The Vegetarian isn’t an easy read. However, I also knew, I couldn’t miss being a part of the revelry. For the first time, the translated work of a Korean author had won a Man Booker International Prize. Local bookshops and Korean newspapers had posters (like the one above) splashed across glass windows and the front page. Why was I happy? Was it because I was in Seoul? It would have to be more than that. I’ve always believed, language should never be a barrier for thought or writing. Sadly, I’ve seen it too often. Many authors (filmmakers) remain unknown globally, although locally, they may enjoy phenomenal success. Many great works get lost in bookshelves of local libraries, under a pile of books or a sheath of dust or eaten by insects. Perhaps, Han Kang’s novel would have been no different, if her work hadn’t been translated by Deborah Smith.
During our many visits to east Asian countries (Japan, China, & Korea); I’ve often wondered, if it was truly possible for a local to opt for vegetarianism. And this is the basic premise of the novel. This thought resonated with my dilemma with vegetarianism. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to renounce meat, and turn vegetarian. Being born in a family of proud meat eaters; it wasn’t easy to stick with my decision. It would also mean that my mother would have to cook separately for me. Often, my mother let me cheat, by not eating meat or fish. But, on family gatherings, or celebratory events, I was serially brainwashed into eating meat. During my year long course in media school, I gave up meat. And like all good things that eventually come to an end; I returned home. I haven’t truly been vegetarian since. And maybe, it was for a good reason. Couple of years later, I started travelling and being vegetarian, on most occasions, would have only ended in hunger. As travellers we don’t always get to choose.
Honestly, there were many moments, I wanted to quit reading the book. I had promised myself to stay clear of such complexities in print or film. And yet, Han Kang‘s book is a compelling read and offers a very unique (mildly shocking) insight into Korean culture, society, and people. Her writing, athough simple, is vivid enough to stir the setting for disturbing imagery. Far from the saccharine infused sweetness of KPOP bands or KDramas and not as unrealistic as Korean cinematic gore; Kang’s book felt more attuned to filmmaker Kim Ki-Duk‘s take on Korean society — only on paper. There are no happy endings in the vortex of troubled souls and the underdog doesn’t always triumph. Rising-up is enough.
It’s not easy for a vegetarian to survive in Korea. For that matter, pseudo-vegetarians, like me, can have a pretty tough time. On the other hand, Basil manages to gulp food — without feeling the need to process its origin. And yet, there are times, when he draws the line. For his vegetarian colleagues, a trip to Korea, can turn into a diet of bread and cheese. Though, with the rise of expats and foreigners, there are many vegetarian restaurants sprouting in Seoul. Searching for them might require some effort. If not, there’s sweet corn and sweet potato.
I do love Korean cuisine, atleast, whatever I can eat of it. I doubt there can be a traditional Korean delicacy without a hint of meat or fish. Oddly, most preparations have wholesome portions of veggies, green leaves, and spicy chilly paste.
Bibimbap (Mixed Rice)
This is the closest a vegetarian can get to eating a traditional Korean delicacy. It’s our firm favourite. And what I love about eating Bibimbap, is that, it’s served in cosy diners with smiling elderly ladies (ajummas) taking orders. Some variations may have egg or meat served as an accompaniment. But, largely, bibimbap is vegetarian.
Tteokbokki could be a vegetarian meal, if you could ignore, the thinly sliced fish cakes. These sticky rice cakes, served in a red chilly paste sauce, are hit in Seoul. It’s possible to eat variations (cheese Teobboki above) in local restaurants or along streets.
Korean dumplings are very similar to the ones I ate in China. Those who prefer vegetarian can opt for red bean paste dumplings — believed to be very healthy. I always thought Kimchi mandu was vegetarian until I discovered the pieces of minced meat. As I said, there will be many times, when you wouldn’t know what you’re eating.
Hot and Sour Chicken
“Spicy” warned the elderly lady with a smile. We smiled and nodded our heads in unison. It’s hard to resist perfectly cooked chicken with boiled potatoes and red gravy. There’s soup, a spread of Kimchi, and rice served along. The trick is to eat slowly. Before you know it, the side accompaniments will be refilled, as fast as you finish them.
School food is a popular chain of restaurants in Seoul. We’ve eaten clear soups, gimbap, and fried chicken with rice. Their presentation and flavours are spot on. And price — affordable!
Japanese cuisine is pretty popular in Seoul. One of the easiest way to spot a Japanese restaurant would be to look for signs of Asahi (leading Japanese brewery) plastered on the walls. Then, there’s the name and difference in script. My favourite would have to be udon noodle soup and shrimp tempura. Basil generally opts for hot and spicy meat soups.
Last week, we had lunch with Basil’s colleague. She took us to a cosy Italian restaurant serving set meals for a fixed price. The portions were more than generous. We chose salad, shrimp pasta, Teriyaki chicken pizza, and seafood risotto. Fortunately, I asked her why the pizza base was black. And in her broken English she answered, ‘Octopus Ink’. I was happy to have dodged a bullet. Basil didn’t seem to mind, although, he left his octopus untouched.
Yesterday, for the first time in Seoul, we ate Chinese cuisine. And I wasn’t surprised; it tasted a lot different from what we ate in China. The flavour wasn’t exactly Korean; and probably that’s what they got right. Strangely, it reminded me of the Chinese food we get back home. I wasn’t complaining.