I’ve mentioned a couple times in my blog that I’m vegan, and I know someone out there is trying to find information about being vegan in South Korea, because I tried to get this information from the internet when I was planning my trip.
First of all, if you are vegan/vegetarian, you have company. I met quite a few vegetarian travellers in South Korea, and not always in the vegetarian/vegan restaurants – sometimes we coincidently were in the same hostel, and one time I met some vegetarians in the streets of Sokcho who were looking for vegetarian food.
If you happen to work in South Korean tourism, I have this advice: you are probably underestimating how many vegans/vegetarians travel in South Korea. If you can offer vegan options, or direct travellers to vegan options, some people are going to be really grateful to you.
This guide is split into: Major Metropolises, Smaller Cities, and Village / Temple. This part is MAJOR METROPOLISES.
If you are visiting South Korea from abroad, there is a 99% chance that you are going to spend some time in a major South Korean metropolis, namely Seoul, Busan, Daegu, Daejeon, and/or Gwangju.
As it so happens, all of these metropolises have some vegan/vegetarian restaurants.
The best English-language online guide is Happy Cow.
That said, not all vegetarian restaurants in South Korea are on Happy Cow – for example, some of the Gwangju vegetarian restaurants.
By far the largest vegan/vegetarian restaurant chain is Loving Hut. Be sure to check if the city you’re going to has a Loving Hut, and check the official website – old Loving Huts sometimes close, and new ones sometimes open.
Most vegetarian/vegan restaurants sell take home food, such as pseudo-meat, and vegan instant noodles. In fact, these restaurants are just about the only place in South Korea I found vegan instant noodles, so I recommend stocking up.
A problem is that South Korea has two systems of street addresses – old and new. Google/other online maps seem to only be able to offer accurate directions for the new addresses, but sometimes I could only get the old address for a restaurant (this isn’t just a problem for finding restaurants of course).
Another problem is that, even though all of the major metropolises have vegan/vegetarian restaurants, it is very possible that you might have to make a special subway/bus/taxi trip to get to such a restaurant, and you might not have the time/energy/money. I actually never ate in any of Gwangju’s vegetarian restaurants because I was continually confused by Gwangju’s public transit system – it was easier just to cook at the hostel.
And there is another option right there…
HOSTELS & GUESTHOUSES
If you stay at a hostel/guesthouse with a kitchen open to guests, you can self-cater. If you think you might use a kitchen during your travel, I suggest bringing some curry powder to South Korea. It’s lightweight, is an easy way to add flavor to food, and finding curry powder is not so easy in South Korea (I eventually did buy some curry powder in Jeonju, but bringing your own is easier).
Furthermore, many hostels/guesthouses include breakfast. What kind of breakfast? It depends. Sometimes ‘breakfast’ is bread and jam and nothing else. Is the bread vegan? Probably not. Some hostels also offers peanut butter. Some hostels offers dairy butter. Sometimes the hostel offer non-dairy buttery spread. Some hostels offer eggs. Some hostels offer dairy milk and cereal (though I never encountered a hostel offering soy milk).
In Seoul and Busan, you have a wide selection of budget accommodation, so it’s not hard to find hostels which offer kitchens without including non-vegan food in the price. Seoul even has a vegan guesthouse (women only).
In Daegu/Daejeon/Gwangju, the selection of budget accommodation is more limited, and it’s very possible that your only budget choice is a hostel which includes non-vegan breakfast in the price, or that there will no breakfast, but also no kitchen.
In the major metropolises, my advice is not to bother with non-vegetarian restaurants, it’s less effort to just go to a vegetarian one. However, there are some exceptions:
SUBWAY in South Korea has vegan options, and even if you don’t speak Korean, and they don’t speak English, you should be able to communicate adequately. However, the only place I ever found Subway in South Korea is Seoul.
SMOOTHIE KING has vegan options, and the staff is generally conscious that some customers want to avoid some ingredients. It’s expensive, however Smoothie King tends to appear in convenient locations, like inside Daejeon Express Bus Station (if you need to transfer buses at Daejeon, and want to pick up some food, I recommend Smoothie King).
The Vegan Urbanite suggests that Domino’s Pizza is also an option.
I will save convenience stores for Part 2: Smaller Cities.