Toward the end of last year I embarked on a trip to South Korea, where I preserved my insides and sanity with soju and makgeolli for two weeks. I began my trip in the capital of Seoul, exploring supermarkets, museums, and (of course) vegan restaurants.
For the uninitiated, soju and makgeolli are both rice based alcoholic drinks and they are both extraordinary with food. Makgeolli is a mildly sweet, viscous, and milky old school booze with a slight fizz about it. There are many varieties, from craft brews to artificial fruit flavours. Alcohol content typically ranges between 6-9%.
With a lack of brewing laws, the alcohol content of Soju can be as low as 16% and skyrocket to over 50%. Should one wish to supplement their alcohol with more alcohol, a drink called somac (beer + soju) is not uncommon. This drink was made for me by the managers of my hostel, one of whom loved Shakespeare (“to be or not to be, it doesn’t matter”), craved advice on how to romance an English woman in a bar, and enjoyed singing both the Titanic theme song and The Little Mermaid classic “Under the Sea.” On repeat.
Other starchy vegetables and grains, such as barley, potatoes, and tapioca, can also be used to make soju.
Vegan Food in Seoul
Why can’t I ever keep these things short? Okay, enjoy the rest of this novel.
Operated by the Korean Buddhist Cultural Foundation, Balwoo Gongyang is a Michelin starred (whatever that means) vegan temple food restaurant in Seoul. There are five set menus to choose from, and they change with each season. If you are going for dinner, make reservations. I went for lunch and there was no problem scoring a table.
My lunch menu at Balwoo Gongyang
Exact menu in italics. Any notes of mine are in roman.
Suljuksim (Lip moisturiser)
Muhwagwa (Fig preserved in omija berry extract). Earthy fig in sweet and acidic broth that tasted of sweet forest fruits with a hint of cinnamon. This lip moisturiser was outstanding but I still needed chapstick to moisturise my lips.
Danhobakjuk & Seasonal mulkimchi (Sweet pumpkin soup & Seasonal watery kimchi).
Sangmi (Entree One)
Bburichaeso geojamuchim (Heat autumn vegetables seasoned with asian pear and mustard sauce).
Marlin dotorimuk bokeum (Stir-fried dried acorn jelly with green pepper). The simple soy sauce dressing leaves the focus on the texture of this Korean speciality, a chewy but not bouncy dish made with acorn starch.
Neutari beoseot yeongeun muchim (Mixed oyster mushroom and lotus root with gochujang sauce). The homemade gochujang showcases the perfumed fruitiness representative of Korean chilies, and has a pleasant aftertaste reminiscent of the smell of a fresh book. Heavenly.
Dammi (Entree Two)
Beoseot gangjeong (Deep-fried assorted mushrooms seasoned with gochujang sauce). This gochujang is so good it even makes the bell peppers tolerable.
Wooung altaree jeolim (Pickled burdock and radish with sweet and sour soy sauce).
Ma doenjang chamkkae muchim (Raw Korean yam dressed with soy bean paste and sesame seeds sauce). All I could think of was if someone were to invent savoury cherry bubble gum, this would be their inspiration. And since I have the palate of a 10 year old the flavour was dreamy plus plus.
Nokdu jeon (Mungbean pancake).
Gaeul chaeso jeon (Autumn vegetable pancake). Autumnal earthiness and campfire vibes.
Pyogobeoseot-naengmyeon (Cold noodle with spicy shiitake mushroom & pear sauce).
Dubu-gui (Grilled tofu). With pickled ash pepper.
Sachal mandu (Temple style vegetarian dumpling). The solution to (momentarily, at least) lifting depression due to the onset of winter.
Youmi (Medicinal Meal)
Yeonipbap (Steamed sticky rice with ginkgo nuts and pine nuts wrapped in lotus leaf).
Doenjang-jigae (Soybean paste stew).
Dugaji namul muchim (2 kinds of seasoned autumn greens). Citrus peel and nuttiness.
Dugaji sachal kimchi (2 kinds of temple kimchi). One of these was made with perilla leaf and it’s got so many layers to the flavour, from mustard and pepper to anise and petrol. It’s a bit like if Alsace had a signature kimchi.
Hangaji Jangajji (One kind of fermented pickles).
Gyeji-cha (Cinnamon tea).
Doraji jeonggwa (Balloon flower root preserved in grain syrup). Bittersweet with a cooling sensation. Light and simple after a large meal.
Incidentally, across the street from Balwoo Gongyang is Jogyesa Temple, where I found the most peculiarly delightful garden of flowers arranged in the shapes of non human animals (pigs, tigers, etc…) and manicured hands.
Another Buddhist temple food joint. A lovely nun saved me from going without a meal one night when I turned up after the kitchen had closed, by composing a comforting bibimbap set. The food is simple in a cosy atmosphere around a courtyard. The fish tank is an odd display in a vegan restaurant.
Located in Hapjeong, this lovely neighbourhood vegan cafe serves hot drinks, cakes, and meals. Cook and Book is a little off the beaten track, but it’s worth a visit just for the vegan omurice. Typically comprised of fried rice blanketed with an omelette that is topped with ketchup, there are countless interpretations inspired by this Japanese comfort classic.
The rendition at Cook and Book is wrapped in a turmeric and herb faux omelette in a sea of a sauce that resembles of a fusion of someone’s Nonna’s tomato sauce and a mild Japanese curry. The whole lot is topped with microgreens and mixed sprouts, and served with a few roasted bits, including one each of a potato, tomato, brussels sprout, and button mushroom.
A friendly spot with very little English spoken, this doesn’t mean the staff won’t go out of their way to help explain what the buffet has to offer. There’s a lot of food to try, from tempura vegetables (the kabocha squash is particularly good) and stir fries to kimbap (Korean sushi) and noodles. The naengmyeon, a dish of iced broth with cold noodles, is particularly worth a mention. There are many variations of naengmyeon and this one featured an acidic, vinegary, pink broth on sweet potato noodles topped with a mustard sauce, cucumber, water kimchi, and sesame seeds.
This is a vegan bakery with an added burger menu. I stopped in for a peek and ended up ordering a burger as I hadn’t eaten in at least an hour. Also consumed: a most delicate soy cream bun filled with what I wish all Bavarian cream doughnuts would take onboard. Yummyyomil is a great spot for a coffee and cake, or to grab some pastries to take on a picnic.
Of the three meals I ate here, the biji (okara) stew set was my favourite, and inspired me to post a recipe for kongbiji jjigae. The sets at the restaurant come with the main plus rice and banchan (small sides). Worth noting is the lack of garlic in temple cuisine, which makes a less pungent kimchi than I’m used to. The baechu-kimchi (the most common and well known of kimchis, using Chinese/napa cabbage) makes up for the absence of garlic with a strong horseradish and/or mustard element. Other banchan included seitan pieces in gochujang, sesame greens, sukju namul (blanched bean sprouts), and gamja jorim (potato cooked in soy sauce, only this also had tofu).
The banchan changed slightly each time I visited, with many repeats but a few new plates each time. With the sundubu jjigae (tofu stew) set came a sticky, sweet, and savoury lotus and mushroom stem dish. Another came with soy braised mock beef. Some different types of kimchi were also served.
See and Do
Seoul is a huge city, full of parks, museums, vibrant city life, and walks. Here are some of my memories.
Yes, an entire museum dedicated to what is probably Korea’s most famous culinary export: kimchi. Spread over several floors, this homage to fermented vegetables includes demonstrations, instructions, videos, and displays. There’s even a cold room full of kimchi specimens. If you love food anthropology and culture, this is a must visit museum.
War Memorial of Korea
Should you wish to encounter foreign war enthusiasts bragging about their
nationalism patriotism, head to the War Memorial of Korea. Sarcasm aside, this is more than a memorial. It’s a huge museum filled with war history, art, and narratives that is quite worth a visit.
The JSA and/or DMZ tour
I booked my tour with Cosmojin tour company. You get to spend a day being bused around to all sorts of oddities, depending on which type tour you book. I regret not purchasing a DMZ car air freshener that someone pressed send on an order to actually have made. The day long tours include lunch and mine had a vegan option (bibimbap – you just have to ask them to not include egg). The kimchi is not vegan, so skip it. Also avoid the soup, which may be made with anchovy stock.
The War and Women’s Human Rights Museum
Another absolute must, this small museum features the history of Korean enslaved women sex workers by the Japanese during occupation. Bring tissues.
Seoul Selection Bookshop
Run by an ex-journalist who grew tired of foreign residents’ ignorance of Korean culture despite living in Seoul, this bookstore features an all English selection of books about the Koreas. You can watch an extremely awkward video of me being interviewed by the owner here.