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! 🤗

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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.

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! 🤗

Fast Food Fashion of South Korea

Balli balli!” (빨리! 빨리!) Move fast, act immediately, there’s no time! Anyone who visits Seoul will quickly notice how many people appear to be in a rush in whatever they do. Some may call this impatient and short-tempered, others may consider this behavior as targeted at optimization of processes. In the end it might be a mixture of both. 🤷‍♂️

In connection with this collective mindset, there is the phenomenon that the entire city of Seoul is changing rapidly: New buildings arise out of nowhere, businesses open and shut down within a few months, and the smartphone you purchased last year is already too old to attract potential pickpockets. The same is true for various expressions of contemporary culture, such as fashion trends, hair styles and nail art. But did you know that there exists also such a thing as food fashion? In South Korea, it certainly does!

Food fashion???

YES! Of course!

Food is more than just something to fuel your body with energy. [D’uh!]

Food is creatively developed to please all your senses. Ideally, the sensory experience includes that its immaculate outer appearance attracts your attention, after which you will be seduced by its mouthwatering scent. When you touch it, you can feel its texture and discover that it consists of multiple layers, from the outer crust towards the interior. In your mouth, then, your tongue further explores the transmuting textures and plays with the pieces of food. Released is its unique taste – seasoned perfectly in balance with the bliss point. The taste is addictive. You want to take another bite. And another bite… And another… [Note to self: Better stop here. By that I mean indulging in eating as well as further remarks!]

Object of desire?
Tofu pasta at ‘Green Pantry’ in Seoul, spring 2019.

In short, food is designed. It is the product of a process, which requires knowledge about the materials, physical skills and creativity. Regardless of it being grandma’s famous apple pie, the hand-pulled noodles from the traditional Chinese restaurant or the industrially manufactured foods, which engage bio-chemical scientists, nutritionists as well as marketing agents. They all aim to create food whose design persuades us to eventually consume it.

We have come so far that food photographers and food stylists are established as fully recognized jobs by now. 💇‍♀️💅📸 In other words, people can be professionally trained in these fields! And in South Korea, the market of the food industry is fairly big. And not to forget, also, the marketing department is a driving force in food fashioning and generating trends.

So in (random?) intervals, new food trends are evolving. Some of these trends are very short-lived, some vanish after a few months, and yet others last for years and may establish themselves as a kind of “style”.

The object of such trends could be an existing food item that has been imported from other cultures. To provide an example, German Schneeballen (shyu-nebalen 슈네발렌) were once in fashion in Korea. Sometime between the years 2013 and 2014, a Korean friend proudly told me about her experience of having eaten this “traditional German dessert”. I had never heard of it before, so I looked it up on Wikipedia and finally discovered these “snow ball” like pastries on a Christmas market in Berlin. In Seoul, however, they had practically disappeared by 2015, and I considered myself lucky when I eventually found a cafe which had specialized in Schneeballen in a provincial city in southern Korea!

Koreanized Schneeballen labeled as “funny cookie smashing with hammer” (Manchi gwaja 망치과자), re-discovered inside Myeongdong Station (명동역). Seoul, summer 2019.

More persistent than the Schneeballen trend and also initiated by imported, international foods are such things as coffee, waffles, pork cutlet “Schnitzel” in Japanese style (donkkasseu 돈까스), French croissants and pastries, Chinese-origin Jjajangmyeon (짜장면) etc. All of these did not traditionally belong to Korean cuisine but they have been incorporated into contemporary K-food culture at varying degrees: Often they are not inferior to the original; sometimes they are transformed into a fusion product bearing traits from both cultures (e.g. green tea croissants!); yet other food items are refined and produced in a quality exceeding their foreign precursors (e.g. bienna keopi (비엔나 커피) aka. ainshyupaeneo (아인슈패너) based on Austrian coffee drink “Einspänner“, in fashion since 2018).

In other cases, one single ingredient is the stimulant for a new food trend. A sudden hype is triggered by a certain ingredient, which is then added to various existing food items. A good illustration of this is green tea powder (Jap. matcha), which in the late 2000s, was advertised as being capable of reducing the calorie intake and thus appealed to (mostly female) consumers interested in dieting. Consequently, it appeared in various categories of food, which were accordingly labeled as “well being” (welbing 웰빙). This trend was so successful that today, matcha has ended up as a common flavoring ingredient, mostly in desserts and beverages but also in noodles – similar to cocoa or chocolate-flavored foods in the Western world. Ever since, matcha latte, matcha ice cream and matcha cake are standard items in coffee shops and grocery stores in South Korea.
Other examples for the single-ingredient or one-theme trend are sweet pumpkin (danhobak 단호박), mugwort (ssuk 쑥), squid ink (coloring breads, pasta and pizzas), Oreo cookies etc. One of the most recent trends, which set off this spring 2019, is based on black sugar (heukdang 흑당): You can see it mostly in bubble tea beverages and bingsu (빙수 – shaved-ice desserts) flavored, upgraded and garnished in the respective theme. Who knows how long this trend will last?

Then, there are new, innovative food items, which originate from one [unknown] creative mind and, as popularity within one region grows, are copied by competitors and distributed further. To illustrate, there used to be such a thing as “Walking Stick Ice Cream” (jipangi ice cream 지팡이아이스크림) – essentially soft serve filled into a wafer shaped like the letter ‘J’. As I recall, it was available around 2014 and 2016. While in areas frequented by international tourists, such as Insadong (인사동) and Myeongdong (명동), there used to be a food stall for jipangi ice cream every 50 meters, it seems to have completely disappeared by now. [Anyone sighting this presumably extinct ‘specie’ or willing to share old photos, please contact the author.]

Angbeoteo (앙버터) at ‘Jean Boulangerie’ (쟝블랑제리) in Seoul, spring 2019.

Another fashionable dessert invention, which I’d like to mention here, is angbeoteo (앙버터): A sandwich containing red bean paste (pat ang-geum 팥앙금) and a thick slice of butter – called “beoteo” (버터) in Korean. Bread and butter – nothing spectacular, you may think. You may also be familiar with the sweet red bean paste filling, which is common in traditional and modern Korean desserts, e.g. rice cakes (tteok 떡), steamed buns (jjim-ppang 찜빵), bean-filled bread rolls (pat-ppang 팥빵). But did you notice the dimensions of the butter that goes into angbeoteo? Rather than a slice of butter, a CHUNK of butter seems to be a more adequate description. And it’s supposed to be eaten as it is! At room temperature. No warming up in the microwave or the oven to melt the butter!!! 🛑 This curious construction has appeared in 2018 and has true fans among Korean ‘bread lovers’ or ‘bread maniacs’, who refer to themselves as “ppang-suni” (빵순이) or “ppang-dori” (빵돌이). [Personally, however, I am not very fond of butter, as you might have noticed…]

With these rapidly changing trends, I oftentimes find myself regretting to not having tried a certain food item, as long as it was available. You never know when a new food item appears or disappears. And similar to other fields of fashion, such as hair styles or jeans trends, there is also the phenomenon of trends recurring after some time. Such is the case for “Mammoth bread” (mammos-ppang 맘모스빵), which – as the name implies – is a big, rustic-looking kind of “bread”. To be more precise, this kind of Korean bread consists of two layers of sheet cake (similar to German Streuselkuchen) which are covered with cream, jam, spreads or other pastes and are then stacked on top of each other to create one MASSIVE sandwich with sweet filling. From what I have heard, mammos-ppang already existed in the 1980s. I am not sure whether it had actually gone extinct in the meantime, but modern bakeries have re-discovered mammos-ppang and breathed new life into it by breeding new variations featuring matcha flavor, chocolate, sweet potato etc. It is indeed a living fossil which enjoys large popularity at the moment.

Next, we can also talk about food trends with regards to seasons – just like in the clothing industry. There are literally seasons for certain food items, which are A) connected to the availability of the main ingredients and B) to the conditions of the natural environment. The first factor is related to the fact that spring greens, edible flowers or fresh strawberries simply do not exist all throughout the year. Once in season, however, suddenly all sorts of foods are flavored with the respective ingredient. Consequently, many coffee shops temporarily offer special desserts and beverages inspired by the short but intense bloom of cherry blossoms. 🌸 Let’s say, you missed out on Korean Starbucks‘ cherry blossom menu this year, then you need to wait until next year. But who knows what concoctions their creative department will cook up in the meantime? Perhaps, you will never get a second chance to try that green tea latte with cherry blossom cream and pink chocolate! While there is some joy in looking forward to new, delectable creations, there is also a sad aspect of such ‘limited editions’ in the food fashion world.
The second factor determining a food season are weather conditions. Many Korean restaurants have an additional summer menu, featuring mostly cold noodle dishes – a welcome refreshment during 40 degrees Celsius plus humidity! ☀️🌡 Who wants to eat noodles in a chilled broth with ice cubes during winter anyways? (Ironically, hot and spicy dishes as well as nourishing stews are available independently from outside temperatures, though.) Seasonal eating is a thing. Just like dressing according to the weather conditions.
Overall, with regards to food seasons, Korean food fashion is comparable to other cultures. Germany, for instance, has likewise developments whenever regional produce such as rhubarb or asparagus are available. Also, [most] ice cream parlors open only during the warmer months. [Totally incomprehensible in the author’s opinion.]

Last, but not least, above mentioned food trends and the impact of food on contemporary Korean culture are also visible in the country’s language. Korean people actually say things like “This [random food item] is in fashion now, isn’t it?!” (요즘은 [앙버터]가 유행이지!) or “That bakery is very popular at the moment!” (저 빵집이 요새 되게 잘 나가는 곳이지!) or “This coffee shop is totally in!” (여기가 핫한 까페야!). In context with the latter statements, you will see people standing in lines outside restaurants and bakeries, which have received attention in the media and turned into a pilgrimage destination for foodies. People are willing to wait for hours just to taste that renowned food item. There are not a few committed foodies, who travel inside the city as well as nationwide just to visit certain locations because of the food. Eventually, their experiences and impressions are published online on various social media channels, in which they proudly show how they have been able to consume a certain item or visit a famous eating location. It is a way of making a [food] fashion statement.

Excerpt of YouTube search, May 2019.

To conclude, this post is a rough sketch of the current phenomenon of food fashion and eating trends in South Korea. The entire topic as well as corresponding customs surrounding food in general exhibit immense dimensions permeating social structures, religion, language, cultural as well as economical developments and more! After all, TV programs, Instagram, YouTube and other media are filled with edible content, which transcends traditional information on recipes or cooking instructions: They feature e.g. eating channels (mukbang / meokbang 먹방), new food reviews, restaurant suggestions and so-called “food porn”, all of which instantly convey a very graphic image of Korea’s obsession with food.

Are you hungry yet? 🍽

As sweet as honey

Honey or no honey?

This question does not only concern vegans in Korea.
But for vegans, this subject is particularly confusing.

The question of what is honey and what is not, is material for a multi-layered discourse.

To begin with, the Korean term kkul 꿀 basically means honey. 🍯 But not everything that is called ‘kkul‘ actually contains honey. Such is the case for many fruits which are sold as ‘honey apple’ 🍏 (kkul sagwa 꿀사과) or ‘honey strawberries’ 🍓 (kkul ttalgi 꿀딸기). There exist even ‘honey chestnuts’ 🌰 (kkul bam 꿀밤) or ‘honey sweet potatoes’
🍠 (kkul goguma 꿀고구마), which are sweeter than normal! The word is simply added by producers or vendors to emphasize their superior, honey-like taste. In other words, kkul” functions like a quality label.

Korean honey melon (chamoe 참외) with stickers designating them to be as sweet as “honey” (kkul 꿀).

Next is the phenomenon that some Korean food items are equipped with the word ‘honey’ simple because they resemble it. Common examples are filled 🥞pancakes (hotteok 호떡) as well as 🍡rice cakes with syrup filling (kkul tteok 꿀떡). In making these, the combination of (brown) sugar, cinnamon / sesame and heat results in a liquid which is golden in color and sweet – reminiscent of honey. Historically, honey has been a precious ingredient in Korea and accordingly, its name is used to add value to foods, even though they may not actually contain it. This applies also to dishes such as Korean confectionery gangjeong (강정) and yugwa (유과) as well as toppings or dipping sauces, which use traditional rice syrup (jocheong 조청), oligosaccharide syrup (oligodang 올리고당), glucose-fructose syrup (aeksang-gwa dang 액상과당) or corn syrup (mulyeot 물엿) as the sweetening ingredient. Sometimes people (proudly) proclaim that their products contain ‘honey’, but after multiple inquiries or checking the ingredient list, it turns out that merely honey-like substances such as those above have been used in the manufacturing process.** Once again, ‘honey’ is a tag suggesting food quality in Korea.

Apart from this, Korean honey – especially honey from cheaper brands – is accused of not being derived from flowers. This issue is widely known and has been criticized for years, yet it is a common practice among industrial honey producers. Basically, industrially raised honey bees are (partially) fed with a substitute (a kind of sugar syrup) instead of flying about in search of flowers. Accordingly, the honey these bees produce does not originate from the nectar gathered from plants. 🐝🚫🌻 Honey which has been produced in a natural but more strenuous process, is necessarily more expensive. 💲 How do you know what kind of honey is used? Check the ingredient list on the food label! The Korean word for this industrially produced honey is 사양(벌)꿀 (sayang (beol)kkul), while the naturally produced honey is commonly referred to as 천연(벌)꿀 (cheonyeon beolkkul).

Yet, it is difficult to judge the quality of honey based solely on its label or price, as scandals and chemical analyses suggest. Since production methods and the quality of common Korean honey are strongly debatable, even some non-vegans abstain from mass-manufactured honey. *

In processed foods, items are particularly prized when ‘real honey’ is one of their ingredients. Due to the high cost of pure honey, however, oftentimes the final product contains only a small portion of honey. Other sweeteners and aroma are largely in charge of imitating the taste of honey. In particular, confectionery such as dagwa (다과) and yakgwa (약과) as well as sweet Korean teas (e.g. jujube tea 대추차, yuja tea 유자차, ginseng tea 인삼차) are traditionally prepared with honey because of its ascribed health benefits. But nowadays you may find that they contain honey only in low quantities or none at all. In short, regardless of advertising strategies, honey is generally not used in large amounts because it is expensive.

Eventually, the word ‘honeyed’ seems appropriate in describing foods which exhibit characteristics similar to honey. It is often ambiguous, whether it refers to real honey or an alternative. The origin being either animal-labor or processed plant materials is vague for the most part. So how can you tell whether something contains honey? In case checking the label is not an option, asking the cook, staff or vendor directly may be. If this is too difficult because of language barriers, or the resulting answer does not seem trustworthy, avoiding things labeled as ‘honeyed’ entirely appears to be the safest way.

Additional notes:

*) Concerned consumers purchase honey only from trusted (private) sources. Instances of scandals, reports of angry customers etc. are numerous online. Keyword search for “fake honey” (gajja kkul 가짜 꿀) in Korean.

**) Rather than language difficulty, I’m starting to believe that this is due to general lack of knowledge. Similarly, I occasionally encounter people who claim that their products do not contain any sugar. Upon asking why they taste sweet, the response is that they use honey or some kind of syrup. No sugar? Right…

Let’s start exploring…

Food painting #001. Material: Tofu, chili paste, brown rice, kimchi, Chinese yam, seaweed, sesame seeds.

FOOD.
Food is big in Korea.
Food looks beautiful in Korea.
Foodies will love eating in Korea.

But it can be difficult to follow a vegan or vegetarian diet in Korea.

After years of living in Korea, I’ve decided to share some of my experience, hoping it will provide an orientation for people in a similar situation. The world of food is complex, it is exciting, full of new impressions, scents, visuals, textures and flavors. However, it can be confusing and frustrating, if you cannot read the labels or do not speak enough Korean to communicate your dietary preferences.

Although South Korean society seems to be changing rapidly in various areas, people with certain dietary lifestyles (such as veganism, vegetarianism, raw food, pescetarianism, halal, kosher etc.) are still rare.

Thus, let me offer you some ideas. With the upcoming posts, I aim to introduce you to the basics of Korean food, make practical suggestions for a satisfying food hunt and introduce you to veggie-friendly locations for dining out.

My posts will be launched on Instagram first, where they are primarily pictures! (Because… who doesn’t like #foodporn? 😆) However, you will find longer descriptions and more details about the respective topic in this blog.

Helpful words

  • chaesik ju-eui-ja 채식주의자 – vegetarian 🥕
  • wanjeon chaesik ju-eui-ja / bigeon 완전채식주위가 / 비건 – vegan 🥕🥦
  • gogi 고기 – meat🥩
  • saengseon 생선 生鮮 – fish🐟
  • haesanmul 해산물 海産物 – seafood🦐
  • yujepum 유제품 – dairy🥛🧀
  • gyeran 계란 – egg🥚🍳
  • ggul 꿀 – honey🐝🍯

Simple phrases

  • Chaesik ju-eui-ja yeyo. 채식주의자예요. I am a vegetarian. 🥕
  • Chaesik haeyo. 채식해요. I eat vegetarian food. 🥕
  • Jeoneun gogi, saengseon ina haesanmul mot meogeoyo. 저는 고기, 생선이나 해산물 못먹어요. I cannot eat meat, fish or seafood. 🚫🥩🐟🦐
  • Jeoneun yujepum, gyeran ina ggul mot meogeoyo. 저는 유제품, 계란이나 꿀 못먹어요. I cannot eat dairy, egg or honey. 🚫🥛🧀🥚🍳🐝🍯

and… very important for Korean food culture:

  • Jal meok-gessimnida! 잘 먹겠습니다. I will eat well. (said BEFORE the beginning of the meal. Similar to the French “Bon appetit” or German “Guten Appetit”.)
  • Jal meo-geossimnida! 잘 먹었습니다. I have eaten well. (said AFTER the meal.)

And after all, I’d like to end this post with the following statement:

Please, enjoy your food! 😊❤
Masikke deuseyo~ 맛있게 드세요 ~