9 Vegan Korean Cooking Tips from Seoul Chef Janet
Picture a rainbow of bibimbap vegetables on a bed of steamed rice. Steamed sweet potato noodles that hold form and flavor so nicely mingle on your plate with succulent mushrooms and sesame seeds. And there’s red pepper speckled throughout the magical fermented goodness of kimchi on the side. Crisp, vibrantly colored lettuce leaves open to whatever filling you want to pop into your mouth. Korean food is beautiful.
Tip: Keep like colored ingredients separate on a plate. Ex: Put carrots in between green zucchini and cucumbers
But for vegans who can’t negotiate in Korean, the restaurant and street food is laced with sneaky unwanted ingredients.
What to look out for:
meat (Koreans seem to think meat is very important)
What non-vegan ingredients are rarely in traditional Korean food:
Even in the New-York-City-like capital of South Korea, veganism is still not seen as healthy. And there’s no word for “vegan” that people understand. People even seemed to be wary of vegetarianism. And interestingly enough, the smell of butter and sugar fills many subway stops, and most people are a healthy weight. They must be doing something right, but there is room for growth in the understanding of healthy vegan food.
If you like vegan food and you’re getting ready to go to Seoul, we suggest doing 3 things:
- Research vegan restaurants on the Happy Cow app (well worth $4) in advance
- Drop pins in maps.me app to remember the locations
- Look for accommodations with a kitchen equipped for cooking
And you should try my Savory Vegan Korean Pancake recipe at home before you go 🙂
There are so many apartments available on AirBnb that are near the subway. We suggest staying in the Gangam (business) or Insa-dong (more historical) areas.
The produce in the markets of Seoul is fresh and diverse, there are so many kinds of noodles, and it’s fun to eat out and also know you can cook vegan food at home. Go shopping at a local grocery store or Emart Super Store and stock up on food you like. We bought ingredients for Ramen noodles with fresh vegetables, Persimmon Pomegranate Oatmeal with Nut Milk, Buckwheat Noodles with Pomegranate Peanut Sauce.
Cooking Tip: Buckwheat noodles are great hot and cold. I actually prefer them cold. Noodle and veggie stir fry leftovers become Pomegranate Peanut sauce salad for breakfast.
We thought the Vegemil nutmilk was far superior to a lot of the non-dairy milk we have in the US. Let’s just pretend there’s not a lot of sugar in it. Ha! We used the camera function of google translate to read ingredients with varying success.
Money saving tip: Boil tap water in an electric kettle or pot and then pour it into your water bottle when it cools. There’s no need to by bottled water. Filtered drinking water is widely available in public places and restaurants as well.
Restaurants we LOVED:
- 7th Day Adventist Vegan Buffet near the Jogyesa temple (There are often many options near Buddhist temples with Chinese influence)
- Veg Green vegan buffet (Get their address in Korean and get a cab. 1+ mile from the subway)
- Loving Hut (We go to this vegan non-profit chain where ever we are in the world. They change the menu based on local tastes.)
As always, I attempted to ask for vegetarian food in the local language. I used a phrase book, google translate, and asked people to write down “Can you make this without meat, fish, chicken, or egg?” in Korean so I could show it to chefs. Unfortunately one week wasn’t enough time for me to figure out what restaurants serve that can easily be made vegan besides bibimbap. I’ll keep trying. Please leave a comment if you know good resources for asking for vegetarian food in Korean!
Taking a cooking class is one of the best ways to learn what ingredients are in typical dishes. We requested a vegan cooking class with Janet, and oh boy did she deliver.
Spoiler alert! Here are Janet’s Secrets to Delicious Vegan Korean cooking:
Good sesame oil
Menu Planning Tip: Mushrooms are a great replacement for meat. King oyster mushrooms in Korea are my favorite. Shitakes are easy to grow in cooler parts of the US. Shitakes are also delicious when reconstituted from dried mushrooms, so they’re easy to keep in your cupboard.
Our cooking class started with a market tour through the traditional Namseong Market a 10 min walk or short bus ride from the Chongshin University subway station.
We sampled local nori that was harvested in December and roasted in the market. Later we would cut it with scissors and sprinkle it on fried rice, bibimbap and other delicious dishes.
We also went to a shop with machines that extract sesame oil from the seeds. It smelled like heaven. We never had fresh sesame oil before. They could also grind chili peppers, garlic and ginger there as well.
Time Saving Tip: Janet used garlic that had been pre-crushed and kept it refrigerated in a jar. I always assumed that pre-cut garlic lost flavor, but it sure didn’t taste like it when Janet used it!
Preserving through drying and pickling was very important in the past, and this influences the ingredients used today. Many vegetables are dehydrated after harvest and reconstituted to eat throughout the seasons. The leaves of big radishes are dried and bound, ferns are eaten fresh and also dried in the spring, The big radish is pickled and looks like pork.
We noticed some carrots in the market were clean and others had soil on them. Janet said this is so people know which carrots are from China and which are from Korea. The carrots with soil on them were from Korea.
And they make savory acorn jelly and mung bean jelly. Very cool.
The first dish we made was a simple seaweed soup that is eaten on birthdays in Korea. Could you imagine if a large number of Americans looked forward to kelp soup at birthday parties rather than pizza, soda and artificially colored crappy cake? That would be rad.
Next we made one of Janet’s own creations. This tofu and tomato salad with mushrooms was inspired by Janet. It’s the perfect dish to serve as a fancy appetizer when friends come over. So pretty and simple.
Cooking Tip: Tofu cut into big slices is easier to evenly pan fry than small pieces because you can flip it in chunks.
Cooking Tip: If you are adding sauce to a dish like this, only add a little before serving so it doesn’t get all over the plate. Add the rest of the sauce when it’s time to eat.
Then we prepared the vegetables for the egg-free bibimbap. This dish has so many beautiful vegetables with protein that there’s really no need for the fried egg that typically sits on top. We did hear that sometimes a piece of meat is slipped into the bottom, so try to order this “Bee-bim-bahp chay shik chooey” (vegetarian) at restaurants.
There are groups of seasoned vegetables (“namul”) that people cook together based on holidays, seasons and preferences. We used the vegetables you usually see in bibimbap in restaurants. This dish is ideal for families because each person can choose which ingredients they want, and all of the choices are healthy. It’s like roll your own nori night or make your own taco night where there is choice within a healthy framework.
Cooking Tip: Nutrients and flavor are lost in the blanching water. Either use the blanching water as a soup stock base or fry the vegetables in a little water to retain the flavor.
Here’s what we did:
- Slice cucumbers into thin circles. Tiny Asian cucumbers are so crunchy and delicious.
- Slice carrots and zucchini into thin match sticks
- Slice the mushrooms thinly to be pan fried
- In separate bowls, salt the carrots, zucchini and cucumbers with a tsp and mix with your hands. Let them sit and sweat for about 10 min. Rinse in cold water and squeeze excess water out with your hands. Really squeeze.
- Boil enough water to cover the Korean soy bean sprouts. Add a teaspoon of sea salt to the water. Drop sprouts washed sprouts in and wait 2 min. Remove the sprouts and rinse in cold water. Let sit in a strainer until sprouts are not soggy.
- Cut the stem base off of the spinach and cook the leaves quickly in a little water in a frying pan. Rinse in cold water and squeeze the excess water out with both hands cupped.
Ingredient Tip: Learn the difference between mung bean sprouts and Korean soy bean sprouts. Mung bean sprouts can be eaten raw. Korean soy bean sprouts must be cooked. And Korean soy bean sprouts should be kept in a black plastic to hide them from light.
You can use any vegetables you want. It’s important to have different colors and do not put similar colors beside each other.
Add red chili sauce and mix everything like crazy. And then keep mixing until the rice and vegetables are sticking to each other happily. If you don’t mix it enough the motherly-like person taking care of you in a restaurant may mix it for you. One even tried to spoon feed the bibimbap to my husband after she finished mixing his lunch! So funny, and also endearing that she cared.
Next we made Chop Chae (sweet potato noodles). These are some of my favorite noodles. Unlike buckwheat noodles, mung bean noodles and rice noodles they do not break into a million pieces when I accidentally over stir them. And they have an amazing texture and ability to soak up flavor.
Sweet potato noodles with mushrooms and veggies.jpg
Cooking tip: Layer the vegetables in the pan with the ones that need the most heat on the bottom. Take the soaked sweet potato noodles and steam them on the top layer.
Cooking Tip: Use tongs to toss the sweet potato noodles and veggies when the noodles are almost done steaming on top.
And then we made a seaweed salad that was honestly the prettiest one I have ever seen. We just soaked a pre-mixed pack in water for about 20 min, drained, and added sesame oil (optional) and a sauce with soy sauce, agave and vinegar. We topped it with sesame seeds and it was ready to eat without even cooking. And gorgeous.
Serving Tip: Janet said Koreans serve seaweed salad on glass plates. Not sure why, but it definitely looked good.
Then we made a simple and delicious kids meal. Janet dice zucchini, carrot and onion up so they were almost the size of rice grains. She fried the vegetables briefly with a little salt, added rice, sesame seeds, and cut nori strips to toss on top and mix in and removed from heat. Then she made the fried rice into little balls in the palm of her hand. I bet kids love popping these into their mouths.
And then it was time for fried pancakes and unfiltered rice beer. Hooray!
Can be made with mostly vegetables. Chinese scallions. Lay the vegetables close to each other in a nonstick pan and drizzle with batter. Fill in the cracks. Use a big spatula. Press down periodically and flip.
Serving Tip: Cut the pancakes with kitchen scissors to make easy to eat triangles and other fun shapes.
We drank makkoli from a bowl with our fingers in a position I had never tried. I was trying to drink it like Janet. When the makkoli was poured, we held the bowl respectfully with both hands. Janet poured it with intentionality. So nice. And it went so well with the fried pancake. Yay drinking food!
The cooking class began with sweets, which was fun. We ate big chunks of juicy apples and a freshly steamed pumpkin cake with red beans on top. It was lightly sweet and delicious. Janet said that most of the Korean sweets do not contain egg, milk or even artificial color. She thought the pink sweets might not be naturally colored, though.
We loved Janet’s cooking class and market tour. It gave us the chance to spend time with a person who has lived in both Korean and America for decades, loves to talk about food and culture, and is a truly talented chef we can all learn a lot from.
Delicious Korean drinks to try:
Sweet potato latte with Almond Breeze
Bean and grain (barley?)
Blended Adzuki bean and sweet rice
Chilled pumpkin juice with sweet rice