Koreans are also vegetarians

Eating vegan and zero-waste movement in Korea

Culture & Society

by Michaela Auer, 23.10.2020

Vegan in Korea? Shopping without packaging? That sounds about as exotic in Korea as a camel ride around Lake Constance.

Since the “Fridays for Future” movement, environmental issues and climate change have returned to media awareness around the world. Seeing how other countries and cultures deal with the problem opens up and expands your own horizons. But how and which topics are implemented in each case is again very individual.

Chicken is popular with all Koreans. (© Michaela Auer)

One aspect, namely “food and the environment”, is particularly interesting as it reveals some cultural differences. In Korea, meat has a high priority as a food. Not only in culinary terms, but also in social terms. It is customary to meet regularly with friends, colleagues or family in the grill restaurant. If you ask Koreans what their favorite food is, many people call it “chicken”. These are fried chicken pieces that are served with a selection of different sauces. The focus is always on the meat as the centerpiece. Grilled and meat dishes are a communal meal, and one portion is ordered for several people seated at the table. Thus, even for Koreans who are already convinced of the advantages of avoiding meat, it is difficult to do without meat in everyday life without maneuvering themselves into social failure. Another aspect that one often encounters is the belief that meat is part of a healthy diet. Those who do not eat meat are often viewed as unhealthy, weak and lacking in energy. Those who speak out against meat consumption are also often pigeonholed in a negative way.

The awareness for animal rights and vegan & / or vegetarian nutrition is still in its infancy. Advocating for the living conditions of animals only slowly developed in Korea in the 00s. Due to the popularity of pets in particular, it has become a personal concern for many to improve the living conditions of street cats or to protest against the consumption of dog meat. Over 10 million Koreans currently have a dog as a pet, and it is impossible to imagine the streets without animal companions. In this respect, the dogs have gained a place within the Korean families and are no longer regarded as livestock. On the other hand, there is still a long way to go for animals from conventional agriculture.

However, with the increasing number of vegetarians or vegans, there is also a tendency in this direction. In the last ten years the number of vegetarians has increased tenfold (from 150,000 to 1.5 million).

With luck, the Bibimbab dish comes in a vegetarian version. (© Michaela Auer)

Therefore, as a vegetarian or vegan in Korea, you are no longer completely lost. Especially not if you live in the capital, Seoul. Because small Gallic villages have emerged here in recent years, from which small impulses for the Korean population have come from the vegetarian and vegan food culture. In Seoul, itaewon, the famous foreigners' district, Insadong, the traditional tourist district, and Hongdae, the student party district, should be mentioned in particular. But in the Gangnam district, too, things are becoming increasingly fashionable in this regard. Western-style vegetarian restaurants are no longer uncommon in the cityscape. And the Korean cuisine also meets the requirements of the vegan and vegetarian diet. It is based on the Buddhist temple kitchen, which has always been vegetarian and plant-based. Nowadays there is a wide selection of purely vegetarian restaurants and restaurants with some vegetarian options in Seoul. Purely vegan restaurants are still rather uncommon.

You can find a selection of restaurants here:

Itaewon: Plant https://www.plantcafeseoul.com/ Vegetus http://www.vegetus.kr/contact-us/

Insadong: Osegye Hyanghttp: //www.go5.co.kr/default/

Jongno: so-iroum https://www.instagram.com/so_iroum/

A rare sight - unpackaged food can often only be found on the market. (© Michaela Auer)

Another step towards a sustainable and environmentally friendly way of life is the reduction of plastic consumption. Plastic has been identified as a major environmental polluter by environmental activists around the world. Above all, the zero waste movement is driving this change. The abandonment of packaging is only gradually gaining ground in Asia. But there is also some initial progress here. Plastic waste has been recognized as a fundamental problem by the South Korean government. In 2018, it passed a law to reduce plastic in cafes and restaurants for the first time. All customers who do not want to use the take-away service should now use reusable cups and reusable dishes. The problem of plastic cup consumption is particularly glaring in Korea. Until now, it was hardly possible for customers to get reusable cups in cafes. Even after explicit request, drinks were served either in plastic or in paper cups. From the point of view of gastronomy, this was done for convenience and to reduce the workload. You don't have to worry about cleaning the disposable tableware. From the customer's point of view, convenience and hygiene naturally also play a major role. Thanks to disposable tableware, you are flexible and can take your drink outside after a while in the café. So there is no need to commit. Furthermore, there is still a lack of confidence in the cleanliness of reusable cups, although this actually contradicts common practice in Korean restaurants. There it has always been customary to drink water provided free of charge from aluminum cups, which are washed after use and then made available again in sterilized machines for self-service. At this point, however, it becomes noticeable to what extent humans are creatures of habit. And so it is not surprising that the new regulation took some time to be implemented by both businesses and customers. And even today there is still no guarantee of it.

Packaging art in the supermarket (© Michaela Auer)

In May of this year, the Korean government gave another positive signal. Accordingly, the Ministry of the Environment and several economic and environmental associations decided to reduce plastic consumption in food deliveries by 20 percent in the packaging industry and delivery services.

Delivery services have benefited massively since the Covid-19 outbreak in Korea. Sales have increased by more than half since February. Many consumers now regularly use the online service and order groceries and everyday items. There is also lively demand for food deliveries. Unfortunately, at the same time, people's willingness to use reusable packaging has decreased. For fear of infection, single-use crockery and packaging were increasingly used again in cafés and restaurants.

It is therefore not surprising that the zero waste movement in Korea is still very small. The strongest impetus is still coming from the government. In everyday life and in the media, the topic is still barely dealt with. Officials are attempting to introduce the Korean people to an environmentally friendly lifestyle through smaller projects and to raise their awareness of the issue. Of course, the further spread of the vegetarian and vegan lifestyle also attracts attention to an all-round environmentally friendly life. This benefits the zero-waste / low-waste movement. This can also be seen in the fact that there are more and more businesses that are committed to environmental protection. So there will soon be in the branches of the clothing store Topten Shopping bags made on the basis of corn. In some shops, plastic bags are only available for an extra charge at the cash register, which was also prescribed by the state. Consumer behavior in Korea is still very different from that in the West. Plastic bags don't play as much of a role as you might think. But the packaging of the products is still very important for consumers. Both from an aesthetic point of view and because of the view that it is more hygienic. Apples or bananas are sometimes packed individually or products are protected with multiple layers of packaging. For small companies and shops in particular, switching to environmentally friendly packaging or even doing without it is still unimaginable.

Fortunately, there are now and then small forays by large Korean companies in the direction of environmental protection and zero waste. In Korea, too, this global trend will slowly but surely unfold.

Photo: private

lives and works in Seoul since 2014. She studied cultural studies (English / American studies) and sociology at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg. She then worked in the communications department of Siemens Healthcare. Then she moved to Korea. Since then she has been working at the Goethe-Institut Korea in Seoul as a DAF teacher and as a freelance conceptor for the design and communication agency Volute. She is currently involved in various cultural projects and is sustainability officer at the Goethe-Institut Korea.