The Korean Vegan

MT Korean Market Samantha
Samantha Evans at Gwangan Market – Photo by Mark Talevski

Moving to Korea changed my diet and sense of culture, as I went from vegetarian, to eating meat to vegan. I had been vegetarian in Canada for two years, then I moved to Korea. I didn’t realize how drastically my diet would have to change.

Common protein sources that I was used to eating like protein powder, egg whites, cheeses and veggie meat substitutes were nowhere to be found. The products I did find were twice as expensive or limited in variety.

It was incredibly frustrating and overwhelming to find vegetarian ingredients because I couldn’t read any of the labels, something I didn’t think about before moving to South Korea. I devoted more money and effort towards my meals. I tried buying cartons of eggs and separating the whites. I saw value in purchasing insanely priced yogurt and I ordered health supplements online.

I was attempting to replicate my Canadian diet but it wasn’t sustainable.

It didn’t take long for financial stress and boredom with my diet to hit me. I was eating the same, overpriced products everyday attempting to replicate my Canadian diet but it wasn’t sustainable.

I couldn’t imagine any other way to be a vegetarian without these familiar products so I decided to give up and eat meat again. Eating meat also allowed me to experience more of the Korean culture. Unlike in Canada, where you order your own dish in a restaurant, in Korea you order many communal dishes; creating a shared dining experience. I had been sticking to my Canadian ways and ordering vegetarian meals for myself and missing out on this heartwarming cultural practice of sharing.

Korea is famous for its many side dishes that include tofu, bean sprouts and a variety of fermented vegetables like the famous kimchi (fermented cabbage), radishes, onions and beets. Korea’s unique history has also led to its famous barbeque pork and seafood dishes; making meat more prevalent in everyday meals. I enjoyed experiencing these dishes for the first time.

I remember feeling good because I was saving money and fitting in with others. I felt more relaxed going out and meeting people without having restrictions. But, I felt guilty that I had not been able to stick to my principles.

On Instagram, I was saw vegan meals and recipes everywhere, realizing the ingredients were simple and recognizing them from local markets; places I thought were out of my comfort zone. A vegan diet had always seemed daunting but this was the way I could return to the lifestyle I loved. It was worth the effort.

Beans, Tofu, nuts and seeds are available all year round for a fraction of the price you would pay at whole food stores and they’re often sold by members of Korea’s oldest generation, who speak little to no English and grew up as farmers in times of war. They’re not trying to cash in on new health trends, they are eating as they always have done, with ingredients that are widely available. This allows me to experience a genuine part of their culture.

Often the locals will add more of the product to the bag for you, especially as you become more familiar with them. It’s a very informal transaction that includes me pointing at the beans or nuts and the seller holding up numbers on their fingers. We try to communicate without spoken words and we laugh, building a stronger connection through humour when we fail.

MT Korean Market Food
Gwangan Market – Photo by Mark Talevski

The presence of Buddhism in Korea has strongly influenced the cuisine so there are many vegetarian dishes that I had already experienced, like noodle, soup and rice dishes. Bibimbap (meaning mixed rice) is a favorite of mine and is made by topping a bowl of white rice with vegetables, an egg, chili pepper and soybean paste before mixing it all together.

My first month in Korea was a challenge because I was out of my comfort zone. I was overwhelmed with everything that was new. Everything came full circle as I settled into my Korean lifestyle and realized I could maintain my beliefs and experience the culture simultaneously.

Living abroad required a new kind flexibility in my lifestyle. I tried for so long to mimic my Canadian diet, denying the possibilities of eating meat free in Korea. Once I accepted that life here is different, requiring more preparation and a change in ingredients, I was able to adapt and appreciate what the country has to offer.

Now, no matter where I go in the world, I know how to maintain my health and my beliefs using the most fundamental, plant based ingredients that are available. It’s been a journey, but it has taught me so much about Korea and about myself. Ultimately, it has led me to the healthiest, most enjoyable and sustainable diet I’ve ever had all while absorbing authentic Korean culture and experiences.

Author: Samantha Evans

I'm Canadian but currently living abroad in Busan, South Korea. I'm passionate about plant based nutrition.