06 September 2012

on being vegan in Korea

A piece about Korea written by Shelley, who I think the world of, and am SO lucky to count as a friend.  Thanks a grillion, rock star!

In some places in the world, it’s really easy to be vegan. In California, you can walk into a greasy spoon breakfast joint and find yourself enjoying this kind of interaction:

“Yeah I’ll have the tofu omelet with cashew cheese, a fruit cup with no grapes, and a café au lait with the unsweetened hemp milk. Please. Oh! And a slice of the vegan wheat-free-gluten-free organic fruit- juice-sweetened cake made with lemons grown by orphans in Nicaragua. I’ll take one to go.”

Upon which the server will reply, “Can I suggest that you get the mushrooms steamed? We’re out of the unrefined coconut oil, and you know how mushrooms absorb so much moisture…unless cold-pressed olive oil is okay?”

Then, you’ve got the other. The other, uh…way. This one I remember fondly from a trip to Idaho for some Mom-time.

“Hey! I was wondering (point at the menu) do you think I could have the chicken caesar salad with no chicken? And no cheese? And um, no croutons? And do you have anything else for dressing, like maybe just some lemon juice? “

Waiter stares. “So, you mean you just want romaine lettuce?”

“Well you can tell the chef to spice it up a little bit. You know, just throw in some tomatoes and carrots?” Nervous laughter from me. A skittish glance in my Mom’s direction who politely says, “She’s vegan.”

The waiter replies, “Oh okay. What’s that?”

15 minutes later, out of the kitchen floats a plate of dry romaine leaves, some tomato slices, and a big pile of salami slapped right in the middle. I took off the salami, ate the lettuce, and ordered some French fries, my Mom giggling all the while as I throw in one of these, “Ah well. I’m in no danger of starvation. What’s for dinner?”

When I got to Korea, I had no assumptions either way about how it would be. I’d heard reports from both sides, some people saying that meat is often put on the side like an afterthought and others describing vegetarianism as “impossible” and that I’d have to be “entirely self-reliant.” Meaning granola bars and apples. From my bag. Forever. Differing reports, it would seem! All I really knew for sure is that it would be a challenge, a supposition that proved to be accurate when, during the first day in our apartment, this take out menu was slapped to our door:

So…it’s supposed to go something like this:

“Yes. Can I have the 가지 국수 without the 식용 짐승 고기?”

Right. That’ll work.

The thing is, being vegan in Korea is all about flexibility. In fact, after a few months of practice, lots of errors and even more unexpected successes, I’ve determined that this change has turned me into a better vegan. I had to become more adaptable, less rigid, and much less now-I-have-to-send-it-back in my severity about eating. And ya know what? It’s okay!

My daily eating patterns are remarkably similar to those I left behind in the states, tweaked and altered to fit my environs (like a real healthy human…go figure). Ordering things in from the internet and from generous friends like Alli is not the backbone of my diet but rather, the fluff that makes life a little bit tastier. Living off of things shipped in boxes is out of the question when there is a veritable feast of delicious Korean bounty all around you! Here are my daily staples:

1. Amaranth (this is the only thing I currently to ship to Korea, though I’m phasing it out)
2. Soy milk (a million different yummy varieties are available)
3. Frozen fruit, for smoothies
4. Tons of vegetables (cheap, filling, dazzling in their diversity)
5. Brown rice
6. Tofu (INSANELY delicious here…something about thousands of years of practice in making it)

Other things that frequently creep into my world when I’m cooking at home include curry paste, lentils (bought at the foreign market), beans, tortillas, and all manner of veggie wraps, burritos, soups, noodles, and homemade pizza with tofu cheese (one of my new-found faves). Eating at home is the keystone of any vegan’s diet, so I work to keep it interesting. And when Japanese eggplants only cost 40 cents, who wouldn’t?

Dinners out are trickier, of course. When I was fresh off the boat in Korea, cold and alone, I only went to western restaurants and places with English menus. There are lots of these in my neighborhood, including one instant favorite, Gecko’s, that’s a block away and serves a veggie burger that’ll knock your socks off. However, as I’ve become more and more comfy in the Land of the Morning Calm (and as I’ve learned how the basics of 한글), Korean restaurants have drawn me in like a moth to a flame. Here’s what I look for:

1. 비빔밥 bibimbap, an excellent concoction of rice, veggies, and super spicy gochugang sauce
2. 김치 찌개 kimchi jjigae, kimchi boiled with veggies and ka*POW* spices
3. 순두부찌게 soon dubu jjigae, soft tofu soup
4. 유부초밥 yubu chobap, fried tofu squares stuffed with rice
5. 냉면naeng myeon, buckwheat noodles in broth with vinegar, mustard, and ice cubes (RAD)

In the unlikely event that none of these things are available, I can often make a meal out of the huge array of vegetarian side dishes that come with someone else’s order (AJ’s, namely). Rice, kimchi, daikon radishes, cucumbers, and a spoonful of broth from somewhere make Shelley a happy girl. I can also zoom in on certain hangul phrases like “vegetables” and “tofu” and “noodles” well enough to get something vegetarian brought to me…or almost vegetarian. You see, the truth about meat in Korea is this: it’s used, in small amounts, in most things. There have been times when my bibimbap arrives with strips of beef laid across it, and even a few times where I’ve almost finished my kimchi jjigae only to discover a small bit of pork on the bottom of my bowl. Was I eating broth made with meat? Probably. Was I chewing on meat? Unlikely, since that texture is unmistakable. Am I going to freak out?

The answer here is the key to living and loving this lifestyle a world away from the predictable and suffocating comfort of the USA. The answer is no. You will not have a panic attack if your salsa has a giant scoop of crème fraîche on top; you’ll instead use your hands to ask the waiter to bring you one without. You will not have a coronary if the beautiful and much-anticipated cucumber salad arrives with feta cheese sprinkled all over the top; you’ll instead eat it and like it. After all, you traveled for 45 minutes to get to this amazing Greek restaurant and damn, those kalamata olives are just so special. You will not over stress and over think and run through the details of your vegan superpowers again and again till you go crazy if you decide to try that incredible Korean invention called bingsu (shaved ice with jellied fruits, rice marshmallows, and sweet red beans with a dash of milk and a big scoop of homemade ice cream). It’s totally unvegan and totally worth experiencing. You’re in Korea.

I’m in Korea! Veganism is a lifestyle, not a rigid doctrine from which there is no escape. Yes, I am an emphatic, passionate vegetarian and will never waiver, but you know what? Passion is sexy. Obsession is not. So I just go with it. I’m in Korea!

1 comment:

  1. This is really helpful. I am a vegan traveling to Korea this week to visit a friend. Thank you!~ Tiffany