Journeys: Vegetarian Seoul
Acclaimed novelist and cookbook author BHARTI KIRCHNER, a vegetarian, had to be resourceful to thrive in a city that’s resolutely meat-centric. Contemplating her food adventures, she wonders what makes a trip memorable. Could it be those unexpected moments that aggravate you, but ultimately bring you the biggest thrill?
Flipping through the guidebook in my hotel room on my first morning in Seoul, I came across a sentence that exhorted me to indulge: “Eat as much Korean food as you like and you will not gain weight.” Vowing to put that assertion to a test, I weighed myself on the hotel bathroom scale. Then, still exhausted from the previous day’s flight and hungry to boot, I clutched my thin phrasebook and ventured out. I was quite unaware of the food challenge that lay before me, a vegetarian in a meat-crazy city.
Along the boulevard heavy with traffic noise stood boxy modern buildings, all apparently constructed in the same time period, their business logos inscribed in Korean. I’d purposefully chosen to stay away from the downtown district to learn more about how the Koreans lived and dined. As I walked, it disconcerted me not to be able to read the street names or billboards. Lack of a familiar script posed a bigger hurdle than I’d anticipated. Worse yet, looking in both directions, I saw no sign of any eatery anywhere. No food smells, no sight of a bakery display case, and no pedestrian cradling a coffee cup. Yet it didn’t seem proper to stop and ask a passerby. Everyone appeared to be in a hurry. Dressed in office uniforms, with purposeful steps and unwavering attention, they strode down the street, eyes straight ahead.
I could have gone back to the hotel, but I was someone who religiously avoided hotel restaurants. Also, with only a few days of stopover in Seoul, I wanted to discover places where the locals congregated. Getting hungrier and more impatient by the minute, I detoured into the nearest side street. To my amazement, I stepped into another, very encouraging, reality: a maze of narrow lanes and alleyways, much quieter than the main street, bustling with small restaurants crammed next to each other. The air was redolent with the aromas of garlic, chili, and sesame oil. I didn’t generally associate those aromas with mornings. Nonetheless, the scene brought magical relief.
I looked around with anticipation. A small, wiry man pulled a cart piled high with pale green cabbages— at least fifty, each with a farm-fresh smell—as he made deliveries to the shops. I’d never seen so many cabbages in one place. The humble vegetable was held in high esteem here, that much became clear. At the opposite corner, in a mobile food stall, a vendor roasted chestnuts. For a moment I closed my eyes and inhaled the fragrance that permeated the air. But the question remained: Where could I find breakfast?
On the sidewalk in front of a restaurant sat a huge cauldron on a charcoal brazier. In that cauldron, in foaming broth that emitted a cloud of scented steam, a cook poached dumplings—smooth, plump, and glistening. Soup? So early in the morning? Or, was that the breakfast of choice here? Aromas of ginger and chili sauce maddened me. Too early in the day. My resolve to be adventurous wavered.
Now I questioned my decision to break journey in Seoul before I went on a longer excursion in Asia. Who said travel enlarges your soul when it seems to test you, frustrate you, and even leave you starving? Well, there was always a first time for everything, I told myself, and they often occur during the most inopportune moments of a trip. Why not try soup for breakfast?
I stepped into a restaurant. Alas, the menu was written in Korean and the servers spoke no English. Earnestly, I flipped through my phrasebook. When you’re in real-time mode, you can’t find the right page, if there is a right page. With the waitress ready to take my order, frown on her face and tapping her feet, the phrases looked like inky jumbles, much like the Korean characters on the shop fronts. She had other customers waiting to be served, so I couldn’t blame her for half-turning, even though I wished she was a bit more helpful. I apologized and retreated to the street. Gathering up courage, as my hunger escalated from all the fragrances, I entered the shop next door.
A waiter with an extended hand directed me to the showcase where meals were done up in plastic. I recoiled. Not only did the brightly colored sample dishes look artificial, but also each was topped liberally with—what else—a ferocious mound of beef.
“Can you make me a vegetarian version of this?” I asked in English, pointing to one at random.
The waiter stared at me in bewilderment. I thanked him and slipped out under the withering glances of other satiated breakfasters. Although I was new to South Korea, I didn’t consider myself as being new to the cuisine. In the Korean restaurants in the U.S., I’d encountered and enjoyed soups, stews, noodles, and dumplings—earthy and fiery. I knew that Korean cooking, developed under a succession of imperial dynasties, had absorbed influences from both China and Japan. I assumed that I should expect a fine dining experience here in South Korea. What surprised me was that meatless meals were so hard to get.
It was then I came upon a travel agency, with these English words on its window: Come Fly with Us. I entered and walked up to a white-shirted man seated behind a desk. “Annyong hashimnika.” I said “hello” as my phrase book directed, hungry and anxious.
My Korean must have been less than perfect, for the travel agent replied in fluent English. “Your destination, please?”
I could feel the flush on my face. “A restaurant that serves vegetarian food. Can you help me?”
The agent gave a mocking laugh, turned to his cohort at a neighboring desk, and said, “She wants vegetarian.”
“Ah,” the second agent said, offering me a chair, and casting a friendlier glance. “I’m a cook. My cooking starts with chilies and garlic and finishes with beef. We don’t have much land for farming or cattle raising and so domestic beef is very expensive. We consider it special. You don’t eat meat? Are you a Hindu?”
“Actually, I was raised a Hindu. But with so many people going green these days, you don’t necessarily have to be a Hindu to ask for vegetarian, do you?”
In no time we were into a discussion of sacred cows, the origin of vegetarianism, and whether the consumption of animal protein was ultimately sustainable for the planet. “Couldn’t you eat just a little beef?” he said at one point.
I chuckled over his “just a little pregnant” remark and shook my head. He gave up and scrawled “no meat” in Korean on a slip of paper so I could show it to the wait staff. I thanked him for his help.
Who would have thought a simple scrap of paper would make all the difference? From that point on, I could walk into any Seoul restaurant and leave with a full belly. In no time after that, I also learned two other rules of restaurant ordering. Rule #1: Don’t linger over the menu. The waiter who appears with a plate of kimchi or pickles expects to take your order right away, in accordance with the tempo of this hard-driving city. Rule #2: Acquire a taste for kimchi. This rule may be more important than Rule #1. Kimchi is a highly seasoned, enzyme-rich, pickled vegetable—tender, crispy, tangy, and chili-hot—served on the side at most meals. In Korea, you can’t escape kimchi. It comes in more than two hundred different varieties, the most common being radish, turnip, cucumber, and, of course, cabbage.
Kimchi can be tongue-jolting, but I soon found it to be easy to handle in small doses. Before long, sticky rice and kimchi, a sort of match made in heaven, became a standard order for me. Rice accentuates the flavor of kimchi, giving it further justification to be on the table. Indeed, the blandness of rice provided a perfect neutral background for these tongue-jolting marinated vegetables. Kimchi, as it turned out, can be the gateway into other aspects of Korean culture. I delighted in watching native diners in the room relish this national icon—eyes lit up, smiles suppressed, tongues burnt, and judgments swallowed, as though the food was the bond among them. I found it particularly heartening when seeing me boldly fork kimchi into my mouth, a young couple at a nearby table whispered to me, “Now you’re one of us.”
Much to my lament, I didn’t have the chance to visit the Pulmuone Kimchi Museum in Seoul. The history and importance of kimchi in Korean culture is explained there and demonstrations show visitors how to prepare it. And finally kimchi gave me the courage to try a more formal restaurant. The place was so crowded that I had to share a table with two Korean business types. I ordered bibimbap or “vegetables over rice.” My one-bowl meal, containing spinach, bean sprouts, and black mushrooms, was anointed with a blend of soy sauce, ginger root, and red chili pepper, and placed on top of a gleaming mound of rice. Accompanying the dish was, naturally, tangy cabbage kimchi.
Between bites of rice, I struck up a conversation with my table mates. They’d ordered bulgogi or “fire beef,’” as the taller man called it. Over a tiny gas burner recessed into the tabletop, they braised paper-thin slices of beef marinated in garlic and sesame oil. “This is Korean barbecue, if you like,” joked the second man.
This wasn’t like any barbecue I’d ever seen. Tiny vegetable dishes surrounded the dinner plates like stars in a galaxy, and no two stars were alike: wilted spinach, braised summer squash, steamed eggplant, seasoned bean sprouts, kimchi, of course, and other local vegetables I didn’t recognize.
Perhaps noticing my wide-eyed curiosity, the same diner said in fluent English, “This is banchan, you follow? Side vegetable dishes or even chef’s vegetable specialties. They come with most dinners.” Banchan, he further explained, originated during the Buddhist period when meat was less emphasized. In a bygone era, the royal table consisted of twelve such tiny plates. Any less would embarrass the monarch. In modern times, five to seven is considered sufficient. “Besides,” my tablemate lamented, “the restaurant tables aren’t big enough to hold more.”
Their meal was also accompanied by an attractive platter of lettuce and silvery green edible chrysanthemum leaves. Deftly, the two diners wrapped the chrysanthemum leaves, which are considered highly nutritious, around the meat before biting into the ensemble. What a bundle of flavors that must have been—salty, sweet, and hot. I was intrigued by the ritual. It was as though they were not just eating but interacting with the food. At the same time, I couldn’t take my eyes off the vegetable sidekicks, which made the meal look abundant, appetizing and, God forbid, vegetarian. What struck me most was the simplicity of their preparation. Banchan is steamed, marinated, or stir-fried, then dressed with soy sauce, sesame oil, or sweet vinegar.
I knew exactly what I was going to do next: Make banchan a part of my vocabulary. I’d order a meat dish in a restaurant, leave it untouched, and just devour the banchan that accompanied it, not forgetting to take alternate bites of the bitter-tasting Chrysanthemum leaves. Hungry to learn more about Korean cuisine, I browsed the English-language section of bookstores. Eventually, I came across a slender volume titled All Purpose Guide to Korean Food: First Ever Dictionary of Korean Foods by Suh Hwan (Seoul Publishing House). The phrases—“What to eat! How to eat! How much is it!” jumped out from the cover. This eater’s digest included descriptions of 193 Korean dishes, as if a visitor had months to spare and more than one mouth. Along with a blurb on each dish came a picture, and even an approximate restaurant price. How much more useful could a food guide get? I carried it with me everywhere.
The book also dispensed advice on eating etiquette. For example: “If you must leave your seat during the meal, put your spoon and chopsticks on the bowl. Do not put them off the plate. This means you have finished.” I immediately put this and other such conventions into practice. They made me feel less like a transient, more like someone who’d been awarded a passcode of this culture. Another piece of advice I adopted: To leave within minutes after finishing your meal so as not to deprive the restaurant of the opportunity to serve other customers. Most Koreans, I learned, rush from a restaurant to a tea or coffee house with their companions and continue their conversations.
On one occasion I followed a group clandestinely to a teashop located in the basement of an office building. Although the place was nothing fancy, just a few tables and chairs arranged in groupings, it offered a fabulous ginger tea on its menu. The clear, energizing brew was made with real ginger root, not teabags. What a treat to bite into a tender slice of the root nestled at the bottom of the cup. The herb flavor constituted a perfect finish to a meal, while divulging yet another secret to Korean health and well-being.
All too soon, the time came for me to end my stay in Seoul and carry on with the rest of my Asian itinerary. Before I left my hotel room for the last time, I weighed myself. As the guidebook promised, I hadn’t gained weight. (Did walking miles in search of a meal contribute to that? Could it also be the type of food I ate? Clever bunch!) But I’d gained much in other ways. My vegetarian quest—frustrating though it had been at times, along with my newfound discovery of kimchi had brought me a touch closer to the Koreans, their customs, and the magic of their kitchens.
An earlier, shorter version of this essay was published in Writers Abroad anthology. Bharti Kirchner is the author of six novels and four nonfiction works, including the novels Shiva Dancing, Darjeeling, Sharmila’s Book, Pastries: A Novel of Desserts and Discoveries, and Goddess of Fire.
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