean.
- Consider the chains. Korea is covered with American chain restaurants. If you’re really worried about it, you could eat at a chain restaurant. Outback, Starbucks, 7-11, Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonalds, Burger King … not necessarily healthy nor vegetarian, but you get the idea.
Here’s some places we tried:
A rest area between Seoul and Korea: the highways don’t have clusters of restaurants like we do in the states. They put their restaurants under one big roof, you order at one location and then you pick up your food at whatever food station you ordered. I went with the black soybean sauce on noodles. My first experience picking out pork from my dish. I quickly learned that pork is like seasoning here.
Green Cafe, Busan (sorry can’t find this online): This was a small little cafe, very typical of ones you find in Korea. They have tables close to the floor, so you remove your shoes and sit on the floor. They only serve Korean and they are small family restaurants. These feel authentic but the menus are very limited and tend to not have a lot of choices. Still, I recommend trying at least one. I had a delicious Korean pancake here, which she cut up with a pair of scissors.
Another person had the baby octopus stew and the octopus was cut up at the table.
A spot for night eating in Busan: We ended up here after searching and being told “pork is tasty!” This looked semi-English friendly and we still needed help translating. (Highly recommended that you learn just a few Korean phrases and I freely admit to being unprepared for this.) This time, there were pictures, so we went with the seafood noodle dish and … there was that pesky pork flavoring again. Again, it was picked out and this time, someone at the table happily scarfed it up.
SeoMun Market: a BIG market, around for more than 100 years. Lots of stand with vendors that sell textiles and all sorts of things, and lots of little stations selling food, prepared or dried or whatever. The prepared isn’t exactly health food. Lots of meat on a stick or the like. I found another pancake here that was OK. Lots of sweets to eat as well, although that’s not necessarily a good option. (It is, however, a tasty one.)
Another little Korean restaurant in Tongyeong: this one was a big challenge. Very little English spoken here. We found one place and asked for six bowls of soup with meat, two without. We ended up with just six bowls of soup. The vegetarians ended up eating the appetizers.
One more Korean restaurant in Daegu: we thought this was a noodle place. It was not. Again, very little English, again feeling very stupid for not learning more Korean. We found someone else on the tour who spoke both languages who said “oh you don’t eat pork? You probably want to leave.” She asked if we didn’t eat pork, perhaps we eat beef? We finally found the shrimp fried rice, which was certainly OK. There was an interesting tofu place, but it was totally out of the way and besides, the husband does not eat tofu.
Touch and Spice in Seoul (Gangnam area): finally! something for everyone. I had the eggplant and fried tofu in honey and ginger sauce which was delicious. Others had the wasabi chicken or the pork chop. The kid had a pasta dish with smoked salmon. The first night where everyone was very happy with their meal. We also got dessert, which was less successful. The apple pie dish was more like an apple quesadilla and the ice cream dish was cereal and marshmallow cream with ice cream on top. So, go for the entrees, skip the dessert.
Blacksmith, Seoul: this is got to be a chain but who cares! We settled on this because they looked to have something for vegetarians and something for my husband: bacon and garlic fried rice. He said his was delicious. We got the pizza primavera, which was pizza with sauce and a little cheese (they don’t have a lot of cheese in Korea and I salute them for that!), topped with arugula and … pansies! It was quite good.
Lotte Hotel restaurant: WOW. My friend MiSun took us all out for dinner and what a lavish spread. Indian food, a carving station, a salad bar, lots of Korean food and a sushi station. I think there was Italian food too. Something for everyone. So good! Everyone was happy.