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  The Vegetarian Soul of Seoul

      by Dan Brook, Exclusive to VegDining.com


The South Korean capital of Seoul is a densely-populated, demographically-homogenous megacity (the city has over 10 million inhabitants, while the metropolitan area has over 25 million!), boasting a rags-to-riches economy, incredible traditional and modern architecture, one of the best airports and subway systems in the world, fast broadband, extensive free urban wi-fi, lots of art, and magnificent palaces. Seoul also boasts some great vegetarian (chaesik) restaurants!

There are many reasons to travel and one of those is certainly to eat. And eat I did! Although meat is too ubiquitous in Korea, there are tons of veggies and tofu (dubu) is quite common.

In the Insa-dong area, which is quite popular with tourists, there are several vegetarian restaurants. Wander down the quaint alleys off of mostly car-free Insa-dong Lane, filled with art galleries and tea shops, and you're likely to bump into a vegetarian restaurant where you can dine on floor cushions with low tables in a cozy Korean environment. In this category, I prefer Sanchon, a lovely restaurant, though a bit of a splurge (about $35), where you can watch some traditional Korean performance while being served a bewildering number of little plates and bowls filled with tasty treats to explore and enjoy. Sanchon also has a store on Insa-dong, where you can browse herbs, medicines, teas, and the like.

Visiting Jogye Temple, the main temple of Korean Buddhism, is a worthwhile thing to do. Described as "an oasis of spiritual peace in the heart of bustling Seoul", it can be a good place to escape the crowds of Insa-dong and center yourself amidst the beauty and serenity. Depending on when you visit, you might even be able to listen in on the hypnotic chanting.

Just across the street from the temple is the Temple Stay Building, looking much more like an office building than a temple. Inside, there are two Buddhist vegetarian restaurants with remarkably similar names: a rather expensive one called Baru on the 5th floor (about $30-$80, depending on the number of items you want) and an inexpensive buffet called Baru Kong on the 2nd floor (7,000 won or about $6 for all you care to eat; kong, by the way, means soy bean). I chose to gander at the one on the 5th floor, but to dine at the buffet on the 2nd floor. At this latter place, I had huge quantities of temple-style food: pure, tasty, muted, healthy, vegan, and satisfying.

If for some reason you do not want to eat Korean food while in this area, you could choose any one of a few Korean western-style vegetarian restaurants and cafes or slip into Maoz Vegetarian, a small international vegetarian chain of restaurants where you can get delicious falafel sandwiches with all the fun fixings that come with Middle Eastern food (e.g., hummus, baba ghanoush, tahini, salad, pickled veggies, etc.). It's just across from the giant paintbrush sculpture called "Draw a Stroke", depicting a traditional art form, on one end of Insa-dong.

There are a bunch of Loving Huts throughout Seoul (with over 120 worldwide), each individually owned and therefore different from one other. I had Korean curry, kimchi fried rice, and soup at one of them in Sinchon-dong. It was so good I went back the next day.

At another Loving Hut near the Achasan Station, they have an extensive and beautiful buffet at their large second floor location for 12,000 won (about $10). There was so much food that it was wonderfully overwhelming, where one can dip into soups, nibble on various salads, devour two kinds of sushi and two kinds of dumplings, sample some seaweed, slurp noodles, taste mock bulgogi (grilled marinated meat commonly served at Korean BBQ restaurants), drink Japanese apricot juice and a sweet rice drink, and much more, as well as enjoy rice and kimchi. Kimchi, traditional Korean spicy pickled cabbage or other vegetables (e.g., radish), is typically served with Korean meals, being one of the signature foods of Korea.

Bibimbap is also a signature food of Korea. Served in a bowl, it is comprised of a delicious mound of steamed rice topped with a variety of sauteed, seasoned, and pickled vegetables, most often with fiery chili sauce, but be sure to decline the beef (gogi) and/or egg (dal-gyal) often included on top; the hotpot version of this meal is called dolsot. One can also find a similar bowl with noodles substituted for rice. Japchae, also quite common in Korea, is an interesting and tasty dish of yam noodles with greens and other vegetables, often vegetarian though not always and never spicy.

Honorable mention goes to the most veg-friendly mixed restaurant I found. At Bibigo, customers and servers alike are cool young people who are comfortable with the words vegetarian and vegan. You can get some great slightly-fusion Korean food amidst a hip crowd of mostly Koreans.

Although there isn't a lot of street food in Seoul, you might be lucky to find one of the vendors making hoddeok. Hoddeok is a pancake made with brown sugar and tiny bits of nut, a scrumptious little serendipitous treat. Even more rarely, one can find bite-sized pastry puffs filled with sweet bean paste.

Nourish your soul with all the great veg treats of Seoul!


Dan Brook, Ph.D., is a VegDining City Ambassador and author of several VegDining city reviews, as well as a writer, speaker, poet, photographer, activist, and instructor of sociology and political science. He also maintains Eco-Eating at www.brook.com/veg, The Vegetarian Mitzvah at www.brook.com/jveg, Food for Thought-and Action at www.brook.com/food, and No Smoking? at www.brook.com/smoke. Dan welcomes questions, comments, contributions, and other communication via brook@brook.com.

Photos courtesy of Dan Brook.




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Rio de Janeiro: Carnival Capital


 
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