How to Eat Vegan in Korea

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There’s much to love about Korean food – but did you know that their teas deserve your time and attention too?


Get your cup ready (Photo by Verena Yunita Yapi)


If you’re a newbie, we highly recommend Sovang’s Omija Hibiscus Tea Infusion and Organic Chwi Tea Infusion. Run by the Mill Company Co Ltd, Sovang is a farm-to-table restaurant with six locations in Seoul and suburban Seoul. Its first outlet opened in 2014 in Seongsu-dong.

Each has a small grocery section too, where you can buy the fresh ingredients you’ve just eaten at your table, should you wish to.


Enter Sovang and be charmed


Start with the Organic Chwi Tea Infusion – the Sovang team describes it as a caffeine-free, mild tea that you can drink hot or cold any time of the day. Chwi, or Aster Scaber, is known as a perennial herb and mountain vegetable that’s also used in Korean cuisine.

“Carefully handpicked by our partner farmers in April, the leaves and stems of Chwi are dried under the sun and then roasted,” they add. “A sachet of Chwi will deliver a nutritious set of vitamins A and D and calcium after two minutes of infusion in 300 to 500 ml of water.” Sounds heavenly.

The good news? You don’t necessarily have to travel to Korea to try it. Get it and the Omija Hibiscus Tea Infusion from Souley Green, take a refreshing sip today – and tell us what you think. :)


We predict the Organic Chwi Tea Infusion and Omija Hibiscus Tea Infusion will be your new go-to drinks


But if you’re really going to Seoul…
A trip to Sovang is a must, and not just for their teas. According to Joy Lee, their export and import coordinator, they offer a “traditional and healthy way to eat vegetables”, where the “delicate flavours and tastes aren’t compromised at all”.

What’s more, the ingredients they use for their dishes, teas and other products are responsibly and sustainably sourced from “grandmothers” and 150 small-scale female farmers from 15 rural areas across Korea. (Sovang translates to “mill of girls”.) This supports their livelihood and allows Sovang to create healthy, one-of-a-kind meals for customers.


They’re nature’s experts


But that’s just a hint of what’s in store for you (we’ll have more on Sovang’s exciting signature dish later). First, Joy has this to share:

“Nowadays, we can easily find vegan bakeries, cafés, patisseries, and salad places in many up-and-coming, trendy neighbourhoods in Seoul – but they mostly serve Westernised vegan food, where you might have some ingredients like natto or avocado, which are little related to local food and transported from outside Korea,” she says.  

Her top tip? “It’s still a good idea to ask the kitchen in advance,” she answers, especially since “the majority of kimchi, soups and stews might contain fish sauce, anchovies or shrimp”.

But don’t fret: Here’s how else Joy believes you can enjoy Korean food the vegan way. :) 

1. Kick off your morning with bibimbap at Namdaemun Market, and warm up your evening with hearty jeon-gol at Gwangjang Market 
“Bibimbap is one of the most typical of Korean foods. There’s freshly cooked rice at the very bottom of your bowl, with a colourful set of chopped vegetables, a fried egg and beef, which you finally mix with gochujang (red chilli paste) and sesame oil on top.

“The only thing you need to do is to ask them to take away the egg and meat off your dish. Bibimbap is a single dish, but it’s a wholesome meal that you can try any season and all year,” she points out.


You can choose what goes into your bibimbap (Photo by Jakub Kapusnak)
 


“But if you’re travelling to Korea in winter, jeon-gol is another must. Jeon-gol looks like bibimbap on top, with a variety of garnishes – usually sliced tofu, green vegetables and mushrooms – but with soup! You’ll easily be able to find mushroom and tofu jeon-gol richly simmering with savoury doenjang (soybean paste).”

2. Gently ask the auntie what’s in your guk and jjigae before you order
“In a Korean dining table, we serve something warm and fluid; it’s almost obligatory. We call it guk for purer soup, and jjigae for richer soup with more ingredients added in.

“Many times, the broths of guk and jjigae are made with dried fish such as anchovies and shrimp – but don’t worry. There are soups that are still made with seaweed (like kelp) or Pyogo mushrooms. It’s better to ask what’s in your soup, because it’s almost impossible to identify the source after your soup gets coloured with gochujang and doenjang (soybean paste) on the first clear broth.” 


Bring in the mushrooms (Photo by Annie Spratt)


3. Perch on a red street stool and drink makgeoli (rice wine) along the Jongno-3-ga jeon streets
“Koreans aren’t only good at frying chicken; we also proudly fry jeon. It can be called a pancake or crêpe, but it’s just so different from anything else that you must try it yourself.

“The sizzling tastes and scents are all around the jeon streets, with its vibrant neon signs and a relay of plastic red stools. You can pop in any store, make eye contact with the owner, pinpoint the table you want to sit at (maybe the owner can guide you elsewhere), and order a combination of jeon, usually called modum-jeon on the coated menu, with makgeoli.

“A (full) portion of a modum-jeon set will make you happy with courgettes, tofu, mushrooms, pepper, lotus roots, kimchi, buckwheat and potatoes; some include meat and Pollock fish as well. You can have a short negotiation with the owner to have much more veggie jeons only, but for the same price.” 

4. Request for a refill of your favourite banchan at temples and traditional Hanjeongsik houses near the Insa-dong area
“Banchan, also known as ‘side dish’, is an essential part of Korean cuisine. You can easily opt out of your banchan at temples or Hanjeongsik (classic Korean traditional food) restaurants.

“If you go to the restaurants preserved on old Korean traditional houses, you’ll be led to a separate room and table, where you have to sit on the floor with legs crossed.

“You choose the size of the set, and after a few minutes you’ll be surprised to find that they literally bring in as many side dishes as possible to fill the entire big rectangular table – a minimum of 10 different sorts. The moment the server puts several side dishes in front of you, scan them very quickly and tell him that he can bring some of them back to the kitchen.

“After tasting each of the side dishes, feel free to get a refill of what you like the most. In Korea, refilling side dishes is no problem at all; rather, it’s something we can endlessly give with pleasure.”

And finally…

5. Have San-namul Bab at Sovang after a tranquil stroll or after biking in Seoul Forest around Seongsu-dong
“Our signature menu item, San-namul Bab or mountain-herb infused rice, is accompanied by three side dishes that are freshly cooked every morning.

“After you finish eating it, you’ll feel light but filled up at the same time – almost like you had good therapy.”


San-namul Bab, the perfect meal


If you still can’t get enough
Joy actually runs an Airbnb food tour on the side, called “Taste Korean Food with Food Specialist”, which takes visitors to different areas around the city to try traditional Korean food and street food.

“I started the tour to promote Sovang in the beginning, but it has brought me to an unexpected area of excitement, which is conversations about life in general,” she recounts.

“It can be about anything – where we can go, what we can see and eat in Seoul, how Korean people view and preserve traditions, the characters easily observed in Korean people, the etiquette we value.

“Still, the most exciting moment happens when I wait for my dear guests to scoop the very first spoonful of mountain-herb infused rice, (taste it and) savour it. And then they look at me with eyes wide open, as if saying, ‘This is something I’ve never seen and had before!’”  

Just don’t forget to have your Sovang teas after. :)

Sovang is at 9-16 Wangsimniro 5(o)-gil, Seongsu-dong 1(il)-ga, Seongdong-gu, Seoul.

Love tea? Souley Green also offers other soothing selections from Zippysparkles and Kittea.


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Charmaine Baylon

As long as she has her dogs – and can read, write and daydream as often as she wants – then life is good.


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