I think we can all agree that being a vegan in a foreign country can sometimes be a little challenging. It’s difficult enough having to check the ingredients of your native supermarket snacks, let alone understanding how they translate into another language.
Now imagine being in a country so different from your own that it uses a completely unique character system instead of the familiar ABC. Google translate won’t help you here…
Sound familiar? Well, this is exactly what I experienced when I lived in South Korea for two years. It was a real challenge finding vegan food at all, let alone vegan Korean snacks!
My Search for Snacks as The Hungriest Vegan in Korea
I won’t go so far as to say that I’m a greedy vegan. But then again, I kind of am. I spend most of my life thinking about food and often base my travels around the snacks or local cuisine that I want to try.
However, this was easier said than done in a country where veganism is practically unheard of. In the same way that it’s difficult being a vegan in Japan, modern Korean food often uses seafood and meat as part of the core ingredients…yes, even in their snacks!
The issue of finding vegan Korean snacks got easier over time, as I developed my Korean language skills and networked with other vegans living in Korea. But I certainly spent my fair share of time hungry and stuck with nothing to eat while my friends gorged themselves on chicken wings, tteokbokki, fish cakes, Peperos, and Choco Pies.
Nevertheless, I soon discovered a plethora of vegan Korean snacks (thanks to my incredible native friends and the support of the Vegan Korea Facebook group) and ended up leaving the country a bit heavier than when I arrived!
Korean Vegan Snacks 101
In an attempt to make your life a little bit easier when you’re next in Korea, I’ve tried my best to list as many vegan snacks as possible to keep you fuelled in different scenarios.
For example, you may come across these snacks when you’re travelling via car or bus and stop off at a rest stop, watching a movie at the cinema, popping into a convenience store whilst on your shopping trip in Busan, or exploring the many food markets of Seoul.
Here are the Best Korean Vegan Snacks
- Rice cakes/tteok – best snack from Korean food markets
- Sweet popcorn – best snack at CGV cinemas
- No Meat Burger – best snack from convenience stores
- Roast chestnuts – best snack at petrol/gas stations (rest stops)
These are just a few of my favourite plant-based treats you can find in common situations and locations you might find yourself in across South Korea. I’ve tried them all (many times) and vetted their ingredients to ensure that they are safe to eat as a vegan, but please make sure you follow the advice I give below to avoid any unpleasant situations.
But there are many more tasty treats than the four I’ve listed above, so keep scrolling to feast your eyes on even more delicious Korean vegan snacks!
Vegan Korean Street Food & Market Snacks
One of the best ways to experience local culture is to visit local marketplaces and Korea has plenty of vibrant food stalls and street food vendors to choose from. If you’re a vegan, I would recommend avoiding the seafood sections. But don’t worry, these are usually kept separate from the other types of food.
Luckily, there are plenty of incredibly tasty Korean vegan snacks lurking amongst the bustling stalls. Here are some of my faves:
Tornado Potato Sticks
Deep-fried spiralised potatoes seasoned with onion powder. Tornado potatoes aren’t the healthiest snack in the world, but they sure do get your mouth drooling! Just make sure you choose the onion powder rather than the cheese, or just go without.
Ddeok (Rice Cakes)
These are honestly some of the tastiest snacks I’ve ever eaten, and they’re so cute! Made from rice flour, ddeok (떡) are soft and chewy and usually come with a sweet filling inside, usually red bean or chestnut paste, which are both vegan. However, some have honeyed sesame seeds, so watch out for those.
To be safe, ask for danpat (단팥), which means sweet azuki bean. Ddeok are great for sharing, by the way, and they make a great gift. I bought and received these all the time when I was teaching English in Korea).
Kongguk (Bean Soup)
During the summer months, you may come across food stalls selling kongguk (콩국), kong meaning bean or soybean and guk meaning soup. Restaurants sell this as a meal with noodles (kongguksu – 콩국수), but you can buy just the soup from street food vendors and drink it to keep cool whilst exploring the rest of the food market.
It is completely vegan (although restaurants will serve a boiled egg on top) and so refreshingly delicious!
Hotteok (Sweet Pancakes)
I can’t get enough of hotteok, but they’re usually only available during the colder months. Whilst the dough is traditionally accidentally vegan, some street food vendors will use eggs, milk, or even honey. This is where learning some easy Korean vegan phrases would come in handy, because these incredible street food snacks are not to be missed!
Kimbap/Gimbap (Seaweed Rice)
The Korean version of sushi, kimbap is a mix of ingredients wrapped in rice and seaweed. Most street vendors and takeaways make these fresh, so you can ask for the fillings you want. Beware of spam, eggs, and crab sticks, and just ask for vegetables (야채), which usually include pickled radish, carrots, steamed greens, and braised burdock root.
Plant-Based Treats from Convenience Stores and Supermarkets
Finding vegan snacks in Korean convenience stores and supermarkets is getting easier nowadays, particularly if you’re based in some of the major cities such as Seoul or Busan. Personally, I spent most of my time in Geoje, a small and rural island off the south coast, which made things a little more difficult.
Nevertheless, you may be surprised by what you’ll find, even in the most remote locations. I’ve done my best to list some of the most commonly found plant-based snacks:
No Meat Burger
Yep, you read that right. No Meat Burgers, or microwaveable vegan burgers, have recently made an appearance in Korean convenience stores nationwide.
One thing you’ll notice when you walk into a 7 Eleven, GS25, or CU is that they often have microwaves, hot water dispensers, tables, and chairs so you can cook and eat your convenience food right there in the shop!
These plant-based patties have saved me on many occasions after a night out in the noraebang (karaoke) with my friends, and they’re actually pretty tasty. You may not always find them in rural locations, but they’re becoming more and more popular.
Roast Sweet Potato
Sometimes, Korean convenience stores have a little oven on display with deliciously soft roast sweet potatoes that melt in your mouth. They are 100% vegan and very cheap!
Frozen Vegan Galbi & Kimchi Mandu
Unlimeat brought out a range of frozen vegan mandu in 2 different flavours: galbi (a soy mince version of grilled ribs) and kimchi (fermented cabbage). You can buy these from the supermarket or convenience store, where you can heat them up in the microwave to eat straight away!
Jaws Ice Cream
Shark ice cream! This simple fruit-flavoured ice treat is very refreshing on a hot Korean day.
Spicy sweet tteokbokki-shaped crisps! Unlike most crisps you’ll get in the UK, Korean crisps are often sweet and sugary, and this tteokbokki snack is no different. If you’re looking for savoury vegan crisps, you’re better off buying the salted Pringles that are sold in most Korean convenience stores.
Korean Vegan Snacks from Petrol Stations/Rest Stops
I’ve been on some pretty long bus and car journeys across Korea and learnt the hard way how difficult it is to find vegan food along the way. Buses usually stop off at rest stops, where you’ll get 15 minutes to use the toilet and buy some snacks.
If you’re lucky and stop off during the day, the food stalls will be open. If not, then there’s usually a 24-hour convenience store where you can find a few of the snacks I’ve mentioned in the above section. There are sometimes restaurants as well, which are a great place to order bibimbap if you’ve got longer than 15 minutes!
Here are some of my favourite Korean rest stop snacks, usually available fresh to buy from the outdoor food stalls:
Roast Bam (Chestnuts)
Fresh off the coals, these babies are pure creamy, nutty bliss! And of course they’re 100% vegan, since they’re just chestnuts (밤).
Boiled Gamja (Potato) and Sugar
Definitely one of the weirdest snacks I’ve ever bought, Koreans steam or boil their potatoes (감자) and serve them coated in sugar or with a pot of sugar to dip them in.
Plant-Based Snacks from Korean Cinemas
I’m not usually an avid cinema goer, but I went dozens of times whilst living in Korea, and one of the best discoveries was when I found out I could eat the sweet popcorn! Of course, you can choose from a variety of soft drinks to wash down your snacks as well.
Sweet (and Salted) Popcorn
No butter is used to make the sweet or salted popcorn in CGV cinemas in Korea, which is great news for vegans! Make sure you avoid any other flavourings.
Most cinemas will give you a tray of nachos and sachets of sauce to add to the other compartments. Simply ask for no cheese sauce and you can enjoy your salted nachos with tomato salsa.