Summer’s specialty: Kong-guksu 콩국수

🌡 Temperatures are rising, people are beginning to sweat in an instant. 💦 Strong indicators of summer having arrived. ☀️ Du-dung du-dung…. *dramatic music*

Run for your lives!!! As long as you can… 😱
Or enjoy the return of Korea’s summer delicacies (yeoreum byeolmi 여름 별미)! ☀️🤤🍧

One of these is Kong-guksu (콩국수) – long noodles in chilled soy milk! The dish is served cold and may be garnished with a few toppings – fine slices of cucumber🥒, sesame seeds or half a boiled egg🥚 are almost standard. Actually, very simple! But quite filling and perfect in the midst of summer! There may even be ice cubes floating in the soy milk for the ultimate cool-down! ❄️

This dish is traditionally vegetarian and it is easily veganized by removing the occasional egg. Best is to tell restaurant staff right upon ordering that any potential egg🥚 topping may be omitted in your serving.
Saying this short sentence should do the trick:

Kong-guksu gyeran eobsi juseyo. “콩국수 계란 없이 주세요.” –
“Please give me Kong-guksu without egg.”

What is Kong-guksu made of?

Besides the toppings, there are generally no large variations to this dish.
The basic formula is:

cold soy milk + long noodles + garnish = Kong-guksu

Kong-guksu with hand-cut noodles
(kalguksu 칼국수)

Normally, plain wheat noodles, which are rather thin and referred to as somyeon (소면) or slightly thicker jungmyeon (중면), are used. But some locations prepare the dish with more “special noodles”, e.g. hand-cut kalguksu (칼국수) or differently colored noodles, to distinguish themselves from competing restaurants.

The quality of the soy milk, however, is key. In general, the soy milk in Kong-guksu is much thicker than regular soy milk (duyu 두유). Hence it is actually referred to as kong-guk (콩국 – “bean soup”), kong-mul (콩물 – “bean water”) or kong-gukmul (콩국물 – “bean broth”) in Korean. Certain restaurants prize themselves for producing it on location, or for adding ground nuts, peanuts or sesame to make it extra creamy and nutty, or for using black soy beans (seoritae 서리태 or geomeun kong 검은콩). Occasionally, the liquid is still frothy from blending the ingredients prior to serving. Correspondingly, there will be slight variations in color and texture instead of being creamy-white and watery like plain soy milk.

What does Kong-guksu taste like?

Overall, the taste of this cold dish featuring noodles in soy soup is rather subtle. It has a pure taste, as mild (담백하다) as plain (soy) milk, and may smell a little bit nutty (고소하다), if roasted nuts or sesame seeds have been added to enhance the aroma. [If the beans have not been properly prepared, there will be a hint of a fishy smell (birinnae 비린내) as well.] Since the basic broth normally contains hardly any salt at all, kong-guksu is served with salt and sugar, and people can season it individually. Common Korean spices such as garlic, onion or chili are not used at all. In this regard, Kong-guksu is quite different from most dishes, which typically exhibit stronger and more exciting flavors. Yet, since many Koreans tend to lose their appetite during the intense heat, this dish is the ideal summer meal!

Black Kong-guksu (검은콩국수) served with brown sugar and sea salt.

But, how do you eat Kong-guksu after all? First of, the dish is served inside a large bowl, in which you will find the freshly cooked noodles. Soy broth has been poured over the noodles and garnish has been neatly arranged on top of it. Before eating, you mix the noodles and toppings with the soy soup, while using chopsticks. As mentioned before, the dish is barely seasoned, so one adds salt or sugar according to one’s personal liking. Since the noodles are rather long, it might be difficult to transfer large portions into the mouth. The soup is eaten using a spoon and not by lifting the bowl and drinking it.

Where can you find Kong-guksu?
Kong-guksu is frequently offered in Korean restaurants, including those specializing in soups or noodle dishes as well as small restaurants of the bunsikjeom type. However, restaurants serve this dish only during the warmer months of the year (max. April until November). It is then labeled as “seasonal menu” or “summer special” (계절 메뉴 / 여름 별미 / 여름 별식) and advertised separately, i.e. sometimes it’s not listed on the regular menu but visible on extra posters inside or outside the restaurant. Owing to production costs, the price of Kong-guksu is higher when the soy milk is “home-made”. The lowest price I’ve seen in Seoul was 7000 KRW, but the average is 9000-10.000 KRW for one serving.

Bread is not bread

🥖Bread is the staple food of the Western world. It is the most simple meal. Available anywhere and everywhere. Versatile and diverse. Bread can be sweet, savory, whole, sliced, toasted, sandwiched, baked into puddings, mushed into dumplings (#Semmelknödel), the crispy shell of fried chicken or cutlets, the crumbs of Hansel and Gretel’s trail before they get lost in the woods… (I shall stop here.) Yet, bread can be powerful on its own. Good bread does not need any toppings, no butter, jam or other enhancements. It is flavorful, nourishing and a pleasure to eat on its own, while consisting of only a few ingredients:
Flour, water, salt and the right baking method.

Having grown up in 🇩🇪Germany, where breads such as sourdough bread, whole grain bread, rye bread, have a long tradition, I think I can claim that I know what bread is.

But in 🇰🇷Korea, bread (bbang 빵) is not bread. 🥖=/= 🥖

🍞 Bread is no entire meal.
Bread is a snack.
Although they have eaten bready foods, such as pizza or bread, some Koreans insist that they haven’t had any food (bab 밥) during the entire day unless they have eaten rice (bab 밥).* 🤯

Various types of croissants (e.g. green tea croissant and red velvet) at a Korean bakery.

Korean bakery products often
👀look beautiful,
👃smell irresistible and
👅taste addictive.

But I wouldn’t call them “bread”. Maybe 🍰cake fits better. Or 🥐pastry. Because their bakery goods are almost always sweet.🍩 Even the plain toast, pizza breads and garlic bread contain added sugar. 😵

Don’t get me wrong – I am amazed by contemporary Korean baking! Not just is there cake aka “bread” flavored with curious local ingredients such as 🍵green tea (💚matcha), 🍠sweet potato or 🎃sweet pumpkin. Even the average modern bakery offers cakes and pastries which are skillfully crafted and aesthetically pleasing – regular German cakes and pastries appear rough and unrefined by comparison! 🤩 Modern Korean desserts, overall, are colorful, look extravagant and appear mouth-watering to anyone with a sweet tooth. 🤤

Anyways, my point is: “Korean bread” is not bread, it’s more like dessert.

Beside the sweetness, there is another major difference regarding the ingredients of bread: That is, even the plain toast types of bread contain butter, 🥚egg or other 🥛dairy products. So in case you follow a vegan diet, be aware that in most of the cases, bread or other bakery products at a regular bakery or cafe are not vegan. On top of that, I just recently found out that 🐖lard or shortening is oftentimes added to regular bakery (e.g. toast, cookies), as well… 😱

In bakeries, cafes, convenience stores or food stalls, finding a 🥪sandwich or a 🥗salad that doesn’t contain 🐖ham, 🥚mayonnaise, 🍳egg or 🧀cheese will be difficult! Don’t ask me why one of the basic ingredients in every Korean sandwiches seems to be ham… 😵 Unfortunately, asking for custom-made orders is possible only in rare cases, since most of the products are pre-made. 😔 By the way, even low quality 🧀cheeses available in Korea may contain 🐖pig lard, which means that many sandwiches, salads and even 🍕pizzas cannot be considered to be 100% vegan, vegetarian, kosher or halal…

Last but not least, another huge difference between Korean and Western bread culture is the time of bread. 🕗 If you walk into a Korean bakery in the morning hoping to get freshly baked bread for breakfast, chances are that you do not find it. Instead, there will presumably be leftovers from the previous day at a cheaper price, as well as types of fried dough, such as 🍩donuts and croquettes. I understand that preparing and baking bread takes considerable time and, unlike Western countries, many South Korean bakeries schedule their baked goods to be ready by noon or later in the afternoon. 🕜 Just be aware of this as you plan your day. And if you need bread for breakfast, maybe buying it in advance is an idea. 😉

After all, it seems that regular Western-style food is not what you may be used from your home country. Whatever reasons you may have – religious, health-wise, ethical, etc. – if it is important for you to avoid consuming certain things, then I recommend checking the labels (which hopefully exist) of each product individually.

Alternatively, look out for all vegan bakeries or vegan cafes, of which a few exist in Seoul. I will gradually post and share their location with you as I visit them. In the meantime, check out this Instagram page, where reviews will be uploaded first and at regular intervals.

*) I wonder whether people say this as a joke because of the pun, or whether they actually believe in this “logic”… 😶❓

Snack all over the place: Kimbap / Gimbap 김밥

Kimbap with vegetarian filling: omelette, cream cheese, candied nuts, cucumber, carrot, thistle root (u-eong 우엉), pickled radish.

Everyone knows Japanese 🍣sushi, right?

But did you know about the Korean equivalent Kimbap (also spelled Gimbap 김밥)? It’s basically rice (bap 밥) rolled up in a sheet of seaweed (gim 김), quite similar to the Japanese maki sushi. Only it has WAY MORE fillings!!!🤩 💕
Another difference is, that you don’t need to dip the pieces into a sauce, because the fillings are already seasoned. 

In Korea, Kimbap is consumed as a snack, small meal or as a starter. It can be found sold on the streets or in small restaurants (bunsikjeom 분식점). In those restaurants, you can normally choose among various types of fillings – ranging from kimchi to fried pork cutlet or 🥩beef plus the standard vegetables!

The basic filling usually includes 🥕carrot, 🥬spinach, pickled radish, 🥒cucumber, 🥚egg, 🥓ham (haem 햄), 🐟fishcake (odeng 오뎅) and 🦀crab meat (gematsal 게맛살).
It is easy to customize your Kimbap order, when it is made on location. According to your preferences, you can ask for specific ingredients to be put into your roll of Kimbap. Here are some ideas to for doing so:

🥕 “김밥에 야채만 넣어주세요.” Please put only vegetables into my Kimbap. 🥒
🥚 “김밥에 야채하고 계란만 넣어주세요.” Please put only vegetables and egg into my Kimbap.🍳
🥓 “햄 빼고 김밥 만들어주세요.” Please make my Kimbap without ham. 🐷
🐟 “오뎅이나 게맛살 빼고 김밥 만들어주세요.” Please make my Kimbap without fishcake or crab meat. 🦀

Whether you get it on the street or in a restaurant, Kimbap is easily available to-go, when it is simply wrapped into aluminum foil. It is an abundant, nutritious, basic food just like the sandwich in the Western world. An ideal meal when in a 🚴‍♂rush, 🧗‍♂outdoors or on a ⛱pick-nick! You can eat it with your fingers, in case 🥢chopsticks are not available. There’s no need to carry an extra sauce container. In other words, it is the number one 🥡take-away meal!
In this regard, it has a completely different standing if you think about the fancy way Japanese sushi is served in the Western world!

Vegan Kimbap with tofu, beetroot, radish, perilla leaf (deulggaetnip 들깻잎), thistle root (u-eong 우엉) and brown rice.

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 ~