For the past few years, with few exceptions, I’ve been a vegetarian. By exceptions, I mean, the few times I have consumed meat in situations like being offered sustainably hunted caribou, duck, and moose, or having a plate of the Townhouse’s mouthwatering pulled pork potato skins, sourced from a sustainable local farm.
While I enjoy the many health benefits of cutting out most meat (while properly supplementing with vegetarian options), my main concern with consuming meat is the environmental impact. While eating meat can be totally environmentally sustainable, if not beneficial for the environment through practices like holistic animal management and strategic hunting, I haven’t had a lot of access (physically and financially) to these options in the past.
It’s always been convenient to be vegetarian at home. It’s cheaper, there are loads of similar eaters around, backyard bbqs offer veggie dogs and burgers, and every restaurant provides plenty of tasty, healthy, and reasonably priced veggie options. The bottomline is, no aspect of my life had to suffer to work within my personal ethical framework.
Being vegetarian in Korea, while possible, does not easily fit within the social landscape of the country. I mean, what comes to mind when you think of Korea? Soju, Kpop, and of course, food, and in particular, the delights of Korea BBQ–samgyupsal, kalbi, bulgogi.
Delicious Taebaek Tagkalbi, a staple of Hwaeshiks in Taebaek. Made with chicken, gochujang, cabbage, noodles, rice cakes, and mountain herbs.
Raw marinated beef salad at a beef BBQ hwaeshik.
The funny thing about meat in Korea is that it wasn’t consumed much prior to industrialization in the 70s. So if you could travel back to the nation in its pre-industrial, impoverished state, you’d fit right in with the locals as a vegetarian–enjoying your one baked sweet potato and serving of rice a day. Even today, households don’t typically consume large amounts of meat for regular meals.
However, maintaining vegetarianism in Korea comes at the cost of a social life for many. The majority of social events revolve around food–particularly barbeque–and alcohol. This includes staff hwaeshiks (dinner parties), which are a pillar of strong relationships with co-workers. Koreans are proud of their culture and food, so refusing to fully participate in these events can be perceived as rude.
Delicious bulgogi at the last school hwaeshik.
If you can summon the willpower to decline the delicious spread in front of you and opt for nibbling on bits of banchan (korean side dishes, often vegetables), you’ll find that most of these “veggie” dishes also contain traces of animal products, such as fish sauce, pork broth, ground anchovies, etc. Most kimchi is made with fish sauce, so that’s out of the question if you’re attempting to remain a pure vegetarian.
Mushroom stew and plenty of banchan. It all looks vegetarian, but many of the dishes likely contain animal products like fish sauce and anchovies.
Unfortunately, little English information is available about the sustainability of Korea’s meat industry, so I can’t speak much to the that. But I do know that in my experience, eating a bit of meat here and there has been totally worth it for me in terms of building stronger relationships with my co-workers, enjoying my time out with friends, and immersing myself fully in Korean culture.
I’m not trying to convince anyone to abandon vegetarianism while in Korea. Afterall, we have different reasons for the ways we build our diets and lifestyles. And if you can manage to stick to your beliefs and practices, power to you! Lots of foreigners in Korea find themselves sticking to their vegetarian, and even vegan diets while living here. I’m merely suggesting that you keep an open mind. I decided to abandon the veggie life in order to find balance with my social life while in Korea.
In the end, I stick to vegetarian cooking in my own home–ingredients for cooking vegetarian are widely available and reasonably priced. I’d estimate about 95% of my meals are still vegetarian. That’s a compromise I’m happy to make for the time being, and will reevaluate when I move on to the next chapter of my life.