Time to eat my vegetables
January 29, 2008 9:21 AM   Subscribe

Vegetarian seeks advice for traveling in Korea and China.

I'm going on two business trips this year that will take me to Korea and China. I'll spend a few days each in Shanghai and Seoul, and 2-3 weeks in Beijing. I'm also hoping to do a couple more weeks of more laid-back travel in the south of China (Kunming, Dali, Lijiang, Yangshuo). I'm really excited for these trips, but I do want to ask what I can expect as a vegetarian.

I eat eggs and dairy. I do not eat fish, shellfish, chicken, beef, pork, etc. If a broth is meat- or fish-based, I generally eat it. I thought about trying to eat meat for the sake of convenience, but it's been about thirteen years. Recently I accidentally ate a bite of chicken that had sneaked into my tofu curry, and my brain registered it as "not food." So I just can't do it.

I don't know any Korean, but I will be with a bilingual colleague while I'm in Seoul. I'll be more on my own in China, but I've been making my way through the Rosetta Stone Mandarin lessons. Thanks to other AskMe threads, I've ordered "The Eater's Guide to Chinese Characters."

So, I'm looking for advice on what to eat, how to avoid things I don't eat, how to know what's what, and most of all how to be polite and respectful about this. Thanks in advance!
posted by bassjump to Food & Drink (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
For Korea:

1) Make sure your bilingual colleague understands that you're vegetarian.

2) Ask your colleague to teach you the Korean word for "vegetarian." (I don't remember exactly what it is, but I'm sure it's easy enough to learn.)

3) Masshigyessoyo! (That's my poor transliteration of the Korean phrase equivalent to "bon appetit!") You'll find lots of delicious Korean food fit and fine for vegetarians.

Many of your typical Korean dishes (bi bim bap, kal guk su, and other rice or noodle dishes) can be made vegetarian quite easily, and pretty deliciously.

In fact, there used to be a great chain of Buddhist restaurants, that offered fully vegetarian menus that were hearty and delicious enough to satisfy this dyed-in-the-wool carnivore. Other than remembering that one was across from one of the Dongguk University subway stations (Orange Line), I can't really remember much about them, save for the fact that they were brilliant places to eat.

I'm sorry I can't help you with China. I'm sure someone else on the green can, however. But since Buddhism is pretty common in that whole part of the world (East Asia), and since Buddhists traditionally (but not always, at least in practice) limit themselves to vegetarian diets, I can't imagine you'll have much trouble finding delicious food to eat.

Annyonghi gaseyo! (That's the Korean equivalent of "vaya con dios.")
posted by deejay jaydee at 9:53 AM on January 29, 2008

Oh, wait! One more thing . . . seeing that you don't eat fish, but you do eat meat-based broths, there's one key question: Would you eat a fish-based broth, or (more critically), something made with fish sauce? (Known to the Romans as "garum.")

If you're answer is "no," you'll need to stay away from the Kimchi. But few vegetarians in Korea have complained (at least to me) about Kimchi (at least, in terms of fitting in a vegetarian diet).
posted by deejay jaydee at 10:01 AM on January 29, 2008

You will be able to get by in Northern China. Lots of tofu, eggplant, and vegetable dishes. However, watch out for the tofu dishes - they often will be served with little bits of beef mixed in. Southern China may have some different options.

Eating out is mostly done family style. If someone is hosting you they will typically choose the dishes. Just make sure you let the person know beforehand that you are vegetarian. It absolutely will not be a problem. A conscious vegetarian diet is still rather unusual in China, outside of Buddhist culture, but it certainly won't bother anyone.

Your key phrase is going to be "我吃素" (wǒ chī sù). Also "我不吃肉" (wǒ bù chī ròu).

I do know Korean vegetarian exists, but it isn't very mainstream. I've never had it, so can't speak to it. But I assume it will be heavy on the kimchi and tofu.

Enjoy your trip!
posted by casaubon at 10:11 AM on January 29, 2008

You're not going to have trouble finding veggie meals in Seoul, especially if you're okay with meat and fish broths. For specific restaurants, check out these lists.
posted by jujube at 10:32 AM on January 29, 2008

Ok, I was in a similar situation to you a few years ago before I went to China. Basically unless you go to a specifically vegetarian restaurant (i.e. one at at a temple) there will be meat or meat products in your food. Tofu is not considered a meat substitute over there, it is another protein that happens to taste even better with some pork in it. Also, even if you ask for vegetarian food, they will probably put a little meat in for flavor. Developing countries (India being the obvious exception) typically don't get the whole "ethical vegetarian" thing, and as such I strongly suggest you just go with the flow, order vegetable based dished, and not worry about what those little bits in there are.

ps. MaPo DouFu is the greatest thing ever, as is Gan Bian Dou Jiao.
posted by BobbyDigital at 10:33 AM on January 29, 2008

Oh and here's the list of veggie restaurants for Beijing.
And pictures of what you can expect to eat at a Buddhist restaurant in Seoul. Makes me wish we had one of these restaurants Stateside. . .
posted by jujube at 10:50 AM on January 29, 2008

I just got back from 2 and a half weeks in China, and one of the people I was traveling with is vegan. She had no trouble at all getting food (we were mostly in large cities, Shanghai, Beijing, Xian, Nanjing, if that makes a difference.) Lots of travel books have information on where vegetarian and vegan restaurants are in the cities, and there are a number of them (not an extreme amount, but not too hard to find, especially in a place as large as Shanghai), so it shouldn't be an issue.

My professor wrote down a phrase in Chinese for the girl that literally translates to "I eat Vegetables". If you say or write down that phrase (I'm sorry I don't know what it is, but using the software or the travel guide, you might be able to figure it out) you should be fine.

Also, in the cities, lots of places have picture menus, so you should be able to point at something suitable. There are vegetable and fruit stands all over the cities, so it is easy to buy something on the go if you need to. Every hotel we stayed at provided a hot water boiler in our room, so you can boil any vegetables (if you are worried about germs) and eat them. My professor recommended that, if we bought fruit from one of the roadside stands, we get something with a peel/covering (bananas, melons, etc) to cut down on the chances we'd pick up some nasty germs.

Have fun!
posted by nuclear_soup at 11:03 AM on January 29, 2008

In general, Korean cuisine is pretty vegetarian friendly. People have the impression it's all about barbecued meat just because of all the Korean-style barbecued meat restaurants that abound in the States, but that's not representative of day to day eating. It's like thinking all Japanese people eat all the time is teppanyaki. There's a lot of purely veggies based banchan including some "veggies" you'd probably never heard of since there are a lot of wild herb/plants and mountain root type banchan (side dishes that come with rice) in Korea.

How ever there definitely are sneaky meat/fish and broths in soups and casserole like dishes. For example, Korean miso soup is sometimes flavored with beef or sometimes it's just a bit of Dashida-brand beef stock powder. Soon dubu chigae (soft tofu soup) usually has seafood in it. Even kimchi soup can have pork or canned tuna. But the veggie banchans are usually just vegetables flavored with soy sauce or sesame oil or something. It really depends on how strict of a vegetarian you are because any meat/fish addition for flavoring is pretty negligible. For example, are small amounts of fish or fish by-product ok? Because if that's so I'd even warn you to beware of kimchi because depending on who makes it and what kind of kimchi it is, additions can include a small amount of oysters and almost always a type of fish sauce. But when you realize it's maybe like 5 oysters or several tablespoons of fish sauce per gallon batch of kimchi, in day-to-day serving size it's not a whole lot. In general, traditional Korean food is vegetarian friendly, but I agree that if you're very strict about no meat at all, you should have someone you can double-check with to whom you've explained your dining preference. A simple veggie banchan could be sneaking something in like small dried shrimp that you wouldn't notice until you popped it into your mouth.

My one suggestion is if you really want to try out actually designated-as-vegetarian vegetarian cuisine in Korea, try to get a chance to dine on some temple food. It's strict vegetarian food served at Korean Buddhist temples and is actually very good because we're talking about centuries of creating meatless meals. I've been to Sanchon (as someone mentioned above), run by a former Buddhist monk in the Insa-dong area of Seoul, but there might be others. I think some temples serve food, but you probably have to be there for worship or meditation-based retreat or something like that.
posted by kkokkodalk at 11:05 AM on January 29, 2008

I have to agree you're going to have a difficult time eating vegetarian in China. Vegetable dishes are common, but as other posters have mentioned, they often put some meat in for flavoring. The meat isn't very noticeable, though, and if you don't mind eating meat-based broths, it shouldn't bother you.

Here are some things you could eat if you're in the north or central regions:
干煸豆角(ganbian doujiao), spicy fried green beans, is everyone's favorite. I honestly think this dish is often cooked without any pork (if it is, I never noticed). 土豆丝(tudou si) is spicy, vinegary potato strips - very cheap, and I don't think they use any meat when cooking it. 凉拌黄瓜(liangban huanggua) is garlic cucumber salad - cheap, tasty, and probably doesn't have any meat. In some regions(NW especially) you may be able to find 菜夹馍(caijiamo) or some variant of it; it's a pita bread-like thing with various spicy pickled vegetables inside.

The south has more options for vegetarian eating and better food in general, I think - more different kinds of vegetables, and they don't throw chiles and 花椒 into everything.

There are some restaurants serving temple food, where you can eat mock meat and other vegetarian dishes. I didn't really like mock meat very much (weird texture), but you might like it. Temple food restaurants aren't particularly common, but you can find them if you look them up.

As for Korea, you could just get by on rice and all those small side dishes that come with every meal - various types of kimchi, tofu, etc.
posted by pravit at 11:07 AM on January 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

I haven't been to mainland China, but I lived in Taiwan for a year, and that's the only place I've willingly and eagerly eaten at vegetarian restaurants. Those Buddhists make fantastically tasty food; I never once thought "Man, I wish this had bits of meat in it." But speaking of that, if you are concerned about even tiny bits of meat, you'll have to exercise vigilance. In Taiwan I lived with a woman who had a deadly allergy to shrimp, and they put shrimp in every fucking thing; she'd explain her concern when ordering a dish, they'd say "Don't worry, no shrimp," and then the dish would come with bits of shrimp clearly visible. The waitress would say "Just for flavor!" They take the same approach to meat. Except, of course, at the Buddhist places.

MaPo DouFu is the greatest thing ever

posted by languagehat at 11:12 AM on January 29, 2008

I've spent a lot of time in China and Korea recently. While I'm not strictly vegetarian, I do tend to eat more non-meat meals than not. In all the business meals I've been out on, I've not found it difficult to eat purely vegetarian. It is important to let your host know though because as others have said, meat will sneek it's way into a lot of otherwise veggie or tofu-based dishes.

MaPo DouFu is the greatest thing ever

Um, yes. But normally it will have a bucket load of ground beef or pork stirred in and around all that spicy tofu goodness.
posted by michswiss at 1:48 PM on January 29, 2008

[a few comments removed -- this is NOT a referendum on vegetarianism and shouldn't become one]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 1:56 PM on January 29, 2008

Skip Kunming, head for Shangri-La (aka Xianggelila aka Zhon Dian) or beyond to Deqen. I don't know if it's the thin air, the chanting or the incense in the air, but there is really nothing on Earth like watching the sun rise behind you from Dequen illuminating Meili Mountain across the Lancang River (or Mekong as it's called farther south) and watch the glacier turn a brilliant gold. Spectacular. Really. Skip Kunming. You will sing my praises when you throw your little handful of grain on the pyre in the frigid Himalayan air that morning or when you are turning the massive prayer wheel after ritually line dancing the night away (sober and breathless in the high altitude air) with a couple thousand of your newest and best friends.

As for food. Buddhism has been around a lot longer there than it has in the West. You may want to turn a blind eye occasionally to what you think may be meat (especially in BJ), but for the most part you will be fine in China. Yunnan is full of vegitarian restaurants. In Dali the problem isn't finding vegitarian fare, it's getting the little old ladies to stop trying to sell you pot while you eat it. Sampa is pretty easy to find in Yunnan, but you are going to have to wash it down with Yak butter tea, so get yourself ready. That smell/taste never really leaves you. That's not necessarily a good thing.
posted by Pollomacho at 2:14 PM on January 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Shanghai should be easy. The BF is vegan and has a pretty easy time in China where we mostly stayed in Shanghai. If you can, have someone write in Chinese on a card something like, "I am vegetarian" or "I don't eat meat or fish" and you can show it to the server when you order.

Shanghai is home of one of the world's first vegetarian/vegan restaurant, if you'd like to visit it. It's a bit pricey by Chinese standards, but should be okay to a westerner. It's called Godly. There are different Godly bakery chains around Shanghai, but the main restaurant is on Nanjing Lu, the main fancy shopping area.

Shanghai has a lot of good mock-meat dishes that tastes a lot better than the equivalent in the US, so if you have the opportunity to try any mock meat, don't turn it down.

Breakfast is easy if you're not wary of street food. Usually there are people making you-tiao (savory cruellers), soy milk, and bean curd porridge in hole-in-the-wall places in the morning. Watch out for the bean curd porridge. One of the toppings is dried shrimp/krill. Just tell them to hold off on the shrimp and you should be good to go.

There's also a famous dumpling (xiao long bao) place in Shanghai which luckily also has vegetarian/vegan dumplings. Unfortunately, it's in a very touristy area, so be prepared to wait to be seated.

Some examples of meals you can eat and places to go that offer vegetarian options can be found in this entry on my blog.

Feel free to PM or email me for specifics of places to eat.
posted by nakedsushi at 2:25 PM on January 29, 2008

The awesome-local-Korean-restaurant waitress lady looked confused the first time I ordered some food "vegetarian." There was a long, awkward pause while I then tried to figure out how to pantomime vegetables or something. (Well, at least I didn't just repeat the word louder.) Then she figured it out. "Oh! No meat?" she said. "No meat!" So now I just say "bibimbap, no meat."
posted by oldtimey at 4:43 PM on January 29, 2008

For reference, the word 'vegetarian' is 채식주의자, or phonetically [che shik joo ee jaa].

I agree with everyone to be careful (or not) about kimchi, since it has fish in it. I'd be very surprised if you got any resistance, confusion, or hostility, since many Buddhists are vegetarian.

Also, jujube and others: here's a similar vegetarian Korean restauraunt in NYC.
posted by suedehead at 7:01 PM on January 29, 2008

That is, the word 'vegetarian' in Korean.
posted by suedehead at 11:11 PM on January 29, 2008

In China it's a pain in the ass because as others have said, they put little pits of meat or shrimp into everything. I'm not a vegetarian, but I live in China and I have many vegetarian friends, so I have seen how they deal with it.

"我不吃肉" wǒ bù chī ròu, will not be enough to get it across to most waiters that you don't want to eat any kind of meat. This might be because 肉 often refers just to pork, but I'm not sure. If you say that they will probably bring out a fish dish, or something else with just a "little" meat in it.

What you should say is
"我吃素的, 我不吃荤的" (wo chi su de, wo bu chi hun de), "I am a vegetarian, I don't eat flesh,"
They still might not get that "flesh" includes seafood, so you may need to throw in a
我不吃海鲜 (wo bu chi hai xian) I don't eat seafood.

Another problem is that sometimes people in China find it hilarious to slip some meat into a vegetarian's meal, and then tell them they ate it after words, but there is not much you can do about this. This is true of carnivores who do not eat dog meat as well. It's best not to inform your new Chinese friend that you will never eat dog meat right before he takes you to a new restaurant you have never been to.

干煸豆角(ganbian doujiao), and 麻婆豆腐(mapo doufu) almost always contain little pieces of diced pork, just for your information.
posted by afu at 1:28 AM on January 30, 2008

There's a signature vegetarian dish in Shanghai called 烤扶 (kao-fu). You should give it a try.
posted by of strange foe at 10:03 AM on January 30, 2008

Thanks all. It sounds like it will pretty much what I expected, but it's good to have more concrete info. I'll write down and learn as many "I eat vegetables and not meat" phrases as I can, and if there are still little bits of meat mixed in with my tofu, I'll just go ahead and eat around it as best I can without being ridiculous. I already figured that many things would be made with fish sauce or other invisible meat-derived products, so I'll just go with the flow.
posted by bassjump at 7:00 PM on January 30, 2008

Echoing many of the comments above. In Korea it's relatively easy to have things made vegetarian for you, if you are clear about your request. However, mainland China can be difficult (I too lived in Taiwan for many years and it's a glory-land for vegetarians--China ain't at all the same).

You should be fine in the big cities of China, or anywhere that there's a tourist/backpacker scene. So Yunnan will be ok for you if you like pancakes. Do try to find something to eat outside of the backpacker hangouts though--Chinese food in China is amazing and various. Though if you don't give yourself enough time, you probably won't get off the tourist trail.

My wife, a stalwart vegetarian, wrote about our adventure in China here and I bookmarked this page ages ago in the hopes that someone like you would come along and find it useful.
posted by pantagrool at 7:55 PM on January 30, 2008

I'll nth Sanchon restaurant, which is in Insadong, an area of Seoul where visitors are often taken. Here's another list of vegetarian restaurants in Seoul (may be out of date) and Vegetarian Korea has lots of useful info and links.

It may sound obvious, but give your hosts plenty of notice. Depending on the nature of your business, there's a good chance you will be taken out for meals, that those meals will be as part of a large group and that the booking will be made some time in advance at an appropriately prestigious restaurant.

Sounds like you're going to be fine. Have a great trip!
posted by Busy Old Fool at 1:58 AM on February 26, 2008

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