1. Coffee, tea & him
I had a pretty decent experience, food-wise, considering this is a country where they use a lot of vegetables, yet do not understand the concept of being a vegetarian. Let me begin with the coffee here - it is just great. Or is it just that coffee is better anywhere outside the US? Everyday I stopped at the "The Coffee Bean and The Tea Leaf" (which I realize is a US chain) for my morning cappuccino. One day, I ventured in to a local coffee chain called "Tea.us". The coffee was okay, and I thought this caption on their wall was quite weird.
2. Bibimbap and a wobbly salad
I learnt that one of the best Bibimbap joints in Seoul was right on the top floor of the Shinsagae department store attached to my hotel. Bibimbap is probably the one of the best known Korean dishes made with a variety of sauteed vegetables and rice mixed together with some "gochujang" or chili paste. V and I love to have this dish at home during the summer months. A version of bibimbap exists which is made in a hot pot which would be nice for the winter time.
I made my way to the Jeonju bibimbap restaurant for dinner one evening. Using the Korean phrase guide in my Lonely Planet, I told the waitress "No meat". Then we entered the domain of sign language. Pointing at my glass of water and making swimming gestures, she asked me if fish was okay. (I was thankful she bothered to check. Most Korean dishes, especially Kimchi, usually contains shrimp or some fish). When I gestured 'no', she pointed to the "Bibimbap with Mountain vegetable" and whisked the menu away. At 8000 won, it was a very affordable and filling meal.
Since I thoroughly enjoyed the bibimbap, I went back to this restaurant a second time with some Korean friends. This time too, I got the same main entree (which apparently is the only all-vegetarian main dish) but they ordered a side of "Acorn Jelly Salad", which was out of this world! The salad was made of Acorn Jelly, shredded sesame leaves (which have a very strong flavor), some grated cucumber and carrots topped with a dressing made of sesame oil and red pepper and other stuff. I plan to recreate this dish at home, and success will partly depend on finding the right ingredients at the local Korean store. My Korean friends told me that there are at least 2 kinds of sesame oil.
3. Satisfying my sweet tooth
The department store food market in the basement was an experience in itself. The place was always packed with people who were reaching for the free food samples and walking around with icecream waffle cones in hand. Actually one could fill up on the free samples which included even beer samples! There were several Korean sweet shops where the sweet was being made right there, and several fancy western-style bakeries as well. I refrained from trying out the food samples - not being quite sure what was vegetarian and what was not. But it was fun to walk around with my own gelato waffle cone in hand.
Being a gelato connoisseur, I was thrilled to discover a new flavor here. Now, this is going to sound weird but you have to take my word that it was absolutely delicious and somehow hit the spot in the hot and humid weather there this time of year. The "rice" gelato or "Riso" has some crunchy flakes of rice but is otherwise quite smooth and very mild. My Korean friend told me that riso flavor is good only at this one gelato chain called "Gusstimo". Three scoops cost 5000 won. My friend said she gets one scoop of riso (mild), one scoop of dark chocolate (bitter) and one scoop of berry yogurt (a little sour). I stuck with just the riso in a waffle cone.
4. Insadong - An oasis for vegetarians
Insadong is a must-visit for any vegetarian tourist in Seoul. Not only is it a great place to shop for Korean traditional handicrafts and art, it is also close to both the big palaces on the tourist circuit and a major Buddhist temple. Maybe because of the proximity to the Buddhist temple, there is a preponderance of vegetarian restaurants in this area. I tried "Sanchon" based on the recommendation from Lonely Planet. The book says that the restaurant was founded by a former monk who loved temple food and wanted to introduce it to the world. It is a bit difficult to find the place since it is tucked away in a small alley off the main shopping street. When I did manage to find it, I walked in from the sweltering heat into to a dark, cool room and found an old couple bagging tea leaves into neat little pouches. They did not pay me any heed. On the other side is the restaurant. One is not allowed to wear shoes inside. Fortunately my waitress spoke a little English and I was able to ask her for some cool water after squatting on the mat in front of my wooden dining table. The set menu cost 22000 won for lunch and came with an array of very simply prepared vegetables in addition to some rice, some tempura, and soup. It is definitely worth experiencing this dining style at least once. A great writeup about the food, and more pictures are here:
5. Street food
Seoul does not sleep till midnight or even later. In fact there are some markets which are open through the night. The open air markets are fun to hang out in. One can watch people haggling with hawkers selling umbrellas, socks, cheap jewelry, t-shirts, toys and of course food! The food carts are always busy. It was fun to watch this one vendor make some kind of caramelized sweet on a stick that were selling like, pardon the pun, hot cakes. She burnt some sugar in a little cup, spread it out, stamped a pattern on it, and inserted a stick in it.
There were machines dispensing green tea frozen yogurt which seemed quite popular. There was also roasted sweet corn and fried potato and lot of other sweet stuff. I decided to try the roasted chestnuts based on the recommendation in my guidebook. I believe this is a winter thing, but somehow I was lucky enough to spot it. I got a small paper bag-full for 5000 won and they smelled so good that I gobbled them all up before clicking a picture!
6. In conclusion....
It is not difficult for a vegetarian to survive in Seoul. One could just live on bibimbap (minus the meat), some great roasted chestnuts from your friendly street vendor and a cup of nice hot tea to wash it down. And if you go to Insadong, you will have quite a few vegetarian places to choose from - just ask the next monk that walks past you. Whatever you do, just don't settle for Indian food or Italian food here. I can vouch that both are quite terrible in Seoul.