Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Eating Vegan in Korea and Japan

One of the things many people have asked about our trip to Korea and Japan last month is how did I maintain a vegan diet while we were there. Those countries are heavily reliant on seafood, and even in dishes that are not inherently meat-based, some kind of fish sauce is often used in the preparation.

When planning the trip, the details of how I was going to eat were something that gave me a certain amount of anxiety. Even if vegan-friendly dishes are on the menu, the language barrier would make it difficult to ask the wait staff (if there is any) about them. Some people have blogged about how to travel and stick with a strict vegan diet. That's not what I'm doing here. Before we left home, I decided that the best way to approach the situation was to just do the best I can with it.

Fresh vegetables are easy to find in Korea.
While staying at my sister's house in Korea, things weren't so difficult. For meals that were prepared at home, we generally knew what was going into them. But that wasn't always the case. At one of the open-air markets we went to, I bought a few different items from a kimchi stand. When we served them with dinner that night, I found that one of the big piles of seaweed on my plate was saturated with fish oil. I ate it anyway. It freaked me out a little, but I figured that as long as it was there, I may as well have the culinary experience.

The scenario would repeat itself to lesser degrees at various restaurants - the udon might be prepared in fish stock; the baked goods may or may not contain dairy or eggs; the rice and vegetable dish might have shredded dried fish as a garnish. I decided that I wasn't going to let that be too much of a hang-up.

Tofu and bean curd vendor in Pyeongtaek
So did I "cheat" on my diet? I wouldn't say so. When people talk about cheating, I imagine it to mean that there's some forbidden thing they just couldn't find the willpower to resist. But in foreign countries, there are some food dishes that are just intrinsic to the culture. I'm not sure it counts as cheating to make a calculated decision to experience that aspect of the journey despite the fact that it doesn't hold up to the standards we would keep while at home. And the classic definition of veganism allows that the best we can do is make every reasonable effort to avoid the exploitation of animals. It doesn't say anything about having your super-powers revoked just because you can't speak the local language.

Anyway, the short of it is: I didn't want to turn the family vacation into a frustrating exercise in foraging for food in a land where the notion of veganism is as foreign to them as their traditions are to me.

Ad for a Vegan phone (yeah, I know...)
That said, I think it went pretty well. We managed to find soy milk at the 7&I convenience stores (7-11 equivalent, to those here in the US).

Japanese soy milk - the picture of the beans is a give-away, but also look for "大豆" (soy) or "豆乳" (soy milk)
They also had steamed rice and seaweed with sesame oil in the refrigerated prepared foods section. At grocery stores we found everything from fresh produce to breakfast cereal to eat in our hotel room that were known to be vegan. When eating out, there were always tofu and vegetable dishes that appeared to be fish-free. And I discovered that an extra helping of steamed rice does wonders for one's sense of satiety.

Oh... did I mention we found some yerba mate at the street market in Pyeongtaek? The vendor had a big jug of it (iced) and was handing out samples. We bought a bag of yerba which came with a pack of paper filter baggies and instructions (in Korean) for preparing it. Not quite the same as sipping it hot from a bombilla, but it was a refreshingly cool twist on something I learned to love during our visit to Argentina a couple of years ago.

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