List of veggie-friendly Korean food

Sooooo… I’ve updated the layout a bit. And from now on, when you click on the menu button “Korean Veggie Dishes“, you will find a page with links to the individual posts. I hope this makes navigating through the information on this homepage easier!👨‍💻

And what else? The page is actually a list of common Korean dishes that are veggie-friendly.🌱 Each listing contains a brief description as well as a link to more information (an article or an Instagram post)! The list will be expanded continuously and will grow steadily, as I add more content.

In other words, it is….
a list of vegan Korean dishes 🌱🥕,
a list of vegetarian Korean dishes 🥚🥛 and
a list of veggie-friendly Korean dishes, which are easily customized 🚫🐖!!!

➡️ 🇰🇷🌶🍜🌰 Overview of veggie-friendly Korean food 🍚🍡🍠🇰🇵 ⬅️
🌱🍚🌱🌶🌱🍣🌱🥞🌱🌽🌱🍆🌱🍙🌱🥕🌱🥟🌱🍡🌱🍶🌱🍵🌱🥡 🌱

If you are looking for vegan food in Korea or if you would like to simply eat authentic, vegetarian food in Seoul, you now have a loooong list of dishes to chose from!

YES! There is more than Bibimbap! 😀🍚

NO! Vegans and vegetarians do not have to eat the same dish over and over again! (Bibimbap… 😐🍚)

YES! There are a quite a few more vegan and vegetarian options in Korea, including main dishes as well as anju, snacks and dessert items!!!! 🍠🍲 🍙🤤🍜🍡🥞

NOW! [Stop screaming.]
Happy browsing and happy eating! 🤗💚🌱

Edible any way: Sweet Potatoes in Korea

In a previous post, you have been introduced to the Korean look of the ‘regular’ potato.🥔 Now, let’s take a look at their relative – the sweet potato! 🍠 Thanksgiving is coming up in the US, where sweet potatoes aka yams are popular guests at the dinner table. If you’re tired of them showing up the classic way, perhaps the following lines can inspire your kitchen.

Sweet potatoes as toppings on pizzas🍕 or sandwiched between layers of bread🥪 are common sights, which should not come as surprising, if you are familiar with Korean culinary customs regarding potatoes. After all, “sweet potato pizza” is a standard at most Korean pizza stores and one of the few vegetarian options available. [Do not expect to find Pizza Margherita in Korean pizzerias!]

But sweet potatoes are SWEET! 🍠🍭 Why mix them with something savory? 🍠🍕

Er… Because you can? Come on! It is not SUCH an other-worldly thing these days… 🙄 Peanut butter is sweet and salty. 🥜🍭 And there are chocolate-covered pretzels – a popular treat in the US. 🍫🥨 Last but not least, caramel with sea salt is a common flavor combination by now. 🍬🌊

Anyhow… Since sweet potatoes are sweet, how about having them for dessert?

Like… in cake? 🍠🍰

Sweet potatoes in cake? 🤔 Why not! 💡 After all, we celebrate carrot cake, which contains conspicuous amounts of carrots – a similar (?) vegetable! 🥕🍰

Soooo…. how about a cake like this:

Purple Sweet Potato cake at “Innisfree Cafe” 이니스프리카페, Seoul 2016.

Or a tarte:

Tarte filled with pumpkin and purple sweet potato mousse at vegan cafe “The Bread Blue” 더브레드블루, Seoul 2019.

Or ice cream: 🍠🍦

Soft serve ice cream with sweet potato flavor and purple sweet potato tiramisu at cafe Bora 카페보라, Seoul 2019.

Isn’t the color fascinating? 🍠🤩💜 Apart from these eye-catching examples, you can find various desserts such as Korean rice cakes (tteok 떡) 🍠🍡 or bakery products either flavored with ground sweet potato, filled with sweet potato (chunks, mousse, paste etc.) or both. 🍠🍞🍠🍩

In fact, sweet potatoes have been a flavor-giving ingredient in Korean desserts long before chocolate and green tea powder (aka Korean nokcha or Japanese matcha) set off for their world domination campaigns… 🍫🌎🍵🏆

In Korea, you can even drink sweet potatoes! ☕️ If it’s too late in the day for a caffeinated drink and you don’t feel like hot chocolate, then how about sweet potato latte? In theory, it is what the name implies – sweet potato with milk. 🍠🥛 In reality, it’s more often a powder with sweet potato flavor, food coloring and sugar mixed into milk than actual sweet potato and milk blended together. Alternatively, it’s made by stirring a sweetened puree or syrup with sweet potato flavor into milk-like liquids. Notwithstanding, it is quite a nourishing beverage with comfort food potential. 🛋🛏 A liquid meal to go. 🥡🥤 And although you might not have the chance to select the color of sweet potato 💛💜, you often have a choice between a hot or iced beverage. ❄️♨️

Food stall selling roasted sweet potatoes and chestnuts.

Then, of course, sweet potatoes can also be enjoyed simply as they are! In Korea, they are a perfect vegan🌱 snack, frequently available in boiled, steamed or roasted form and sold on the road by street vendors as well as some convenience stores.

So if you are in need of a nutritious snack or an outdoor meal, look out for cooked or steamed sweet potatoes (jjin goguma 찐고구마) or roasted sweet potatoes (gun goguma 군고구마). Just be careful not to burn your hands, if you get them fresh from the oven!🔥

Perhaps, you find sweet potatoes also attractive in dried form: Long sweet potato strips which provide the ideal chewing exercise for your jaws. [Who needs gum, beef jerky or even fingernails to gnaw on when concentrating anyways!] At present, there are various types of such “dried sweet potatoes” (goguma malaengi 고구마말랭이). The old-fashioned goguma malaengi contain added sugars and are manufactured in a process similar to dried mango, dried papaya or orange peel – actually more like candied fruit! More modern versions are made from sweet potatoes, which have been dehydrated by machines without the use of sugar syrup. Depending on the brand, these may be produced either from sweet potato puree, which has been filled into molds to create sweet potato strips with uniform shapes (e.g. brand “Chew” 츄). Alternatively, cooked or roasted sweet potatoes are cut and dehydrated without further treatment, so the resulting sweet potato strips have random lengths and sizes. Home recipes for goguma malaengi suggest to slowly dry pieces of sweet potatoes in an oven. Unless otherwise stated, those variations of dried sweet potatoes consist of 100% sweet potato and are thus 100% vegan. 🍠🌱

Beside boiled, steamed, roasted and dried,
Koreans also love sweet potatoes fried!

And there are several ways of frying them! For one, there is the standard method of coating things in batter and then deep-frying them (similar to Japanese tempura). Applying this on sweet potatoes results in Korean goguma twigim (고구마 튀김), which are slices of sweet potatoes with a soft center underneath a crispy, golden crust – a favorite at many street food stalls! Another indulgent street food item involving deep-frying is mattang (맛탕). For this dish, chunks of sweet potato are first deep-fried and afterwards caramelized in sugar. A sticky and ideally also crunchy experience for the sweet-toothed.

Now, what else could there be? 🤔💭 Did you think of sweet potato fries, yet? 🍟 ALMOST correct! Koreans have goguma seutik (고구마스틱)! Unlike the sweet potato fries which you might be familiar with, these super-thin, deep-fried sweet potato “sticks” are quite dry, rather hard and very crunchy! Nowadays, you can find them at snack shops on the street, inside subway stations or at rest areas of high ways.

Purple sweet potato chips and mini apples.

If you enjoy nibbling on something crunchy, then how about sweet potato chips? Fans of potato chips, however, be warned: Korean sweet potato chips (goguma chipseu 고구마 칩스) are often not savory and may even come with an additional sugary coating! 🍭

As you can see, sweet potatoes are a very versatile ingredient in Korea. And there are many types of sweet potatoes as well! Koreans distinguish between sweet potatoes according to size, color and texture. Just to mention the most distinct ones: The “purple sweet potatoes” (jeok goguma 적고구마 / jasaek goguma 자색고구마), which are most prominent in dessert items because of their color, are actually rarely found in raw form. 💜 Those which are light yellow inside and have a dry mouth feel are called “chestnut sweet potato” (bam goguma 밤고구마), as their taste is reminiscent of chestnuts. 🌰💛 There are also types with orange-colored and more juicy flesh – those are called hobak goguma (호박고구마), which means – guess what! – “pumpkin sweet potato”. 🎃🧡

Various types of sweet potatoes at a traditional market in Seoul, August 2019.
Dry Dangmyeon sold lose (front) and pre-packaged (back) at a traditional market.

But beside these obvious instances, sweet potatoes can be discovered in other parts of Korean cuisine as well! For example, the starch of sweet potatoes is the base of noodles that are called dangmyeon (당면) in Korean. When dry, these noodles are grayish but they turn transparent when cooked. Their texture is soft and rather chewy – not to be confused with noodles made from wheat, rice or other types of glass noodles, which are often made from mung bean flour. Since they absorb flavors very well, these sweet potato noodles are popular in a couple of stews and stir-fry dishes. A famous dish featuring dangmyeon is Japchae (잡채). For this veggie-friendly dish, the noodles are stir-fried, mixed with various vegetables and mushrooms (occasionally egg🥚, fish cake🐟 or meat🐄) and seasoned with soy sauce.

Raw sweet potato tubers, sweet potato leaves and skinned sweet potato leaf stalks, Seoul 2019.

Apart from the tuber 🍠, Koreans also know how to turn parts of the green plant into food!🌱 Yes! The entire plant does not need to be wasted after harvesting the tubers!!! Traditionally, Koreans use the leaves’ stalks in preparing vegetable side dishes (namul banchan 나물반찬) or by adding them into soups and stews. But in order to make them edible (and chew-able), the leaves are removed and the tough, magenta-colored skin is peeled off! This is a lot of manual work and it takes time and patience to skin an amount large enough for consumption. These edible leaf stalks of sweet potato plants are called goguma sun (고구마순) or goguma julgi (고구마줄기) in Korean.

With the harvest of new sweet potatoes in late summer, also sweet potato leaves will be on sale. If you then visit a traditional market in Korea, you may observe vendors diligently peeling the stalks as they wait for customers. This is the best time for fresh sweet potato leaf stalks! Outside the season, they are available only in dried form. Although dishes featuring fresh or dried sweet potato stalks remain the same, the cooking processes vary and there are differences in taste, color and texture.

In summary, sweet potatoes are an ubiquitous and flexible food item. In Korean cuisine, the tubers🍠 as well as the greens🌿 are consumed and most of the resulting foods are either vegan by default or veggie-friendly! 🌱 The tubers, which come in various colors, flavors and sizes, are starring in sweets, snacks as well as main dishes. Sweet potato leaf stalks, then, pose as a green addition to a number of other dishes.

Roasted sweet potato from a street vendor.

Especially during the colder months, sweet potatoes are precious companions. 🧣❄️🧤 On a chilly and lonely winter day, what better treat is there than an oven-roasted sweet potato? Hold it tight or keep it in your pocket, and it lovingly warms your skin. ✋🍠🔥 Unwrap it and its golden insides delight your taste buds, while its sweet breath tickles your nose. 👅🍠♨️ It’s a natural heat pack and energy bar dressed in magenta. 👚💖

Featured

Taste of black: animal- or plant-based?

Ice cream colored with black sesame at Blackburn’s 블랙번즈 in Seoul, 2019.

🖤 Black is chic.

🕶 Black is cool.

🎩 Black is always fashionable.

Now, black FOOD is the new black.

And if this hasn’t already been news to you…
There’s so much more black food beside Oreo cookies!*

While in many parts of the world, activated charcoal powder is a rising star among natural food colorants, South Korea is still blocking its journey to the peninsula because of health concerns. But Korea has its own “black food”. There’s technically no NEED for charcoal. [Who wants to eat charred wood anyways???😝] In fact, there exists a whole array of ingredients which are (some traditionally, some more recently) used to dye all types of food in magnificent black.

Regular sesame seeds (raw), roasted sesame seeds and roasted black sesame seeds.

First and foremost, there is black sesame. Sesame is an omnipresent ingredient in Korean cuisine (see “About the Name of the Homepage“). The black variation, which is referred to either as heugimja (흑임자) or geomeunkkae (검은깨) in Korean, is less common and generally more expensive than the buff-colored sesame. Regardless of its original scarcity and associated exclusiveness resulting in a higher price, black sesame is nowadays consciously appreciated for aesthetic reasons in food preparation. Just like regular sesame, black sesame seeds are frequently used to garnish foods by adding the final decorative touch. However, black sesame seeds can also star as the main ingredient in a certain dish, favored because they bring the usual taste 👅, smell👃 and nutrients of regular sesame – plus optical effects!👁

Korean rice cakes, aka tteok (떡), which appear in innumerable diversity, may contain black sesame and are then normally vegan.🌱🍡 For instance, injeolmi or other types of glutinous rice cakes can be coated in black sesame. Other traditional dessert items such as dasik (다식) or gangjeong (강정) may likewise feature black sesame seeds. There is also a type of rice porridge, which mainly consists of rice, water and black sesame! This kind of porridge is called heugimja juk (흑임자죽) or geomeunkkae juk (검은깨죽) and it is one of the few veggie-friendly soups and porridges in Korea. 🥣 It turns darker and richer the more ground black sesame seeds are mixed into it. Black sesame seeds may also be added to tofu and some kinds of vegan Korean jellies, which give the final product a grayish tone.

Beside these more traditional dishes, foods newer to Korea such as bakery products and modern dessert items, may also be colored with ground black sesame seeds. In bakeries, you can find black cookies, macarons, scones or breads. 🍪🍞🍰 Especially vegan bakeries in Seoul are leading the way in using sesame seeds as a natural and plant-based food colorant. 🌱 Other sweet treats, which you might come across, are black sesame lattes, bingsu and ice cream with black sesame flavor.🍦 If you are lucky, one of those artisan gelato stores serves black sesame ice cream on the day you visit!

In other parts of contemporary Korean cuisine, however, a whole other ingredient is very popular: Squid ink. 🦑 A recent food trend involves coloring anything ranging between bread, pizza, pasta, even ice cream with this natural ink. 🦑🍞🦑🍕🦑🍝🦑🍦 Apparently, the black and white contrast is a favorite among food designers, so many black foods are accompanied with a white component, such as white powdery garnish, fillings of cream cheese or mozzarella topping. The appearance surely is stunning. 🤩 But be aware, that these products are not veggie-friendly.🚫🌱 According to Wikipedia, the ink is extracted from the dead animal.

Yet another natural ingredient, which is used for its black color is a curious organism scientifically referred to as Umbilicaria esculenta. The first time I encountered it, it looked to me like pieces of scorched skin or some kind of dried seafood… 🤔 The Korean name translates to “rock ear mushroom” (seogi beoseot 석이버섯 石耳), in correspondence with the “wood ear mushroom” (mogi beoseot 목이버섯 木耳). The latter is a jelly fungus, commonly used in Asian cuisine and perhaps more familiar by the name Mu Er (Auricularia auricula-judae). Umbilicaria, however, is no fungus. Biologically, Umbilicaria is classified as a type of lichen. What is this mysterious organism? 🕵️‍♀️

No animal. No plant. No fungus. No alga. No moss.

Lichen.

Lichen are something on their own! Actually, they are symbiotic organisms, which consist of fungi and algae components. Fascinating, eh? 🤓

Its color does not mix with water, so the lichen are ground into powder and then mixed with dry ingredients. Alternatively, it is cut into fine strips and used sparingly for garnish. Supposedly, there exist some kinds of rice cakes, which are colored with it, but I have not seen any recently… It may be rather difficult to find it these days and – contrary to sesame and squid ink products – nothing you will encounter in daily life.

What’s the difference between plant-based and animal-based? How to tell whether something is colored with squid ink? 🦑🌱

In general, foods that have been colored with squid ink have a subtle, but distinct smell to them. Koreans largely categorize this as “fishy smell” (birinae 비린내), but they apply the term to various odors, including those at fish markets but also blood or overcooked soy beans. Hence, it is a rather broad description of (slightly?) differing olfactory experiences. In the given case, the smell is reminiscent of cuttlefish (squid, calamari, sepia etc.) for obvious reasons… 👃🦑 Sesame, on the other hand, brings a nutty flavor. 👃🥜 On top of that, sesame also exhibits deeper, roasted aromas. Depending on your background, you might perceive the smell as more dominant than in familiar sesame products, since Koreans preferably use roasted sesame seeds.
Unfortunately, by the time you smell that something is fishy, you’ve probably also already taken a bite out of it. [Too late….😖]

So let’s take a step back in time and examine the shady food item beforehand. 👀 There are obvious differences in appearance! The skins of sesame normally remain visible, despite having been ground finely. Consequently, black foods can be distinguished based on texture and color-pattern: While squid ink (liquid) creates a smooth and homogeneous tone in the final product, foods colored with black sesame (ground into powder or a paste) exhibit tiny black dots and may have a slightly gritty mouthfeel.

But you don’t always get a good look at the object in question… 🔬 […much less permission to dissect it 🥽🔪] So, after all, the best way of knowing the secret behind the color is doing some research beforehand. 👓 [Apart from reading this article, undertaking certain studies directly prior to purchase are warmly recommended! 📖]
It requires minimal Korean skills to apply the following steps:

  • The Korean word for squid ink “먹물” (pronounced meongmul) or more precisely “오징어먹물” (ojing-eo meongmul) is sometimes included in the name of the food product. This is of course the easiest way of identifying it! But the labeling of food items in Korea is “very creative” [not to say random], so you cannot rely on “ink” being mentioned in the title 100% of the time. [Among the image captions here, there are plenty of examples!]
  • Ideally, there is an ingredient list which provides the most precise answer. One look at the allergen warning of a food label disclosing the word “오징어” (ojing-eo – meaning squid) is enough to reveal that the color is of animal origin.
  • If neither of above options are given, asking the vendor for clarification shall be your final strategy. [Provided they are informed about the products they sell, which is sadly not always the case.] You can inquire about the source of the color by saying something like this:

    혹시 오징어 먹물 들었어요?
    Hoksi ojing-eo meongmul deureosseoyo?
    “Has squid ink been added to this?” 🦑

    If the reaction is “Neh” (네), a “Yaeh” (예) or a vigorous nod, you know that your hypothesis has been confirmed. 🧐

Korean dishes which are traditionally considered Black Food

Dried black soy beans (seoritae 서리태).

Beside black sesame, there are other foods of which black variations exist.

One of these are black soy beans and other types of black-colored beans. [There are indeed numerous different kinds!] Using them in cooking results normally in a darker colored product but not in a rich black tone of the entire food. For instance, tofu and soy milk made from black soy beans exhibit a grayish tint instead of the regular cream-colored tone. In order to achieve a stronger color effect, however, black sesame seeds may be used additionally.

Store displaying an assortment of various grains and beans – including glutinous black rice and black soy beans – at Sinwon market 신원시장, Seoul 2019.

Moreover, there are also variations of rice, which are black. Although, there seem to be innumerably many types of rice, ranging from round-grain, long-grain, wild rice and glutinous rice, the general Korean name for black-colored rice is heukmi (흑미 黑米). This name stands in contrast to regular white rice (baekmi 백미 白米), which is the peeled form of “brown rice” (hyeonmi 현미 玄米). Although raw black rice appears to be black, in cooked form, the color turns out to actually be dark purple. When mixed with other ingredients, such as white rice, the black rice dyes its surroundings purple. Hence, foods that have black rice mixed into them, exhibit a purple tint. 💜

Apart from ingredients that are labeled “black” but actually aren’t thaaat black when used in cooking, there is one dish that is typically considered as black food: Jjajang myeon (짜장면). Koreans have even dedicated a day to it – April 14, the “Black Day”! To be more precise, the day is not entirely dedicated to the dish itself, but rather to singles: On the occasion of “Black Day”, when singles order this dish, they come out as lonely. 🥢👤 Hopefully another soul discovers them eating all alone by themselves and joins them. 🥢👤🥢👤 Enjoying food in company, makes everything taste better, doesn’t it?! 🥢👥😊 Perhaps the meal of Jjajang myeon shared over some good conversations develops into something more? 🥢👥 💘 Who knows…? 🥰 [Before we delve into romantic day-dreaming, let’s get back to the topic!] Apart from facilitating finding at least an eating partner… What IS Jjajang myeon??? In short, it is an originally-Chinese-but-Koreanized-dish featuring long wheat noodles with a “black” sauce, which is normally neither halal, nor kosher, nor veggie-friendly. ❗️🐷🚫🌱 (Unless you know a veggie-friendly restaurant whose menu includes Jjajang myeon or you possess advanced Korean language skills to customize it.) [More details on this dish in a future Instagram post. Possibly in mid-April…]

Regarding the color… Decide for yourselves, whether you would term the color of the sauce as black. 🤨 Anyhow, this dish is (officially) designated as black food in Korea….

Black is black. Or is it not?

“Black Sesame Bingsu” (흑임자설빙) and “Oreo Monster Bingsu” (오레오몬스터설빙) at “Sulbing” (설빙). Seoul, November 2019.

Okay, I admit. Korea’s black foods are not quite the same as charcoal-colored foods. If you prefer to avoid animal-based black food 🚫🦑, your only reliable friend is black sesame.💚🌱 Beside the color being less intensive and the possibility of spotted patterns or grainy textures, there is also a certain taste and smell associated with each of these natural food colorants. Charcoal, on the other hand, is more neutral in flavor and the black tone seems more impressive.

But why not choose a food BECAUSE of its specific flavor?

Why not choose a food BECAUSE it contains more minerals and nutrients than plain versions?

You just got to love black sesame. 🖤

Notes from the author:

*) By the way, did you know that Korean-produced Oreo cookies are not vegan? 🚫🌱 For some reason, the Korean recipe currently includes lactose (milk sugar) as well as whey powder. 🐄🥛 If you are lucky, however, you may find imported Oreo cookies (e.g. from Thailand) without animal components at your local supermarket!

Mountains of snow and icy clouds: Korean Bingsu 빙수

Anyone who tried it won’t forget the refreshing experience of eating this typical Korean dessert: Bingsu.

Milk-based Bingsu garnished with persimmon and jujube (daechu 대추) at Oknumong 옥루몽, Seoul 2017.

What is Bingsu? What is Patbingsu?

So you haven’t had the pleasure of tasting it yet?
Let me TRY to explain it in words…

  • Spoonfuls of sweet, melt-in-your-mouth bliss.
  • The ultimate cool-down for tongue and tummy.
  • Your [childhood] dreams about catching snowflakes with your mouth come true. (This snow actually tastes GOOD!)
  • Fantasies of eating fluffy, frozen clouds floating in the sky. Of course those clouds are icy! It’s cold up there!
  • … [I better stop here, before my sugar-fueled imagination takes my mind to even stranger places…🤪]

Anyways, the name “bingsu” itself seems rather unexciting, it translates simply to “frozen water” based on the following Sino-Korean characters:
氷 frozen, snow (bing 빙) ❄️
+ 水 water (su 수) 💧

Likewise, the origins of bingsu seem to relate to actual snow which has been sweetened with things such as honey or fruits.🍯🍓 Hundreds or maybe even thousands of years ago. But eating freshly fallen snow is a custom that has been observed in various cultures. Today, desserts similar to bingsu exist in other countries – with varying toppings and different names.* The characteristic of Korean bingsu, then, is combining ice with a sweet sauce made from red beans called pat (팥). Hence, patbingsu (팥빙수) may be the most common name for the Korean dessert. 🇰🇷

But Korean bingsu has drastically developed within the past decades.

Food stall displaying image of old-style bingsu. Buyeo, summer 2019.

At least since the 1950s, the “frozen water” was garnished with diversifying ingredients. As modern Western-style ingredients became more easily available and fashionable, soon milk or cream was poured over the ice and condensed milk was used as an additional sauce, beside the classic red bean paste.🥛 Common other toppings included pieces of rice cake🍡, fruit jelly🍊, canned fruit cocktail🍍, corn flakes🌽 and perhaps also those pricey imported nuts🥜. To top things off, bingsu could be crowned with a scoop of ice cream or a dollop of whipped cream🍦. Adding a cherry🍒 in the center would eventually complete it – at least in the eyes of Korean singer Yoon Jong Shin (윤종신), who expresses his love for the dessert in the song Patbingsu (팥빙수, 2007).

Considering these toppings, bingsu can hardly be appealing to vegans. 🚫🌱 Sometimes it is not even veggie-friendly if gelatin-containing fruit jellies are used! 🐖 Still, when bingsu was made following the old-fashioned method, it was possible to customize orders and request to omit specific unwanted toppings.

However, in recent years, bingsu has been evolving radically. It is changing not just in terms of ingredients as new toppings and flavors are constantly being created, but also thanks to technical progress. The regular crushed ice, which is (easily) produced by strong blenders, is being replaced by frozen liquids which are processed by high-tech machines. Depending on the machine, bingsu comes in various textures ranging from snowflakes🌨 to fluffy layers of thin ice.❄️ The most common base for this ice, however, is not pure water anymore. 🚫💧 Instead, it is a blend of sweetened dairy🥛, which may be additionally flavored with fruit extracts🍓, chocolate🍫, green tea powder🍵 or similar aromas.

.

What does Bingsu taste like? What types of Bingsu are there?

As a consequence, there is an endless diversity of bingsus now. Naturally, there exists patbingsu, which today is a milk-based shaved ice with red bean paste. Beside the classic pat topping, there are variations with and without pat, e.g. fruit bingsu, green tea bingsu, injeolmi rice cake bingsu, chocolate bingsu, and so many more. These names describe the main flavor and most distinct ingredients of any given bingsu. If it’s called “strawberry bingsu” (ttalgi bingsu 딸기빙수), then expect strawberry topping. “Oreo bingsu” is garnished with Oreo cookies (maybe also crumbles of Oreos underneath the milky ice). A “green tea patbingsu” (nokcha / geurinti / malcha patbingsu 녹차/그린티/말차 팥빙수) is a tea-flavored bingsu with red bean topping.** You get the idea.

Only when something is labelled as “old-fashioned bingsu” (yennal bingsu 옛날빙수) or “traditional bingsu” (jeontong bingsu 전통빙수), it gets a bit confusing. Eventually, you may end up with different things. Either it is a bingsu with a potpourri of toppings similar to those described in Yoon Jong Shin’s homage to patbingsu: Red bean paste, (canned or fresh) fruit, cornflakes, (ice) cream and some type of sweet sauce (condensed milk, chocolate sauce and/or fruit jam). Alternatively, the bingsu is held rather simple and subtle – toppings are limited to red bean sauce (and maybe some rice cakes, soy bean powder or similar things for garnish) on a milk-flavored base. This kind of bingsu is normally less sweet and aims to accommodate people with an “old-fashioned” or “conservative” taste – generally elderly people or so-called purists. Yet another type concerns the texture of the frozen base: Apart from toppings, the term “old-fashioned” may refer to the “old” way of making bingsu with crushed ice. To be more precise, ice cubes are cut into more or less small pieces by a blender or a similar machine. The resulting consistency is not quite as fine and watery as a slushy but it is rather grainy, so you can see and feel individual pieces of ice. Hence, you will be able to chew ice crystals and there is a certain crunch to it. This stands in stark contrast to modern versions of bingsu which are produced using modern bingsu-machines.

Patbingsu garnished with slices of chestnut at Jangkkobang 장꼬방, Seoul 2019.

Now, this is actually were the REAL bingsu talk may begin.

Bakery Cafe offering various flavors of Bingsu in two different textures: Soft shavings versus ice. Seoul, summer 2019.

Contrary to bingsu with grainy texture, which may be referred to as “ice bingsu” (eoreum bingsu 얼음빙수), the consistency of most modern bingsus exhibits a high level of fineness. There is no need for chewing (except for chunky toppings), since the frozen particles instantly melt in your mouth. The texture is soooooo soft! Varying with the type of machine, the shaved ice comes in differing shapes and sizes. Most popular is the one which transforms milky liquids instantly into tiny ice crystals reminiscent of powdery snow, called “snowflake” (nunkkot 눈꽃) in Korean. There are also bingsus featuring elongate pieces of shaved ice looking like short, hollow sticks, although this is a rather rare variety. At some places, the frozen base has a texture as soft and fluffy as cotton candy. This kind comes second to the “snowflake bingsu” (nunkkot bingsu 눈꽃빙수) and is largely referred to as “planer bingsu” (daepae bingsu 대패빙수), since it is created from planing frozen substances to acquire flat, elongated wooden ice chips. In a similar method, thin layers are cut off from a block of ice and the shavings are eventually sweetened with drizzles of (milky) sauces to make bingsu.
[An extra section dealing with the quality of bingsu may be added later.]

Overall, modern bingsus have a more polished look compared to the rustic, old-fashioned ones. While some contemporary bingsus are modestly garnished with one or two ingredients, there are varieties which are equipped with an imposing assortment of toppings. Again, a potpourri of sweet treats but on a whole different of level. 🔼🆙️ There are bingsus which feature ice cream🍦, are decorated with shavings of chocolate🍫, filled with cookies🍪, have a piece of cake on the side🍰 or are garnished with macarons🍬. Just to name a few of the common toppings. Apart from those, you can encounter bingsu dressed up in cotton candy or adorned with tapioca pearls… or powdered with cheese…🧀 [No kidding.]

Let’s be honest, when it’s time for dessert but you can’t decide on which one, what better choice is there than bingsu? 🍧 Because you can have multiple desserts AT THE SAME TIME!!!🍭🤩 Everything your sweet-tooth loves is combined literally inside one single dish: hyper-pimped Korean bingsu. 🍧💫 Edible makeup and glitter as sugary (chocolate) sprinkles. 👄 Dessert decadence. [More on food and fashion in contemporary South Korea here.]

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How to eat Bingsu and where to find it

First of all, bingsu is normally not eaten alone. ❌👤 It is a dish, that is shared in company, as a special treat or dessert after a proper meal. [Exceptions due to individual circumstances may apply.] While single-serving bingsus are available at some coffee shops these days, the regular bingsu size is calculated to serve two or more persons. ✅👥 So if you want to eat bingsu, you need to find a friend who is willing to share it with you. [Or whom YOU are willing to share it with.] Anyways, this explains the question of “How many spoons do you need?” (숟가락 몇개 드릴까요?) which normally follows an order of bingsu. The average price of 9000 KRW to 15.000 KRW for one bingsu also suggests that it is [originally] designed to feed several persons.

Advertising Bingsu menu as “Summer Snow” in Seoul 2019.

Once you recruited your bingsu-buddy and have a bingsu-date, the next thing you need is actual bingsu. 👫🍧👬🍧👭 So where do you find bingsu? During the summer time, bingsu is available at most coffee shops (curiously enough, not [yet?] Starbucks), bakery cafes as well as certain fast food chains in Korea. These locations normally have eye-catching advertisements for their bingsu creations, so you cannot miss them. ☀️🍧⛱ At some point in the year, however, they will disappear from the seasonal menus and won’t show up until next summer. But rest assured! There exist various places which offer bingsu throughout the year, including bingsu specialty shops! 🌨🍧☃️

Next, how do you eat bingsu? What is the proper way of eating bingsu? This has been a polarizing topic ever since. It is beyond doubt, that the one and only tool is a (long) spoon. 🥄 But there is discussion about the order and technique of eating bingsu. Some begin with stirring the bingsu to properly mix the toppings with the frozen base. These people represent the “mix-eaters” (bibyeomeok 비벼먹). As a consequence, the carefully assembled bingsu, which may have resembled a mountainous landscape of sweet treats, is instantly transformed into a colorful mush spotted with chunks of various shapes and sizes. 🏔 ➡️🤮 Opposed to this, there is the faction of the non-mixers, the so-called peomeok (퍼먹) – literally “scoop-up-eaters”. Their technique involves eating bingsu roughly from top to bottom, which means each bite has a different taste depending on the topping they scooped up. In general, the mixing technique is most prevalent among fans of the old-fashioned bingsu. Non-mixers seem to possess a pronounced sense for visual aesthetics as opposed to the mix-eaters, who prefer an even taste over appearance. [Better choose your bingsu-party wisely to avoid conflicts!] Furthermore, even among non-mixers, there are various strategies for tackling the frozen mountain. While some dig towards the center eager to find the treasures hidden inside (some bingsus are filled!), others shovel even layers off of their bingsu. The difference is that, in effect, the vertical digging eventually causes the cave of shaved ice to collapse, whereas the horizontal excavation technique may create a bottom layer barren of flavorful toppings.

Another thing regarding the consumption of bingsu are additional toppings. Some locations serve bingsu with a complimentary sauce on the side, e.g. extra condensed milk, cold espresso or green tea sauce. This is to ensure that consumers are able to enjoy leftover shaved ice with the proper flavor. According to personal preference and with granted permission (!) from your bingsu-buddy, pour the sauce over the bingsu and thus control the level of sweetness in your bingsu.

Last but not least, a final point that deserves consideration when consuming bingsu, is speed. ⏰ You certainly don’t want to let your bingsu melt into soup 🍲 and then go fishing for chunky bites. 🎣 Or do you??? And if you gobble it up too quickly, you might experience “brain freeze”⚡️, although it’s not as easy to get with bingsu as it is with slushies, frozen smoothies or milkshakes.🥤 At least attempt to find an adequate pace.

Long story short, there is no right or wrong way of eating bingsu, as long as you enjoy it.

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🌱 Is Bingsu vegan? How to get vegan Bingsu 🌱

The brief answer to above question is:
No. Bingsu is not vegan by default. 🚫🌱
But there are ways for you to still get a taste of bingsu!👇

In general, vegans may have initial difficulty partaking in this part of Korean food culture. However, you can make your own vegan bingsu with your good-old blender or a food processor that is strong enough to cut ice cubes or frozen fruit. In essence, the formula for home-made, old-fashioned bingsu is simple: Crushed ice topped with whatever sweet treats your heart may desire. The finer you manage to crush the ice, the smoother the texture of the final bingsu.

Otherwise, if you want to eat out with friends in Korea, there are the following options…

  • a) Find a location which offers old-fashioned bingsu AND speak enough Korean to customize it by omitting any dairy or possibly egg-based toppings. 🗣🇰🇷🚫🥛🥚🍪🍦🍰🍫 (Warning: Plain, crushed ice with fewer toppings may be considered to taste bland by shop keepers. 🤷‍♀️🤷‍♂️)
  • b) Find a coffee shop or bakery cafe that uses non-dairy substances (e.g. fruit juices) for their frozen base. ❄️🍊❄️🍓❄️🍍 Again, you need to confirm that the toppings are vegan, too. (In case of high sensitivity or allergies, be aware that there may be traces of dairy left on the machines.)
  • c) Pilgrimage to a vegan coffee shop. At present, there is literally only a handful of cafes in Seoul, which offer bingsu made with plant-based milk instead of dairy. 🌱🥛 You can find a list of locations here. Some of these locations use bingsu-machines which produce high-quality snowflake consistency – a texture impossible to achieve at home unless you own the [expensive] professional equipment.

After all, enjoying 100% plant-based, vegan bingsu is a challenge but no impossibility! 🌱🍧💚

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Notes by the author

* Just to mention a few, there’s the American ‘snow cone’ and Hawaiian ‘shave ice’. Chinese versions are called “bàobīng” (刨冰) or “[hóngdòu] shābīng” ([红豆]沙冰) [with red beans], and the Japanese variant is referred to as “kakigōri” (かき氷).

** There are people, who dislike the sweetened red bean paste (pat 팥) or have an allergy against beans and legumes, hence the common distinction in the name.

Locations with vegan ice cream and vegan Bingsu

Summer is supposedly over, the traditional Korean calendar announced ‘the onset of autumn’ (ipchu 입추 立秋) already on August 8, 2019. 🍃 But temperatures are still high – somewhere around 30 degrees Celsius or 85 degrees Fahrenheit. ☀️🌡💦 It is still pretty hot. It is still a weather that demands for cool, refreshing drinks and ice cream or gelato or bingsu (빙수) or all of it… 🍹🍦🍨🍧 Don’t you think? 😎⛱

I’ve been cafe-hunting this week and ate so many frozen desserts in a row… 🤪 Never had a better excuse to eat ice cream and bingsu so that now I am able to present the following: A new page added to the category “Eating Out in Seoul” featuring our all-beloved frozen desserts in its various shapes, colors and textures…….👇

➡️ 🍓🍨🍦 Locations with vegan ice cream and vegan bingsu 🍧❄️🍍 ⬅️

❄️🍓❄️🍒❄️🍑❄️🍌❄️🍋❄️🍊❄️🍐❄️🍎❄️🍏❄️🥭❄️🍍❄️🥥❄️🥝❄️

Yes, ice cream, bingsu and other frozen treats are THIS important.

For easy-to-go ice cream, which you can find in regular supermarkets and convenience stores, simply refer to this list on a previous post.

[I know I’m an addict. But I also know I’m not the only one. 😜]

Easy-to-go vegan ice cream in Korea

These days, I often find myself thinking “Need… water… need… ice…” 🌡☀️😵

In an unstoppable impulse to find something that would quickly bring relief ❄️, I rummaged through various ice boxes, looking for ice cream. 🍦 (To be more precise, those of the popsicle kind – the “single servings”.) While checking the loooong labels with TINY letters on the colorful packaging, its contents were on the verge of melting [unforgivable sin!] and it felt like I would soon get more than just strange looks from shopkeepers… 😅

Even when something looked like it was a simple, water-based popsicle, its ingredient list surprisingly often revealed that there was some kind of animal component hidden inside. Beside mysterious additives for sweetness🍭, aromas👅 and color🌈, there was milk powder🥛, dairy-based calcium🥛 and gelatin🐷 [yikes!]! And sadly enough, those ingredients were not always marked in the allergen section. 🚫📝

Furthermore, even if one kind of ice cream contained only plant-based ingredients, that didn’t mean that another flavor of the same kind was also vegan. 🚫🌱Seriously each one needed confirmation.

🍦 It can be hard to find good ice cream.

But who thought the hunt for VEGAN ice cream would be this difficult and frustrating? 🌱🍦

[Whether the available vegan options are delightful after all, is a whole new topic…😣]

Anyhow, here’s a collection of meat-free, dairy-free, egg-free (though not guilt-free) vegan ice cream, which are commonly sold in convenience stores and supermarkets.

✍️ This compilation is valid in summer 2019 and may gradually expand as (hopefully) new discoveries are made. ✍️

I’m an ice cream junkie, I know. 🍦🍨😍🍧❄️

If you have more time, money and patience to go to a (vegan) cafe that serves vegan ice cream, congratulations. Enjoy that blissful moment for me, while you’re at it!

So where ARE those cafes with vegan ice cream? 🍨 They are rare and more expensive than regular ice cream places… 💲😓 Currently, there exist merely a handful of such locations in Seoul. You can find an overview of sit-in locations serving various kinds of home-made frozen desserts on this page. 🛋💁‍♂️🍨🙋‍♀️

And what do YOU do in the heat of summer, when you don’t have access to your freezer (which is ideally filled with frozen fruit) but you are in desperate need of that sweet and refreshing cool-down THIS VERY INSTANT??? 🌊🤯❄️

[This is a serious question. Very curious about other survival strategies.]

Names of common allergens in Korean

Here is a compilation of sources of food allergens, which provides their Korean names as well as their most common spelling on Korean food labels. It is sorted by type of allergen and its origin in food – rather than being in alphabetical order. In addition to that, it distinguishes between animal-based and 🌱plant-based foods, so that vegetarians and 🌱vegans can use this page for reference more easily.

Please note, that there exists NO globally accepted, standardized group of food allergens. For each country, there are varying foods which are considered to contain “critical” substances. In the US🇺🇸, for example, only 8 foods are officially declared as allergens, while Canada🇨🇦 lists 10 foods. As opposed to that, the EU🇪🇺 acknowledges 14 foods to cause allergies or food intolerance and requires those to be specifically marked on food labels. [see EU Food Information for Consumers Regulation (EU FIC), page L 304/43.]

Regarding South Korea🇰🇷, a new legislation requires substances which may incite allergic reactions to be mentioned separately on the packaging of foods. Correspondingly, Korean food producers are required to declare at least the following substances:

  • pork 돼지고기
  • beef 쇠고기
  • chicken 닭고기
  • mackerel 고등어
  • squid 오징어
  • clams 조개류
  • crab 게
  • shrimp 새우
  • eggs 난류
  • milk 우유
  • peanuts 땅콩
  • soy 대두
  • wheat 밀
  • buck wheat 메밀
  • walnuts 호두
  • tomato 토마토
  • peach 복숭아
  • sulfites 아황산류 (if SO₂ content in the final product is higher than 10mg/kg)

On the lists below, those substances, which are officially declared on Korean food labels are highlighted in bold letters. You can find tips on how to easily understand such food labels (even though they are written in Korean) in a previous post.

Old food label without clear declaration of allergens. Note the warning in white letters: “People sensitive to allergies are advised not to consume this product.”
New food label mentioning allergens from milk, soy, shellfish (oyster) and pork.

Aiming to share more comprehensive information, this page features foods that may not be standard allergens in Korea but in various other countries. Hence, there are foods which are not explicitly declared in the allergen section of Korean food labels. For people with a high sensitivity to allergens: Potential allergens, which are not distinctly marked, I have added an exclamation mark in front of the respective food source. After all, consulting the entire list of ingredients (and possessing adequate language skills) may remain the safest way to confirm the contents of a given food item.

🐷 Meat and flesh-derived products 🍗🥩

  • 🐖 돼지고기 doeji gogi – pork (pig)
  • 🐄 쇠고기 / 소고기 so gogi – beef (cow)
  • 🐑 양고기 yang gogi – mutton (sheep)
  • 🐕 개고기 gae gogi – dog meat
  • 🐓 닭고기 tak gogi – chicken (poultry)
  • 🦆 오리고기 ori gogi – duck meat (waterfowl)

🐟 Fish from fresh water and sea water🐠🐡

🌱Attention for vegans and vegetarians: Not all types of fish are declared as allergens on the packaging!!!

  • 🐟 생선 saengseon – fish
  • 🐟 고등어 godeung-eo – mackerel
  • ! 멸치 myeolchi – anchovy (not explicitly marked)
  • ! 참치 chamchi / 다랑어 darang-eo / 가다랑어 gadarang-eo etc. – tuna (not explicitly marked)
  • ! 꽁치 gongchi – mackerel pike (not explicitly marked)
  • 정어 jeongeo – sardine
  • … The amount of edible fish in Korea and their corresponding names is too diverse to list all here…

🐚 Seafood – shellfish and cuttlefish 🦀🐙

  • 🐚 조개류 jogaeryu – mussels, clams (mollusks) ➡️ the respective specie may be additionally listed in brackets
  • !🐚 소라 sora / 고둥 godung – sea snail (mollusks) (not explicitly marked)
  • 🦐 새우 sae-u – shrimp (crustacean)
  • 🦞 랍스터 rabseuteo – lobster (crustacean)
  • 🦀 게 ge – crab (crustacean)
  • 🦑 오징어 ojingeo – squid, sepia (cuttlefish)
  • 🐙 문어 muneo – octopus (cuttlefish)
  • 🐙 낙지 nakji – small octopus (cuttlefish)
  • … The amount of edible seafood in Korea and their corresponding names is too diverse to list all here…

🐝 Insect-related products 🐛🦋

  • ! 🍯 꿀 kkul / 벌꿀 beol-kkul – honey (not explicitly marked) ➡️ 사양꿀 sayang-kkul – industrially produced honey (bees fed with sugar water) / 천연꿀 cheonyeon-kkul – naturally produced honey (bees fed on flowers)
  • 🐛 번데기 beondegi – silk worm pupa
  • ! 🐝 밀랍 milap – bee’s wax (not explicitly marked)
  • ! 🐞 쉘락 swelak – shellac (not explicitly marked) ➡️ food glaze based on secretion of lac bug ➡️ used in e.g. jelly beans, confectionary sprinkles or chocolate-coated snacks
  • ! 🐞 카민 kamin [old: 카르민 kareumin] – carmine, cochineal, 🇺🇸natural red 4, 🇪🇺E120 (food coloring) (not explicitly marked) ➡️ red food colorant made from cochineals (scale insects) ➡️ used in e.g. cosmetics, red syrups, alcoholic beverages with red color

🐔 Eggs and albumen 🥚🍳

  • 🥚 난류 nanryu – eggs (from various birds)
  • 🥚 계란 gyeran / 달걀 dalgyal – chicken egg
  • 🥚 메추리알 mechuri-al – quail eggs

🐮 Dairy, milk protein and milk sugar (lactose) 🥛🧀

  • 🥛 우유 uyu – milk

🌱 Legumes, peanuts and soy 🥜

  • 대두 daedu – soy
  • 🥜 땅콩 ddangkong – peanut
  • kong – beans
  • 완두콩 wandu kong – green pea
  • 병아리콩 byeongari kong – chick peas

🌱 Tree nuts and seeds 🌰

  • 🌰 견과류 gyeon-gwaryu – nuts
  • 헤이즐넛 heijeulneot – hazelnut
  • ! 아몬드 amondeu – almond (not explicitly marked)
  • 호두 hodu – walnut
  • 피칸 pikan – pecan nut
  • jat – pine nut
  • ! 캐슈넛 / 캐슈너트 kaeshju neot / kaeshju neoteu – cashew nut (not explicitly marked)
  • 브라질너트 brajil neoteu – Brazil nut
  • 피스타치오 piseutachi-o – pistachio
  • ! 마카다미아 makadami-a – macadamia nuts (not explicitly marked)
  • 🌰 밤 bam – chestnut
  • ! 참깨 chamkkae / 흑임자 heuk imja – sesame / black sesame (not explicitly marked)
  • ! 겨자 gyeoja – mustard (not explicitly marked)

🌱 Gluten-containing cereals and other grains 🥨🍺

  • 🌾 밀 mil / 소맥 somaek – wheat
  • 🌾 호밀 homil – rye
  • 🌾 귀리 gwiri – oat
  • 🌾 보리 bori – barley
  • … Other gluten-containing cereals, namely spelt, kamut or their hybridised strains are not common in Korea.
  • ! 🌽 옥수수 oksusu – corn, maize (not explicitly marked)
  • ! 🍚 쌀 ssal – rice (not explicitly marked) ➡️ 백미 baekmi – white rice / 흑미 heukmi black rice / 현미 hyeonmi – brown rice)
  • 메밀 memil – buckwheat
  • jo – millet
  • 수수 susu – sorghum

🌱 Fruit and vegetables 🍍🍎

  • 🍅 토마토 tomato – tomato
  • 🍑 복숭아 boksung-a – peach
  • 🍑 살구 salgu – apricot
  • 🍑 자두 jadu – plum
  • 🍌 바나나 banana – banana
  • 🍒 체리 cheri – cherry
  • 🍓 딸기 ttalgi – strawberry
  • !🍏 사과 sagwa – apple (not explicitly marked)
  • 🍐 배 bae – pear
  • 🥝 키위 kiwi – kiwi
  • 🍈 멜론 melon – melon
  • 🍍 파인애플 painaepeul – pineapple
  • 🥑 아보카도 abokado – avocado
  • 🍆 가지 gaji – eggplant
  • 🥦 셀러리 seleori – celery
  • 🎃 (단)호박 (dan) hobak – (sweet) pumpkin

🍄 Others 🧪💊

  • 타트라진 tateurajin – tartrazine, 🇪🇺E102 (food coloring)
  • 아황산염 ahwang sanyeom / 아황산류 ahwang sanryu / 이산화항 isan hwahang – various types of sulfites (food preservative)

✍️ Work is still in progress! This list will be expanded gradually! ✍️

📝 Any questions, comments, vocabulary suggestions and language feedback are welcome! 🤗

Tips on how to understand Korean food labels

Trust me, I know… Learning a language can be hard, it can take a lot of time and effort to master it. And it requires constant training to keep your language skills polished. At first, a foreign language may seem like a barrier.

A typical food label in Korean contains a lot of information, but it can appear confusing.

BUT! Language is also a tool. In terms of dietary restrictions or personal preferences, it is a vital piece of equipment when searching for what you and your body need. So in this regard, it’s a survival skill. Especially in a country like Korea, foreigners do not have access to certain areas of its culture and life without understanding the local language. 🇰🇷 To provide examples regarding food, most restaurants do not possess international menus and food labels are written in Korean. On top of that, few people working in the food sector have a good command of foreign languages, so asking them for detailed information may be difficult. 🚫🇨🇳🇬🇧🇯🇵

But you know what? You don’t have to possess advanced Korean language skills, when hunting for food!

For now, it’s enough if you are able to read Korean. Korean language uses a writing system which is not complicated! First off, it’s an alphabet. This alphabet is referred to as hangeul (한글) and it consists of only 22 letters! That’s less than the Latin alphabet, which is used (in adapted form) in contemporary English, Spanish, German, French, Italian etc.! If you have mastered the Latin alphabet, the Korean alphabet will be as easy as pie! 🍰

When you know Korean letters, you have the skill to read (and write) Korean words. That does not mean that you automatically understand their meaning, but you can read them aloud or write them using a more familiar writing system. For instance, you see the word 고기 and you know it’s read as “gogi“.

Congratulations! You now possess the skills to read Korean menus as well as the ingredients printed on food items!

Next, all you need to know is how to spell the food you want to avoid. If you check one item’s ingredient list and you spot something you do not want to consume, then you can stop deciphering the rest. Saves you time! [Find what you CAN eat by eliminating what you cannot. Basic routine of ‘picky eaters’…]

But there is an immense diversity of words for food! The list of ingredients and the corresponding list of vocabulary may appear endless! Especially today, where we distinguish between things such as dextrose, oligosaccharide and glucose-fructose-syrup, beside honey and [plain white refined] sugar. And then, there is a wider array of food sources in general, resulting in lists specifying e.g. corn starch🌽, potato starch🥔, tapioca starch🍠, water chestnut starch🌰 and modified starch…

Does that mean you need to learn all these words in Korean???
No.
A few basic words will suffice!
If you know that “gogi” means meat🥩 in Korean, then you can avoid anything containing the word “gogi“. This includes 돼지고기🐖, 쇠고기🐄 , 닭고기🐓 and so forth. You know right away, that these letters describe meat.* Simple, right?

Depending on the type of diet you are following, there are different words that will be of interest to you. Basically, knowing that set of Korean vocabulary is enough. Pescetarians🚫🥩 and people eating hindu🚫🐄, halal or kosher 🚫🐖 are probably fine knowing meat-related vocabulary. To this, vegetarians can simply add words regarding fish, seafood and insects.** 🚫🐟🦑🐛 For vegans, the list will include meat, fish, seafood, insects, eggs, dairy and honey. 🚫🥩🐟🦑🐛🥚🥛🍯 Someone with gluten intolerance may consider studying words denoting wheat products and the likes. 🚫🌾

Does it seem to get complicated again?

How to understand food labels written in Korean – the easy way!

Here’s good news: Recently, labels on Korean food items have become more comprehensible. While food (and bio-chemical) companies are constantly creating new food items, “magical” food additives and confusing names for ingredients, food labels are getting longer and longer. Sometimes, the ingredient section of the food label is not even printed in a legible way! However, reading the entire list and understanding each single word written in Korean is not necessary to determine whether something is vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free! On newly designed food packages, there is now an additional notice, which was introduced for people with allergies. Essential information!

Next to the (detailed) list of ingredients, there are a couple of words which are normally highlighted by a different color, written inside a separate text box or otherwise visibly marked. It may look something like this:

Note the characters 함유 (hamyu), which mean “contain” or “include”. And then pay attention to whatever is written in front of it. This is where the key sources of ingredients containing potential allergens are briefly mentioned.

In above example, the food item was produced with ingredients which originate from milk (우유 uyu), peanuts (땅콩 ddangkong), egg (계란 gyeran), wheat (밀 mil), beef (쇠고기 sogogi) and soy (대두 daedu). In other words, it contains allergens from dairy🥛, egg🥚, gluten🌾, legumes🥜 as well as cow meat🐄.

Spotting critical ingredients in food products can be this easy!***

Curious what food item is made from this combination of ingredients? In case you were wondering, here’s the answer:

They LOOK like chocolate-filled cookies shaped like edible little (base)balls. 🍪 They possess the PROMISING name “Home Run Ball” (홈런볼). ⚾️ And they contain quite a number of “interesting” ingredients. 😯 But what’s beef got to do in there? That’s exactly what I was wondering, too… 🤯 By the way, the “함유-listing” is not to be confused with the disclaimer mentioning that the item was produced in a factory processing other foods and therefore may contain traces of those. Beef in the form of beef tallow / suet (우지 uji) is specified among the actual ingredients!

As you can see, there are no real excuses for not learning Korean! At least some.
Come on, sit your bum down already and learn those 22 Korean letters! And then make your very own set of Korean vocabulary. That’s perhaps no more than a dozen words. The rest is practice and application in real life!

Why you need to be able to read Korean on food labels

And there will be tons of opportunities for you to train! In daily life, you will be able to use your skills regularly! Because you technically need to check the label of every food item! Even if you find one thing that is vegan/vegetarian, a different company will have their own recipe which may include animal products.

Just to give you some examples, oftentimes, there is gelatin hidden in yogurt and candy, most bakery products contain dairy, and fish sauce or anchovy powder are common ingredients because they ‘enhance the flavor’. There are even noodles, which consist of powdered egg shells or ground shellfish! [Why??? 🤔] In addition to that, large and international brands adapt their recipes to the local taste, so familiar foods such as oreo cookies taste less sweet and contain components of dairy (whey powder and lactose) in Korea. [Oreos are NOT VEGAN in Korea!!! 😱]

Oreo cookies listing wheat, milk and soy as allergens.

What are the benefits of learning how to read Korean food labels?

If I haven’t made my point clear enough already, let me put it this way:
It’s a vital skill that enables you to identify food. It gives you the freedom to decide what you purchase and what you consume. It’s for more independence and self-determination with regards to your diet and lifestyle.

Best is: You can start out by studying the Korean alphabet by yourself, without signing up for Korean classes. You also do not need to worry about pronunciation, yet. For the beginning, it’s enough if you can quietly read and understand the basics. There is no need to bother memorizing massive amounts of vocabulary. Simply focus on what is important for your survival in Korea’s food jungle.

Eventually, when you go shopping for groceries or search for snacks at a convenience store in Korea, you can check the food labels on your own. Do apply your newly acquired skills in real life! Then you will quickly improve your reading skills and grow accustomed to the necessary vocabulary. Don’t forget that, after all, practice makes perfect.

Additional notes by the author

*) Here’s a wonderful exception to above rule: The word 콩고기 (kong gogi) translates literally to “bean meat” and denotes meat imitations based on soy, seitan (wheat protein aka gluten) or a mixture of both. In other words, it’s a vegan alternative to real meat. Important vocabulary, nevertheless! But not necessarily something you might want to avoid, unless you dislike processed foods overall.

**) Yes, insects! Traditional Korean cuisine is not actually characterized by insects, but there is one common street food item, which is made from the pupa of silk worms: Beondegi (번데기).

***) Unfortunately, not all types of fish are declared as allergens on the packaging. Thus, this technique does not serve as the universal tool to rule out non-vegan or non-vegetarian foods. As a rule of thumb, however, fish products🐟 are normally not added to sweet food items.

Pink and Green: Korean Tomatoes

🍅 “I like tomato, you like tomahto… 🎶

🥔 I like potato, you like potahto.” 🎵

Or was it the other way around? 🍅🤔🥔

Who decides what’s correct and what is not when it comes to tomatoes and potatoes, anyways. Despite pronunciation,* there are also disputes regarding the classification of these two food items. Is a tomato a fruit? Or is it a vegetable? Is a potato a vegetable? Or is it more than that, considering it is a staple just like bread, noodles or rice in many countries other than Korea? ➡️ fries🍟 = 🍚 rice ➡️ ❌ or ✅❔

Moreover, is there even such a thing as the “right” way of consuming them? In a previous post, I’ve introduced you to the Korean way of eating potatoes. Now, let’s take a look at tomatoes in Korea… 🤓

Boxes of “chal tomatoes” on sale at a grocery store in Seoul, July 2019.

The first thing you will notice is that they look different. Today, there exists such a diversity of tomatoes all over the world. In Korea, many tomatoes are pink or green or even both! One of the most common varieties is the “chal tomato” (찰토마토), which is pinkish and somewhat green. Apart from the color, they are similar in size and shape to the regular, bright orange-red tomatoes, which are familiar in Western cuisines. But these Korean tomatoes taste less tart and have a dry, almost grainy texture when consumed raw. Then there’s also the dark green “daejeo tomato” (대저토마토), also called “heuk tomato” (흑토마토 – black tomato) or “jjapjjari tomato” (짭짤이토마토 – lit. ‘salty tomato’), hinting at characteristics of this kind of breed. But there exist also global varieties such as the small but popular cherry tomato which is called bang-ul tomato (방울토마토) in Korean, translating to “water drop tomato”. Occasionally, one can encounter more exotic varieties like the “green grape tomato” (cheong podo tomato 청포도토마토), which supposedly creates good eating sounds (ASMR).

Let’s move on towards how to eat tomatoes. If you are convinced that tomatoes are vegetables and you drink your tomato juice with salt and pepper (maybe even hot chili flakes or Tabasco!), then you must have grown up in the so-called Western world.

Freshly blended tomato juice at Cafe Eldyn (카페 엘딘) in Hwaseong 2019.

If you then have tomatoes in an East Asian country such as China or Korea, you will be shocked. Because there, tomatoes are naturally seasoned with sugar. Or sugar syrup. Or honey.

💣

💥

*BOOOOM*

🤯

Why?????????????????????????????????????????????

You might ask yourself after the initial shock vanishes, allowing your brain to work again.

This happens to me all the time whenever I order fresh tomato juice and forget to mention that I don’t want my serving to be sweetened. In most Korean coffee shops or juice bars, the basic recipe for “tomato juice” (토마토주스) – which is actually more like a smoothie – is blending fresh tomatoes with water and sugar syrup. And more fancy variations feature honey instead of syrup. Either way, unless you interfere, the tomato drink will automatically be served sweet. But if YOU personally prefer tomato juice without any sweetener at all, you could use the following sentence upon ordering:

  • “Please do not add sugar, syrup or honey into my tomato juice.”
    • 토마토주스에 설탕, 시럽이나 꿀 넣치 마세요.
      • Tomato juseu-e seoultang, sireopina kkul neochi maseoyo.

This should arrange for you to be served plain tomato juice, and it gives you the chance to enjoy it the way you like it – be that pure or savory with added salt, Tabasco … you name it! If you get pre-made tomato juice from a supermarket or a convenience store, however, even your freshly acquired Korean skills cannot do much. The tomato juice is most likely going to taste sweet. You could still use your language skills to check the label before purchasing it. And then, it’s your choice of accepting the novel taste or avoiding it altogether.

Anyways, I guess the answer to the big question of WHY is that in Korea, they consider tomatoes as fruit.

Cherry tomatoes and green grapes in a fruit snack box from a Korean convenience store.
Tomato Bingsu (토마토빙수) consisting of shaved ice, milk and sweet tomato puree, garnished with tomato, pepper and basil, at Tokyo Bingsu (도쿄 빙수), Seoul 2019.

Consequently, you can find tomatoes inside assortments of fruits served as sweet snacks or for dessert. 🍓🍍🍇🍏🍅 In some places, you can even find Korea’s shaved ice dessert bingsu (빙수) with tomatoes as topping: Sweet milk -frozen and shaved into fluffy, snowflake-like ice crystals which instantly melt in your mouth – is garnished with the slightly tangy flavor of sweetened tomatoes and pink tomato sauce. Yuck or yum? 🍧🍅 Once, I encountered a chocolate fondue, which featured pieces of cake, cookies, ice cream and fruit. 🍫🍰🍪🍦🍓 Among those fruit, which were supposed to be dipped into molten chocolate, there were cherry tomatoes! 🍫🍅 I leave the taste up for your own imagination. Back then, I was too appalled that I did not dare trying it and instead watched (half in horror, half in curiosity) my sister eat everything… In hindsight and perhaps with a few more years of ‘life experience’, I am thinking, it couldn’t have been thaaaat bad. After all, everything tastes good with chocolate, right? [Still, I am not willing to cook this up for myself, just to give it another shot!]

Other instances illustrating how tomatoes are considered fruit in Korean culture can be discovered during ancestral rites or at Buddhist temples. On certain occasions, fruit and other valuable delicacies are traditionally offered to deceased spirits and deities. There, you can sometimes encounter tomatoes artfully stacked, next to towers of other types of fruit such as apples, melons, grapes, bananas, oranges, tangerines and pears.

Offerings of fruit in front of a devotional image at Buddhist temple Cheoneunsa (천은사) in Gurye, Jeollanam-do.
[Detail] Large tomatoes as a devotional offering inside a Buddhist temple hall.

The know-it-all says: “Botanically, tomatoes are indeed fruit. They are the seed bearing fruits of tomato plants.” 🤓 Following the same logic, also cucumbers and eggplants are fruits. Why don’t we eat those sweetened for dessert? [Seriously, why not?]

I have no answer to the last question above. Do you? I would love to hear some explanations. I would also love to hear, how you enjoy tomatoes. Sweet or savory? Fresh or cooked? Red or green? Maybe you know of some other country’s exotic way with tomatoes? My only conclusion here is that tomatoes, however we may classify them, are diverse and fascinating. 💚🍅❤️

Notes by the author

*) Above quote is a reference to the song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” in the movie Shall We Dance (1937).

Language of food

For learners of 🇰🇷Korean language🇰🇵, Korean foodies interested in improving their
🇬🇧English skills🇺🇸 or anyone fascinated by 🥢food culture🍴, I’ve decided to add another page to this website: Korean Language of Food.

Language as well as food, both are expressions of a country’s culture. Hence, by getting to know this aspect of Korean culture, it helps in understanding and experiencing it more deeply.

There will be common phrases used in context with food, ideas for communicating your food preferences and corresponding vocabulary. 

📝 Any questions, comments, vocabulary suggestions and language feedback will be welcomed! 🤗