A walk down the streets of Seoul after sunset will seduce your senses. Flashing neon lights, fashionable teens, giant mascottes promoting the nearest cat or dog cafe and colourful shop signs all compete for your eyes’ attention while impatient drivers honk their horns and salesmen loudly advertise their products on the sidewalk outside their shops. The sensory overload is completed as your sense of smell and taste are activated by the dozens of food stalls lining the road. From the hearty scent of tteokbokki (a ricecake in a spicy hot sauce) to the fishy perfume of dried octopus, the meaty smell of grilled pig’s feet and the distinctive odour of beondegi (boiled silk worms) – it is obvious that South Koreans have a thing for savoury street food. You can easily go without dinner here if you just stroll the streets and try the many different meals and snacks on offer.
But what if you don’t want to eat meat, sea food or insects? When in Korea, this generally means that you’re going to have a hard time. Koreans love their animal protein and you will be hard-pressed to find something that does not contain fish or meat. Even the tteokbokki often have fish cakes added to their spicy sauce. What also makes matters difficult from my experience is that many of the street food vendors speak limited English so if you do not speak Korean it may be difficult to ask them which ingredients they used in that delicious-looking but unknown substance you are eyeballing. Add the fact that vegetarianism is still a foreign concept in Korea that not many people really understand: how many times I haven’t asked for a vegetable kimbap and received one that the cook has generously filled with crabsticks…
So as much as I’d like to write here, “don’t despair!” you’ll have to despair a little bit but here is some good news: there actually are some street food snacks in Korea that are suitable for vegetarians! I will list five of the best Korean vegetarian snacks in this post so you can enjoy some traditional treats on the streets of Seoul that do not contain any meat, fish or sea food.
- Hotteok (호떡)
Don’t let the name confuse you. I know it sounds much like hotdog, but there is nothing meaty about my favourite street snack in Seoul. It is hard for me to walk past a hotteok stand and not cash out 1000 won for one of these sugary cinnamon-filled pancakes. They are made from balls of dough that are filled with brown sugar, cinnamon and honey, and that are pressed flat on an oiled baking plate to make your hotteok hot and sweet (and rather oily indeed). It is usually handed to you in a disposable paper cup and you should be careful when eagerly sinking your teeth into this delicious piece of comfort food, because its contents are hot and liquid! There is also a dryer, less oily version of the hotteok that can sometimes be found on Seoul’s streets, which is also tasty but in my view does not compare to the greasy goodness of the original. Be careful if you have a peanut allergy; occassionally the hotteok’s filling includes small pieces of peanut or possibly other nuts (each vendor appears to have his or her own personal recipe – which makes for a good excuse to try as many hotteoks as you encounter stands!) The snack is unfortunately not vegan-friendly as the dough is often made with milk.
2. Bungeo-ppang (붕어빵)
It took me a while to figure out that this snack is actually vegetarian-friendly because its name and appearance are rather misleading. The English translation of this lovely little snack is carp bread and the fact that it is fish-shaped also does not reveal that there is no actual fish inside. What is it, then, if it is not something fishy? Bungeo-ppang is like a miniature waffle baked in cast-iron mold in the shape of a fish. It is filled with sweet red bean paste. Koreans are a big fan of red beans and it is easy to understand why: they make for a sweet, but not too sweet, filling that will warm your heart. Again, sadly vegans will have to give this one a miss unless you speak fluent Korean and can check with the vendor if they used milk or eggs in the batter, as is sometimes done.
3. Gyeran-ppang (계란빵)
Its name “egg bread” may lead you to believe you’ve finally found yourself a savoury snack, but no – Korean street food continues to be tricky! This fluffy bite is often actually rather sweet as sugar is one of its ingredients. Think of it as a piece of muffin dough with a steamy and rather runny egg on top.
4. Korean doughnuts
These are much like the common donut, but with a little twist (literally!) Chapssal (찹쌀도넛) are little balls made of rice flour and are often filled with red bean paste. I have also found some variety filled with a sweeter white bean paste. Kkwabaegi (꽈배기) is a twisted donut made of rice flour and melted butter, deep-fried in oil and topped off with sprinkly sugar and cinnamon.
5. Gunbam (군밤)
So there you have it, some of the best streetfood snacks for vegetarians in South Korea! And of course for anyone else who loves doughy sugary stuff. I’m sure you noticed while going down this list that what all these snacks have in common is that they all require a sweet tooth. I am yet to discover any savoury vegetarian street foods except for the tteokbokki, which, like I mentioned, is not always strictly vegetarian. If you have any tips for lovers of snacks more savoury (or if you know of any snack that is guaranteed vegan-friendly), please leave them in the comment section below this post!
A bonus snack: not a common Korean street food as it can only be found at Ssamji-gil market in the Insadong neighbourhood of Seoul, but a pretty fun one: red-bean filled poop bread… Only in Korea!