With the warm weather approaching, there's a general desire to pay more attention to health issues. Be it to get in shape for outdoor activities, or boost the immune system to ward off bugs that accompany humid conditions, attention to food is a good starting point.
A popular approach has been to cut down or abstain from animal products.
Veganism, the practice of maintaining a non-dairy vegetarian diet, is fairly widespread in Western countries, especially the U.S., but is a relatively new concept in Korea.
However, a community event promoting veganism was held by Seoul Vegan Potluck last Saturday at the Magpie Brewing Co. in Noksapyeong.
Titled "My Favorite Dish," guests were invited to bring their favorite vegan dish to the bar and share and sample other food on offer.
Unlike many such gatherings in the past, this one was a 50/50 split of expats and Koreans and not dominated by a cabal of tree hugging foreign residents.
The Korea Times spoke with Seoul Vegan Potluck organizer Adeana Estoll about her role in the community and about a growing interest in veganism in Korea.
Q: How did you get involved in Seoul Vegan Potluck?
A: I started eating a vegetarian diet while in Korea and was looking online for local groups that could offer information about eating/living a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle here in Seoul and found the Facebook page.
I wanted to meet with others to find out what they were cooking and how they were adapting Korean recipes to be vegan. When the founder moved back to Texas and needed someone to step in and organize it, I offered. I have experience in event management so I thought this would be a fun venture (to be honest there isn't too much organizing involved).
Q: Are you a vegan?
A: No, I am not vegan. I am vegetarian and the only animal product I eat is cheese. I have been vegetarian for about 18 months, after reading the book "Eating Animals" by Jonathan Safran Foerand and watching the documentary "Forks Over Knives." It became clear to me that a plant based diet was far superior to the highly processed food that I was eating.
Q: Are there advantages to choosing a vegan diet?
A: People choose veganism for one or more of the following reasons: health, animal rights, and the environment (to reduce your carbon footprint).
Personally, after changing my diet to (mostly) vegan, I felt happier. I am not sure why that is ... maybe I was ingesting fewer hormones and antibiotics, or maybe it was because I was finally able to align my morals and my actions. I also lost weight and had more energy. Diabetes, heart disease, and many cancers can be reversed by switching to a plant-based diet.
Q: How easy/difficult in Korea is it to stick to a vegan diet?
A: I find it a bit more difficult being vegan (almost) in Korea than in the U.S. This is due mostly to the lack of understanding what it means to be vegan/vegetarian. Most people think that it just means that we eat a lot of vegetables.
My husband's friend made him a "vegetarian chicken noodle soup." I was once given spam instead of "meat" in a soup. Most soup stocks are made with anchovies, so even a seemingly vegetarian option at a restaurant probably isn't.
But, it is definitely not impossible and is getting easier by the month! Thankfully, more and more vegan options are becoming available here in Korea. There are websites to order health foods and vegan products, like iherb.com.
There are also a few Korean websites that offer vegan "bulgogi" and other soy meats. Itaewon has a few great markets where curries, lentils, and tempeh abound.
A: It all started when a friend, over a vegan dinner with friends, started talking about inexpensive ways to eat healthy, diverse meals with the food options available in Seoul. Many were curious what vegans ate and how they could integrate this nutritious and compassionate way of eating into their lifestyles.
Seoul Vegan Potluck was a vehicle to help spread the word about vegan foods. The first event was held in a friend's modest apartment and soon grew too big to accommodate the number of attendees. It is now held in a different location each month, often with a fun theme.
Q: I noticed a large Korean input. Veganism is largely associated with expats. How and why do you see the shift in perception?
A: I've read that the meat industry scares such as swine flu has convinced some people that meat is not safe, but to be honest I am not sure. I read that approximately 2 percent of Koreans are vegetarian as opposed to 12 percent in places such as England.
Q: What's the process? How does one get involved?
A: Anyone is invited, meat-eaters and vegans alike. We have a monthly lunch, usually on Saturdays.
Everyone prepares a vegan dish to share and has a chance to meet some great new people. You can try new foods and preparations that you may have never thought of. The stews, desserts, and non-traditional takes on classic meat dishes are mouth-watering, to say the least.
Also, with a growing number of Korean attendees, it is also a chance for both foreigners and Koreans to see what "foreign" vegan food looks and tastes like. They can share recipes and bond over common interests.