Vegetarianism in Korea: Past and Present

Recently I read this interesting article from the Yonhap News Agency about the growing popularity of vegetarianism in Korea, but based on traditional dietary habits, not modern ones. In the past, I’ve talked about traditional diets in Japan, which also include a lot more vegetables and a lot less meat, but you can see from the article that similar traditions existed in Korea too.

As the article notes, meat was a luxury anyway, reserved for very special occasions and/or aristocratic families of the Joseon Dynasty. Most farmers used their livestock for grazing not meat, and since Korean culture flourished just fine, you can see that people weren’t dying en masse because they didn’t have access to hamburgers, milk or 20-ounce sirloin steaks. Much of this is true in ancient Greece too, by the way.

As a disclaimer, I am not a vegetarian myself, though I am convinced that Westerners and Asian people eat too much meat/dairy these days.

The problem though, as I have come to realize, is that most Westerners traditionally don’t really know how to cook vegetables well.1 So, if you try to eat vegetarian, you pretty much limit yourself to either salads, or “fake meat” made from soy/potato products. These aren’t bad, but unless you learn how to diversify your vegetable-menu, you can’t reduce your consumption of meat/dairy. This is why I think Westerners can learn from Asian traditional dietary habits.

For example, I’ve rarely seen “salad” in traditional Asian food, unless it is really Americanized. The idea of a bowl of raw lettuce/spinach and such just isn’t that satisfying. But on the other hand, pickled vegetables over rice, or in soup, along with fried tofu, mushrooms and such are quite common. There are plenty of vegetable-based sauces with which to choose from too.

I first got into Asian culture when I was 16, but knew almost nothing about it. Naively, I would hang out at the local Panda Express, a fast-food chain specializing in “asian buffet”, which mostly consisted of typical Americanized dishes like sweet-sour chicken, etc. This was “asian food” to me. ;p However, I remember one dish I liked called “Buddha’s Delight” which was a vegetarian stir-fry with lots of mushrooms, corn, and other veggies. I was drawn to that dish, possibly because of the name, but also because it was really good even though it had no meat (possibly had MSG, but oh well).

But that’s an example of how Asian cooking can be very good without using any meat. It’s not that Asian people are somehow more “clever” than other people, but they’ve learned to cook vegetables a lot better out of necessity. As mentioned in an ancient post,2 Buddhist monks (bhikkhus) and nuns (bhikkunis) typically abstain from meat, unless explicitly offered it as a donation. In Japan, the diet of a Buddhist bhikkhu/bhikkuni is called shōjin-ryōri (精進料理), and I believe it’s called jeongjin yori (정진 요리) in Korean. The bhikkhus and bhikkhunis of course had to eat, but out of the welfare of other sentient beings, they opted to eat only vegetables, and thus had to learn to get creative with vegetarian foods.

For example in the famous temple of Kōyasan in Japan, I’ve heard that the vegetarian meals there can be absolutely exquisite, and I remember many years ago eating a vegetarian meal at Ryūanji in Kyoto and enjoying that as well. In truth, most Buddhist monastic meals tend to be a lot more plain, but it shows the range of good foods possible if only you know how to cook them. Korean Buddhism also has a healthy tradition of vegetarian diets as well.

It should be noted though that this kind of cuisine has traditionally been consumed by Buddhist monastics only, so most Asian people I’ve met equate “vegetarian” with either Buddhist monasteries or with cutting out red-meat only. Vegetarianism as understood in a Western context is slightly different, and can lead to confusion if you go to Japan/Korea and go looking for vegetarian food. You can definitely find it; you just need to know how.

Someday I really would love to be a vegetarian, but for the time being, I am happy to at least reduce meat consumption on a meal-by-meal basis. The key to any such life-style though is that if you take something away, you have to put something attractive/viable in its place. Otherwise, willpower will eventually fail. All the shocking PETA videos in the world aren’t enough to make people successfully transition to a vegetarian lifestyle if people can’t find a sustainable and genuinely pleasant alternative.

So, if one wants to simply reduce meat/dairy consumption, or go completely vegetarian, then it’s helpful to invest the time and research into learning how to other people have successfully done it. It’s been done by countless cultures in the world, and there’s no reason why it can’t be done in your own life if you just know how to do it, and enjoy it too.

1 Living in Europe, I got to enjoy lots of awesome French and Italian cuisine, but vegetarian options were surprisingly difficult. Ireland actually was way ahead because they made lots good vegetarian alternatives using potato and corn. I would often enjoy the “veggie” burger at Burger King on Grafton Street or at the local chipper on Thomas Street.

2 That post was so old, Taft was still president. (rimshot)

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About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.
This entry was posted in Buddhism, Cooking, Health, Korea and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Vegetarianism in Korea: Past and Present

  1. Petru says:

    Hi Doug
    This is an interesting post. Would you consider a future article on some sources for vegetarian recipes or anything a little more cooking-wise?
    Thank you very much

  2. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Petru,

    It’s a good idea; I hadn’t thought of it. I don’t have enough information to write a good post but I’ll give it some thought and maybe do some research (examples of common vegetarian Asian cuisine).

  3. kelleynymph says:

    Interesting insight. Great read. :)

  4. Doug 陀愚 says:

    I hope it proves useful. :-)

  5. Marcus says:

    “most Westerners traditionally don’t really know how to cook vegetables well”

    Sorry Doug, this is utter rubbish!

    I know you love East Asia, but there is no need, in your eagerness to express that love, to denigrate other cultures. The “west” (whatever that means) has a long and wonderful history of vegetable cooking!

    I agree that the love of vegetables is sadly in decline in the modern period, but traditionally England (and I can only speak for England really) was awash in great varieties of vegetables. Many of these heritage varieties have been lost but there is a real movement to preserve them now, by both small farmer organisations and local gardeners and growers.

    My father, for example, is a keen veg grower and is self-sufficient in both fruit and veg. Both he and my mum then does wonders with them in the kitchen. All over the UK there are local farm stores and farmers markets, and some great fairs celebrating British fruit and veg (the Cambridge Apple Fair in the Botanical Gardens has to be seen to be believed – hundreds of great varieties all in one place!).

    As for vegetarian options in Europe being “surprisingly difficult” – again I don’t know how you figure that!

    I’ve been a veggie for 30 years and have lived in a dozen countries, here are my observations:

    England: – The UK has millions of veggies and every restaurant has a vegie option. Veggie options are usually marked with a veggie symbol and everyone knows what you mean when you say you don’t eat meat. Plus every single town in England has at least one health food shop and veggie restaurant.

    Thailand: – I lived in Thailand for many many years and had to give up eating Thai food entirely as it is entirely meat-based. There are a few veggie restaurants serving Thai veggie food – mostly catering to non-Thai tourists visiting the country. There is no understanding of what a vegetarian is in Thailand. For many years I worked at a university in Thailand and had lunch there, about 50% of the time my lunch consisted of just white rice and a fried egg and every single other dish contained some kind of dead animal.

    Korea: – I spent three years in Korea and though the temple food is veggie (and great!) – the rest isn’t – especially as the kimchi is made with fish sauce. However, there are some good veggie restaurants. The best (a Christian-run restaurant) is at the top of Insa-dong (turn left at the north end and the restaurant is down some steps in a basement – you’ll find the Saturday Sangha in there every week!). However, again, outside of such specialist establishments and the temples there is little understanding of vegetarianism in wider Korean society.

    Japan: -I’m lucky, my Japanese wife is a great veggie cook! And there IS a lot of good veggie food in Japan, but, again, you have to look pretty hard for it! I work teaching adult students one-to-one and have met and talked to many many hundreds of Japanese people. In all this time I have met only ONE Japanese vegeterian.

    Finally……

    “All the shocking PETA videos in the world aren’t enough to make people successfully transition to a vegetarian lifestyle if people can’t find a sustainable and genuinely pleasant alternative”

    Again, I’m sorry, but that’s not true. I don’t eat meat because I believe it is wrong to eat the dead bodies of other sentient beings (beings that may once have been my mother of even my children) and wrong to support the horrors of the industry that abuses and murders so many animals so that people can consume their carcasses.

    Because of that I am happy to eat a plate of plain white rice or few slices of just bread and margarine if nothing else is available. Of course it is better if there are good veggie foods available (and in Europe there is more likely to be than in Asia), but murder is murder. I’m not going to vow to save all beings – and then eat their bodies!

  6. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Marcus,

    Your experiences and mine apparently have differed. :-)

    Thanks for the country-by-country review. Helps to round information for everyone.

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