Veggie thoughts on Korea’s bakeries and food
11th June, 2013. Here are some tips and thoughts on bread, greens and vegetarian food in Seoul.
Bread. There are days that we don’t make it to a Korean bakery. They close at midnight and most of the time, we are just about coming home. This is when we are on our way to the 24h store alternative and the time I am longing for the smell of Athenian bakeries, putting warm bread in my hands, at night.
In Seoul, bakeries are usually very posh, stylised to look like French Cafés and have French names. However, they are adjusted to suit the Korean palate. Paris Baguette is a Korean chain that you will find around every corner.
They mainly serve all kinds of buns and pastries.
And complicated cakes with fancy names.
Apart from sweet almond buns, we sometimes grab a lunch snack here, have shrimp rolls or sandwiches. Both of these specimens in the picture were trying to impress more with size than terrific taste but some of Paris Baquette’s fare is actually pretty good.
Korean bakeries specialize in soft and sweet buns. Which applies to bread just the same. Very different to German hard crust bread, here bread goes down as smoothly as cream. It’s bouncy and brioche.
The importance of chewing on hard crust for the sake of strengthening oral motor skills (a speech therapist speaking here) will make Asian gums bleed just from listening. And despite growing on soft bread, they are fine speakers.
I hated crust as a kid. If it is not absolutely fresh and crisp, it is simply not the best part of bread. I remember how my babysitter made me eat solid German crust as a kid. While I was down with mumps, swallowing was torture. I swallowed but crust in combination with that babysitter became undesirable sights. Even if not sick. Truthfully, already before that. Do not make kids eat crust! Make them brush their teeth!
These shelves at the bakery are full of bread – plastic model bread!
As much as I appreciate the soft bread variety in Korea, I wish they would tone down sweetness levels.
On the picture below is late night ‘bread’ from the convenience store (package labels content clearly as ‘bread’). A remarkable unification of strawberry flavoured cream, filled into hollow bun with melted ‘cheese’ (think Asian pseudo diary) on top.
Fruits and vegetables. Are wrapped with immense overuse of available resources. For a reason. Fruit in Seoul is special in that fruit and vegetables are expensive. If I compare Korea to Thailand’s or Japan’s fruit opulence, Korea is not king of greens nor fruits.
With lemons you get all this.
Sadly, fruits and vegetables taste just like back home. The taste of imported freshness. Looking splendid, fantastically wrapped but lacking in taste. Tomatoes, grapes, zucchini, cucumber, bananas, pineapples, kiwis, apples and Korean melons is what we have tried so far and they are just like the discount supermarket fare back home. Not tasting real but a bit bitter, a bit hard, a bit dry, lacking juiciness.
It wasn’t until I tried Hungarian grapes and peppers, Japanese tomatoes, cucumbers and strawberries, Greek olives, oranges and zucchinis, Thai melons, mangoes and bananas – that I knew how amazing these actually taste. Mind you, seasonal variety like German strawberries or my grannie’s potatoes and string beans from Poland are rad, too. I haven’t had that wow taste-bud reaction in Seoul yet.
These tiny Korean melons are oval shaped with evenly spaced white linear sutures throughout the rind. The white flesh encloses sweet seeds but the taste of the flesh is that of a papery pear. Maybe it’s just what they are supposed to taste. At least they don’t smell like durian. It is summer and I miss juicy fruits.
The vegetarian quest in Seoul. To summarize things, as pescetarians, we do eat fish and that’s how we get by. We do not eat in restaurants that exhibit the inexplicable horrors of aquariums. A very common sight in Seoul.
Seeing these crippled beings cramped into tiny water tanks, severely suffering, almost massacred to death but still kept alive for ‘freshness on the plate’ is something that ‘superior’ human beings should not allow. Octopus are highly sensitive and intelligent creatures showing off remarkable problem solving and communication skills.
Most fish are lying dead on the tank floors.
Sometimes you might wonder about Korean street food stalls on the floor, too.
However, vegetarians will have a tough time in South Korea. I have read that there is no word for vegetarian here and the concept of a main meal without meat non existent.
Be prepared to encounter:
- No understanding of a vegetarian concept.
- Little possibility to customize your restaurant meals (‘Can I have … instead of …’ – can cause misunderstandings due to language barriers or might be regarded as offensive).
- Every meal has some-kind of animal in it, even kimchi (the spicy cabbage side dish) is often made with fermented fish sauce. Ramen or udon soups will be meat based, have meat or fish ingredients.
- Sushi places in Seoul serve meat on rice! This bacon was covered with so much mayonnaise and sauces on top, I did not spot the animal until it was too late.
You can even buy deliciously minced smoothies. No meat in this one, though. I think.
Drinks. There are little vending machines but convenience stores everywhere – so finding something to drink is not a problem at all. Try one of the ginseng energy drinks, if you are brave. However, I gotta say that finding black tea is… well we haven’t found black tea so far. The tea shelves are full but only feature Korean type tea.
Mainly endless types of green tea, or corn and barley tea, ginseng, fungus and bamboo tea… as passionate black tea drinkers, we are currently on Sulloc brown rice green tea‘. Well.
Our semi-veggie solutions:
- Bibimbap. It is a mixed rice dish, served with vegetables such as spinach, mushrooms, sea tangle, carrots, bean sprouts and topped with red pepper paste. Variations include (of course) beef and/or egg. Everything is stirred together in one large bowl.
- Gimbap rolls (Korean version of Japanese maki sushi) are a great snack that can be bought at any convenience store. We like the shrimp version and the one spicy purely veggie roll a lot. If it says tuna on your gimbap roll, it might have meat in it (mine did)!
- We cook for ourselves. We explore supermarkets. We look for veggie looking packages (soups, noodle/rice). For some reason, most Korean kitchens are not equipped with ovens, so be prepared to cook without baking. That means to focus on pasta and rice meals+sauce dishes.
- We received the ‘Soul food of Seoul – A guide for vegetarians‘ booklet from a tourist information counter but it has a bit of an overly optimistic approach. Its first sentence is ‘Korean cuisine is ideal for vegetarians’. Reality check. The mentioned ‘Restaurants with a vegetarian menu’ are usual Korean restaurants that serve a starter salad or desert without meat. I think the most grotesque part is where they list restaurants serving halal meat (animals throat is cut in such a way that it has to bleed to death painfully, while Allah is called). The booklet also recommends temple food and only lists two vegetarian restaurants, a bakery and café (no websites, no addresses given). This is it:
– Hangwachae. 10 min walk from exit 6 of Anguk Station. Line 3.
– SM Vegetarian Buffet. 10 min walk from Eonnam High School.
– Vegiholic Bakery. 10 min walk from exit 3 of Hongik University Station.
– Cook&Book Cafe. Has cookies, cakes and drinks. 10 min walk from exit 8 of Hongik University Station.
- Tofu. Our favourite kind can be found at most convenience stores but finding delicious tofu is not a problem in Seoul.
This is what we have in the morning. ‘Morning tofu’, juice and fruit. Korean tofu comes in three colours! With honey or sesame or bland. The ‘I’m Real‘ juices are as expensive as fruit.
- When we go out we check for fish restaurants (avoid fish tanks).
The fish restaurant. The restaurant was looking like a Japanese izakaya and close to our apartment near the Seoul Station area. It seems that the izakaya places (often with Japanese writing) serve more of a fish variety.
It had an English menu so we went in. And a nice interior.
There are not as many picture menus, nor food models here. The menu had a lot of meat but also enough fish options.
We choose ‘Grilled spipefish’ because it was the strangest sounding option.
And ‘Tuna with soybean paste’.
For starters you will always get some kind of kimchi and soy-beans.
All restaurants provide free water which is very cool. The bill was 33, 500 won, including two popular Korean brews, Cass beer.
Tomek working on Kkakdugi, which is one variety of Korean kimchi. It has all the spicing of kimchi but the cabbage is replaced with Korean white radish.
The fish platter was hard and chewy fish in a caramelized soy sauce. The peppers were tongue-blowing hot and the moving Katsuobushi fish flakes as mind-blowing as the first time I saw them in Japan.
The way the fish flakes move on the plate fascinates me every time again. The heat waves cause the thin and light katsuobushi fish shavings to move about. Watch this strange phenomena with us!
The salad had a slimy smelly challenge. Natto. Traditional Japanese sticky fermented soybeans – we could not get used to during our stay in Japan – it was time to face our demons in Seoul!
Eating fish is actually another demon to face. I don’t think I would be able to eat (as much) fish, if I had to catch and kill it myself.
I believe that the advancements and consequences of industrial farming is one of the world’s biggest challenges. Obesity, personal and economic greed lead to an unethical surplus of meat and fish. Realistically, this will not change.
But. I have seen great advancements in science, being able to grow real, healthy, pure meat on Petri dishes!
If the developed countries of the world switched eating habits to morally acceptable animal farming, it would be a big step towards the end of animal mass-production, its effects of viral/bacterial pandemics and incomparable animal cruelty – to keep us, the so called ‘superior species’ alive.
Superior than a pig or cow or fish?
Only the lucky cat knows why we don’t eat cats.