There’s no doubt that South Korea is a meat-lover’s paradise. The Korean cuisine, regardless of whether you try it in a traditional restaurant or on the streets of Hongdae, is generally based around meat, seafood, and rice. As a result, vegetarianism is not an everyday concept in many regions, and eating meat-free is no small task.
With this in mind, it’s only natural to ask, why do people become vegetarian in a country that has meat fused into its culture? The truth is that it varies from person to person, each with their own stories and distinct motivations.
Funnily enough, my vegetarian quest does not begin with a frightening documentary featuring the slaughtered chickens, cows, and pigs. Instead, around two years ago, I developed an inexplicable intolerance to meat that encouraged me to gradually eliminate it from my diet. As a matter of fact, I actually discovered the wondrous impact I was making on the environment and the welfare of animals after I decided that I’d rather get my protein solely from chickpeas, tofu, and eggs. There are individuals like me, who have decided to make the drastic change in their consumption due to health troubles. However, there are others who were aware of the issues – such as the effect of livestock production on global greenhouse gas emissions and land use – beforehand.
Despite the rationale and countless justifications, there will always be people who fail to fully grasp the idea of adopting a vegetarian lifestyle. To be fair, as the quintessential American family, breakfast bacon, Thanksgiving Turkey, and Super Bowl buffalo wings, were and always will be ingrained in our household traditions. This demeanor is evident in South Korea as well, where even the favorite meal staple, kimchi, often includes minced shrimp and fish sauce.
In 2014, the average Korean ate 51.3 kilograms of meat, which was more than the neighboring countries’ per capita meat consumption, including China and Japan. It’s safe to say that Koreans love their pork dumplings and ox bone soup. Naturally, restaurants tend to serve many meat based dishes, which establish a whole new set of hardships for the vegetarians in Korea. The worst that could happen is ordering a bowl of soup noodles, specifically asking for no meat, and then later realizing that the broth is meat-based. Or maybe you ordered a promising platter of fried rice, only to realize that the crab was left in.
It’s true that being vegetarian in South Korea can be a struggle, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It’s time for Koreans to understand that as meat-eating is a choice and preference, so is vegetarianism. Yet, despite the challenges, I would never trade my experience in Korea for anything in the world. It’s all part of the journey!
Rachel Kahng, Grade 10
Seoul Foreign School