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Korean Cuisine for All Diets

My job for nearly 6 years has been to plan tours and events for foreign guests, and in my line of work, I need to be up to date on the new food terms and diets. Celiacs, vegan, vegetarian, raw food, ketogenic, Paleo, kosher, halal, sugar-free, and more are the trending food topics these days.

There are also food stories that influence diners such as when soy products were demonized because it was believed soy decreases men’s testosterone levels. Similarly, wine, coffee, beer, and chocolate are sometimes praised as good for health and sometimes criticized. As a person who works in the hospitality industry, all I can do is accept the trends and adjust the menus to my clients’ needs. Luckily for me, Korean foods with a few adjustments tend to fit in many different diet categories. Of course there are extremes, such as when a client asked for new cooking pans and grill pans to be used at a restaurant. However, overall, I find that Korean cuisine tends to be quite universal for most people.

In this article, I will give a brief overview of different diets and dietary restrictions and offer suggestions of Korean dishes that might fit into those categories. Many of these pictures are from Mister Kitchen (www.misterkitchens.nl), a Dutch food communications company that is currently working on promoting Korean food in Europe. The pictures are used with their permission.

Halal, Hindu, and Kosher

Even though these types of cuisine seem quite different, they have many similarities. The similarities pertain to the way animals are slaughtered and the ban on eating certain meats such as pork for Muslims and Jews and beef for Hindi. In the case for halal and kosher foods, many of the processed foods in Korean stores are off limits since they are not designated kosher or halal. However, many vegetable side dishes and rice dishes satisfy the dietary restrictions.

Meat tends to be a problem but there are places that sell kosher and halal meats in

Itaewon. If I have guests with such dietary restrictions, I buy the meat from those stores, take it to a restaurant, and grill it there. I simply explain why I am bringing the meat and most restaurants have been quite accommodating.

I find that dishes such as ssambap, temple dishes, bibimbap (without meat), gimbap (without ham), grilled fish, and many seafood dishes are great for halal, Hindu, and Kosher guests. Vegetable and seafood porridge also works well, along with snacks such as rice cake. In addition, there are a number of amazing tofu dishes.

I didn’t include Buddhists in this list since many Koreans practice Buddhism and there are temple cuisine restaurants around the entire country.

Vegetarian and Vegans

To put it simply, vegetarians are those who don't eat meat or fish but might eat milk and eggs. Vegans tend to not eat anything that comes from animals including milk, eggs, and sometimes even honey. It might seem difficult to meet such preferences, since so many Korean dishes use meat or meat stock. The mother broth in many dishes contains anchovies (myeolchi) which is problematic for vegans and vegetarians.

Yet another problem is that many restaurants do not properly understand what vegan and

vegetarian mean. I have heard many stories of vegetarians ordering "vegetable kimbap" only to find ham and egg in it or ordering bibimbap that would come with a cooked egg. Kimchi is also problematic since many kinds of kimchi contain fish sauce or shrimp paste. One vegetarian I met was horrified to find out her favorite dish mul-naengmyeon (chilled buckwheat noodle soup) had a meat broth, so she still could not eat it even though the meat pieces and egg were taken out. So overall, the lack of understanding causes problems for this group of eaters.

However, vegetarians and vegans have a lot of foods they can eat here. Many of the street foods such as bung-eo-ppang (red bean bread), tteokbokki (spicy rice cakes but without fish cakes), twigeum (fried snacks such as sweet potato and mixed vegetables), and hotteok (fried sweet pancakes). At restaurants, they can find temple cuisine and doenjang bibimbap (if the sauce is made without anchovy broth) as well as white sundubu (soft tofu stew). There are many options for vegans and vegetarians in tofu restaurants. For example, many of my guests love the pan-fried tofu. Consider also tteok (rice cake) and juk (porridge). Especially, pumpkin and black sesame porridge are delicious, different, and quite nutritious. For vegetarians who can consume dairy, desserts like patbingsu (ice flakes with red beans) are usually a big hit.

These days, Korean food companies are becoming more “vegetarian” conscious and now stores sell dehydrated vegetarian bibimbap dishes such as Chammifood’s Easybab Woori Bibimbap to which you can just add water. These products are convenient as well as delicious.

Paleo, Atkins, Ketogenic, and Sugar-free Diets
On the outset, these diets seem like they won’t fit into Korean cuisine, since they don’t allow carbs such as rice or wheat, but in reality, they fit quite nicely. That is, of course, if the food is natural and not processed. The problem is that modern Korean food has a lot of hidden fillers like flour and sugars such as corn syrup.

Wholesome, naturally made Korean food is ideal for this diet, and these dieters can eat in Korea like kings. Dishes like galbitang (beef rib soup), seolleong tang (ox-tail soup), and yukgaejang (spicy beef soup) are great for lunch. Many of my guests are happy with bosot jeongol (beef and mushroom casserole) because it combines beef and mushrooms. Korean barbecue is good as long as it is not marinated (since the marinades have a lot of sugar in them). Plain grilled meats such as samgyeopsal (pork belly), beef, and lamb are a great match to these diets.

Guests can wrap the grilled meat in fresh leaves and eat it with many side dishes. Many Korean banchan (side dishes) are vegetables simply blanched and dressed in sesame oil and garlic, so they fit perfectly with these diets. Bean sprout, spinach, eggplant, stir-fried mushroom, and other sides go well with the meat and are similar to salads in Western meals. On the other hand, side dishes that are made with soy sauce or red chili paste tend to be problematic since they contain sugar and flour.

The same is the case with marinated dishes like beef bulgogi, chicken dakgalbi, and marinated beef and pork galbi dishes. Kimchi is great for people on these diets. It can be stir-fried and added as a topping to dishes or just eaten plain. Even though some types of kimchi, such as More Co., Ltd’s Bibimbap Namul, has some carbs, the content is usually very low, like 19.7 grams per 282 grams. Therefore, one would have to eat nearly 400 grams of kimchi to go over the daily limits of these diets.

If kimchi, like all foods, is eaten in moderation, it can contribute to a healthy lifestyle. Finally, don’t forget about seafood. Korean raw fish, fish soups, grilled fish, and more all fit perfectly with these diets. I think if anyone goes hungry in Korea because of some dietary restrictions, it simply means they haven’t looked hard enough.

Park Sung Eun  parkse@agrinet.co.kr

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