I spent two weeks in October in Seoul, the mesmerizing Korean capital. It is an extraordinary city blending cultural heritage and modern progress like no other. You can expect to run into medieval royal palaces, modern art museums, Buddhist temples, a field of wildflowers, public plazas, and skyscrapers in a day of strolling around. Between these landmarks, there are traditional hanok (Korean house) neighborhoods converted into chic cafes, restaurants, and boutiques. And Seoul boasts numerous mountains (everywhere you look, its skyline is almost guaranteed to include at least one hill) and the enormous Han River that bisects the city into the north and the south. I haven’t been this smitten with a city since I went to visit Paris for the first time in 2014—Seoul is just as beguiling, but so much cleaner! Here I am sharing just a few of the delicious vegan restaurants you can find there.
Qyun (큔) near the Blue House (former Presidential Palace)
This chic, wood-and-dried-flowers clad minimalist eatery focuses on probiotic food and drinks. I loved my seasonal veggie panini with a pesto sauce served with a potato bisque. Don’t skip the drinks! If I lived near by, I would try every single one of their hot and cold mocktails, teas, and more. Expect to be seated next to unbearably chic, mostly young people having lunch meetings and writing in their journals or whatever.
This aubergine dish came on a bed of French lentils.
Maji 마지 in Jongno near Kyungbokgung Palace
Maji serves Korean Buddhist temple cuisine, which is naturally all-vegan. Not only that, they prepare the food so that its toxins and undesirable elements are purified before entering the body. The food is pure, natural, and un-sensitizing, which promotes a healthier body and spirit. We had gujeolpan (small, blini-like pancakes served with various colorful fillings you can add yourself) with sweet ginseng dressing and vegan naengmyun (cold noodle soup) among other delicious little dishes. Korean food is traditionally served with many side dishes called banchan—which is why you might think you’re not eating a lot, but by the end you’ll definitely feel full. Maji is not only vegan and healing to people, but also proudly eco-friendly, as you can see from their sign above.
alt-a 알트에이 in Itaewon
In Korea, Chinese restaurants serve very different dishes than the Chinese restaurants in America. That’s because Chinese immigrants in Korea developed foods that appealed to their Korean customers, the most famous being jjajangmyun (fermented black bean sauce noodles). I was craving this very special dish so I went to alt-a, a vegan Korean Chinese restaurant in Itaewon. I had jjajangmyun and sweet and sour “pork,” pictured above. Although these dishes are traditionally greasy, these vegan versions tasted healthy while still indulgent. Like, I wouldn’t say this is eating a salad, but when you’re in the mood, it’s as light as comfort food can get. I would definitely go back and try their other items one at a time. And the ambiance is youthful, chic, and clean—as appropriate for a date as for a friend hang. (The yellow powder on jjajangmyun is nutritional yeast I carried around in a little baggie in my purse. Because vitamin B12 is important even while you’re traveling!)
Hae Dal Bap Sul 해달밥술 in Yeonnam-dong
Hae Dal Bap Sul (meaning Sun Moon Food Drink) doesn’t have a food menu. Instead, the chef-owner prepares a custom meal for you based on your preferences and what’s seasonal and fresh that day. The restaurant used to serve Buddhist temple cuisine (therefore vegan) until they became non-vegan a few years ago—but the chef-owner is familiar with vegan cuisine and can make you a bespoke multiple course meal. I enjoyed this mushrooms and mountain vegetables dish, vegan potato pancakes, tofu and herbs, and much more. Hae Dal Bap Sul is also famous for the homemade makgeolli, which is a sweet, creamy, and tangy rice wine. It’s one of those secret spots that locals go to in order to have a homestyle meal and authentic traditional wines. Be sure to walk around after your meal: This area is called Hongdae, (Hong University), and has many trendy spots.
Soiroum near Kyungbokgung Palace
This neighborhood is also very trendy and chic—I actually found so many cute alleys everywhere I went in Seoul! Soiroum has a small but lovingly curated menu of vegan comfort food, like the Hamburg steak, hamburger, and pastas. I went with the tofu pasta in a creamy spinach sauce and it was the perfect light lunch.
Plantude in Coex Mall in Gangnam
Plantude is a vegan restaurant created by a food-industry giant named Pulmuone. I was a bit skeptical about going to a restaurant in a mall, but I was pleasantly surprised by the whole experience! I tried three dishes (the portion sizes are small) and my favorite was the tofu katsu bowl, followed by the vegan lasagna made with tofu noodles. Be sure to stop by the famous Starfield Library inside the mall—a functioning public library with more than 50,000 books.
Plant Cafe in Itaewon
When I said I’ll be visiting Seoul, pretty much everyone told me to visit Plant Cafe. This is in Itaewon, a neighborhood with a high population of foreigners, and this is an American-style vegan restaurant—which is honestly what I need sometimes when I’m traveling. I tried their mushroom burger and their Caesar wrap—both were excellent.
Ggot Bap (꽃밥에 피다) in Insa-dong
This eco-friendly traditional Korean restaurant is tucked away in an alley in Insa-dong, the famous traditional neighborhood. The owner was drawn to eco-friendly cuisine when her young daughter began suffering from atopic dermatitis. By using the purest ingredients like organic rice, organic vegetables, and traditional (no preservatives) soy paste, the restaurant creates the healthiest and tastiest dishes that are good for you and the planet. While not 100% vegan, they have two vegan prix fixe meals and vegan à la carte items. It was lovely and nourishing—the perfect introduction to elevated Korean cuisine (also fun comparing this to temple-style cuisine!). Since this is a stone’s throw from Kyungbokgung and Changdeokgung palaces, and in the middle of all the traditional artisanal shops, you have a great pitstop between sightseeing and trying on hanbok.
Last but not least: you have to visit the royal palaces when you’re in Seoul. The admission is free if you wear hanbok, which you can easily rent in any of the nearby stores. Enjoy getting lost in Seoul’s history and modern-day charm!
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Photo: Peaceful Dumpling