One day as I was leaving the cafe I worked at in Illinois, my Korean boss was blending nuts. It was a noisy affair and I assumed that it was for something she’d bake. Instead, it was to make the Korean dish 떡국 (ddeok guk, rice cake soup) for her daughter who was vegan.
I’d known of veganism but it was something different to see it applied to something that was familiar to me. Growing up Korean American, my diet consisted of many soups that had meat based broths. Going to a Korean restaurant usually meant that we’d get meat like kalbi or bulgogi. And even if it wasn’t red meat, my family also ate a fair share of seafood and loved an occasion for Korean fried chicken.
I was intrigued to see a dish from my childhood be turned into a vegan dish. I’d never met an Asian vegan before and didn’t see any Asian dishes represented in vegan cuisine. From a cursory glance of the lifestyle, if I had to put a face to veganism, I’d equate it with the face of a European American.
But as I dug deeper into veganism and how it translated into my cultural context, a different story emerged.
Veganism is the most strict branch of vegetarianism. It cuts out every animal product including but not restricted to honey, gelatin, and milk. While some choose to switch to a vegan diet for ethical or philanthropic purposes, others do so due to health reasons like food sensitivity or allergies.
Veganism expands beyond just cuisine. A vegan lifestyle also implies not using animal products like silk, wool, or leather. According to The Vegetarian Resource group, an American non-profit group, the core principle of the vegan lifestyle is “to promote a more humane and caring world.”
The desire to create and advocate for a more caring world is not restricted by national boundaries. In fact, vegetarianism has existed since the ancient world; it was first mentioned by Pythagoras in 500 BCE. Cultures around the world adopted a philosophy of avoiding harm to animals. This resulted in cultural diets that are primarily plant based from countries from Africa to Asia.
In East Asia, vegetarianism became associated with Buddhism thanks to an emperor. In the sixth century, Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty was a devout Buddhist. He became a vegetarian after reading Buddhist texts even though technically Buddhism didn’t require a vegetarian lifestyle. During his reign the faith became more affiliated with vegetarianism as he urged monks to give up meat.
To help converts transition to a life without meat, monks created meat substitutes. This was a pleasant surprise to discover that before the rise of more well known imitation meats like Beyond Meat, there’s been a history of vegan dishes in the East Asian region.
So veganism isn’t a foreign concept to the East Asian region that Korea belongs to. Then how do you translate veganism into a Korean context?
Enter the world wide web.
Korean American veganism
“I veganize Korean food and I Koreanize everything else.”
This is the first quote that appears on the page of Joanne Lee Molinaro, otherwise known as “The Korean Vegan”. The former attorney, vegan author, and blogger hails from Chicago suburbs and is the daughter of Korean immigrants. Her cookbook “The Korean Vegan” became a New York Times bestseller and her work was featured on notable American media platforms like The Food Network, The Today Show, and NPR.
Molinaro is most known for her short form cooking videos that are aesthetically shot and include narration about life, ranging from her upbringing to her parents’ immigration to life lessons. The result is something that both seems personal but also accessible. It feels like cooking with a friend and has the effect of demystifying vegan cooking.
At first, Molinaro switched her lifestyle because her husband became vegan. She didn’t immediately join him as she didn’t want to give up kimchi and bulgogi. But then realized that eating isn’t just fuel into the body; it also includes fellowship with others at the table. And so she joined her husband but with the determination to carry over the Korean food she loved. Along the way, she filmed videos of cooking vegan food. Eventually her style of storytelling paired with how she showcased vegan cooking exploded online.
And Molinaro isn’t the only Korean diaspora vegan influencer; another notable creator is Korean Canadian Cheap Lazy Vegan. Korean cooking bloggers also feature vegan versions of Korean food as well. All together, these resources make veganism more accessible by showing that a vegan lifestyle doesn’t mean compromising flavor. Representation in the vegan space also makes the lifestyle more approachable; seeing diverse vegan cuisine can show that there’s space for nonwhite people to also be vegan.
Seeing the excitement and demand for Korean vegan food in my home country is exciting but also made me curious about how veganism was playing out in Korea. After all, in Korea, Korean people aren’t the minority; the identity and representation aspect of vegan food wouldn’t be present.
In the United States, Korean Americans were championing vegan Korean food as extensions of their identity. But how does veganism look like in Korea?
Veganism in Korea
Veganism is gradually blossoming in Korea. There are more resources for vegans in Korea than ever before. These range from local YouTube channels like Vege Is, Veganspace, a vegan grocery store, and videos about vegan restaurant recommendations, ranging from traditional Korean cuisine to Western cuisine.
A YouTube search with the Korean term for vegan (비건) brings up vlogs and recipes that, similar to the effect of vegan cooking videos in North America, demystify vegan food. There are festivals around veganism that celebrate all aspects of the vegan lifestyle and also provide educational content. Veganism is also gaining visibility through celebrities like Lee Hyori, who is vegan, and k-pop idols trying vegan recipes, like when Chuu of LOONA tried to make a vegan burger.
But an internet search of ‘veganism in Korea’ shows somewhat contradictory results. An article by the Korean Herald from 2019 declared that Koreans are embracing the vegan revolution whereas an article from this year states that 0.2% of Koreans avoid meat. And a closer look reveals that most vegan resources are concentrated in the capital. Happy Cow, a vegan resource listing vegan restaurants around the world, reported 371 vegan restaurants in 2019. Of these, 217 were in Seoul.
However, there does seem to be progress to making veganism more accessible. For vegans based outside the capital there is Sprout, a vegan based delivery service that serves the whole country. And some businesses are taking note of vegans; a Yonhap article from last year reported on how food companies are reacting to the rise of veganism. But while it does seem like the rise in interest towards veganism is translating into an investment into plant based alternative meals, not everyone is convinced that this means a meaningful shift. Only time will tell.
Accessibility in veganism
A vegan diet requires change. It necessitates finding alternative protein and imitation meats and then integrating them into dishes. For different populations, there are different hurdles to overcome in pursuing a vegan diet.
For Korean Americans, veganism seemed incompatible with Korean food because of how the space is seemingly dominated by white people. With the increased visibility of Korean American vegans like Joanne Lee Molinaro, veganism became more accessible by showing that vegans can still have flavorful food and that anyone, regardless of cultural background, can become vegan.
For Koreans, there is more of a logistic concern about veganism due to the majority of vegan resources being concentrated in Seoul, the capital of the country. But there are movements to make vegan ingredients accessible through organizations like Sprout and a handful of companies looking into creating vegan friendly options for dishes.
So then how is veganism translated into a Korean context? Depends on who you ask and where they come from. Because just like in the field of translation, for one text, there can be multiple translations but the same purpose.
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