Are you a plant-based eater and about to visit South Korea? Rest assured, you won't have to depend on eating raw tomatoes and carrots bought at a market. South Korea offers a wide variety of meatless culinary delights to prick your taste buds and fill your stomach. There’s no need to visit exclusive restaurants, either. Check out the food stalls and pushcarts you'll find in any Korean town. For a few bucks you'll come across a surprising range of snacks for vegetarians, pescatarians and vegans, varying from sweet to savory, from bland to spicy, or a combination of flavors.
Have a go at fish bread (that doesn't contain fish) or fish cakes (which are made with fish), munch on roasted chestnuts or, if you'd like to start with something more familiar, try the sweet egg bread. The snacks mentioned below all work for vegetarians and pescatarians who do eat eggs, while vegans may have to check some of the ingredients such as batter.
1. Bungeoppang — Fish Bread (without fish)
Bungeoppang is one of South Korea's most popular street snacks and it is the one to look for when you need a bite to warm you up while out and about on a cold day. It's easy to find: just walk up to a street stall that displays little fish-shaped snacks.
Bungeoppang is a delicious pastry of batter stuffed with sweet red beans cooked in a waffle-type iron with fish-shaped patterns. The combination of the batter and beans gives a crispy outside and a soft, hot inside. The sweet red beans are made of red/adzuki beans with sugar, and possibly salt and vanilla.
While Bungeoppan means 'fish bread' it doesn't contain any fish; the name is simply related to the shape of the snack. Tip: remember that ”ppang” means “bread,” a word you'll find in the names of other snacks as well, such as gyeranppang (see below) or jjinppang: sweet bread (steamed buns).
Vegans: check if milk and/or eggs were used in the batter.
2. Gyeranppang — Egg Bread
Another 'ppang', bread snack, this time with egg (gyeran). Cheap, perfect for breakfast but just as inviting for a quick snack at any time of the day. Gyeranppang offers a combination of sweet and savory that will warm you up during a cold day.
The oblong-shaped snack consists of sweet bread with egg on top or inside. Other toppings may have been added such as parsley or cheese. Ham may be another topping, so check that before buying one.
The fluffy sweet bread is made with flour, eggs, butter, sugar, milk and vanilla essence and baked or steamed in molds with egg either on the inside or on top of the bread.
3. Gun bam — Roasted chestnuts
This will work for many types of plant-based eaters: vegetarian, pescatarian, vegan. A typical autumn/winter snack, roasted chestnuts are small and nutritious. Chestnuts grow on deciduous trees belonging to the Castanea Genus that grow in the northern hemisphere.
In South Korea you'll come across street stalls where chestnuts are roasted on charcoal in large quantities and served in paper bags. Buy the warm, smoky-flavored treats as a snack on the go or take them home to serve with a meal.
4. Eomuk or Odeng — Fish Cake
While translated as 'cake' it isn't anything close to the cake known in the Western world. Eomuk (pictured at top), also called odeng (even though that is the Japanese word for it), is pureed fish and seafood mixed with other ingredients that may include wheat flour, potato starch, vegetables and/or condiments. The mixture is subsequently fried, boiled or steamed.
Eomuk comes in many shapes, sizes and levels of spiciness. Try eomuk tang – flat, rectangular pieces on a skewer cooked in broth/bouillon flavored with green onions, soya sauce and chili (although it's not that spicy). These food stalls are self-service: you take the skewers from a pot and, if you like, add a cup of the broth. Afterwards the vendor will charge you for the number of skewers you took.
Busan, a coastal city, is famous for its eomuk, so don't forget to taste it while there.
5. Tteok — Rice Cake
Tteok is the general word for rice cake but, again, it's a staple that resembles nothing like a western type of cake. This snack, made from glutinous rice flour, also comes in many different shapes, sizes and levels of spiciness, and is served in homes, restaurants, and at street stalls.
Arguably the most popular savory rice cakes — yes, there are sweet varieties as well — are tteokbokki and tteokkochi. The latter is rice cake on a skewer, whereas tteokbokki is a dish combining rice cake and fish cake. Tteokbokki and tteokkochi are both served in a spicy red pepper sauce called gochujang, which is made of chilies and fermented soybeans.
6. Pul-bbang — Pancake dumpling
Another ”bbang,” or “ppang” — bread. In this case it's a snack that is lesser known than the above-mentioned ones. It's a doughnut-type of snack of rice flour, salt, eggs, milk and baking powder cooked in a pan or cupcake tin. The round, puffy sweat treats are usually stuffed with sweetened red bean paste. Eat them while they’re piping hot.
Vegans may want to check if milk and eggs were used in the batter.
Karin-Marijke Vis has been overlanding in Asia and South America since 2003 and is currently in Northeast Asia. Her stories have been published in 4WD and travel magazines. Follow her Notes on Slow Travel or on Twitter.