“It used to be samgyeopsal and beef ribs when we ate out 10 years ago but not anymore,” the 41-year-old housewife said, as her family dined at a vegan restaurant in eastern Seoul on Sunday.
Her meat-loving husband used to have itchy skin and a pot belly, and her daughter was allergic. All the troubles were gone after Son, who is Buddhist, took up vegetarian cuisine based on temple foods.
“After we switched to a vegetarian diet my body changed 180 degrees,” her husband said. “So, I think it’s the food that can both make you sick and heal.”
Going vegetarian is a growing new trend in Korea, especially among the younger generations. By unofficial count, the number of vegetarians in Korea is around 1 percent of the population. There are about 150 vegan restaurants across the country.
Whether for health concerns or religious and philosophical reasons, more and more are reversing their Westernized, meat-based dietary patterns back to a traditional plant-based one. In a country where values of unity and like-mindedness still prevail over individual choices in social life, many find strict vegetarianism is not as isolated and difficult a route as before, with vegetarian restaurants sprouting up across the country and many support groups within easy reach.
“There was a time when the notion of vegetarianism didn’t even exist,” said Lee Won-bok, a representative of the Korea Vegetarian Union, a non-profit community with a membership of about 23,000 people.
|Customers choose vegetable dishes at a vegetarian buffet restaurant in Seoul. (Yonhap News)|
Lee, also an animal welfare activist who became a vegan in the late 1980s while in college, sees a major change in the way a vegetarian is viewed by peers.
“My friends looked at me weird,” he recounted. “I couldn’t help feeling that there might be something wrong with me for not wanting to eat meat.”
In Korea’s past agriculture-based society, many associated affording to eat meat with being wealthy. Cattle were raised for plowing, not for meat. Chicken and pork were served only on special occasions like weddings, funerals and ancestral rituals. There was little or no use of dairy. It used to be a variety of seasoned, pickled, steamed or fermented vegetable dishes that made up the main staples. Diabetes, often linked with regular consumption of meat, was called an “illness of the wealthy.”
But the plant-based dietary style dramatically changed with modernization. As cows, pigs and chickens began to be raised at factory farms and cheap imports streamed in, meat dishes became common and dairy products were integrated into a daily diet.
Government studies indicate Korea’s annual per capita beef consumption was less than 3 kilograms in the early 1980s but jumped to over 10kg last year.
Some take up the vegetarian cause from the downside of this excess meat consumption and production. Jeong Ji-young, 36, went vegan after watching pregnant cows and screaming pigs being buried alive when foot-and-mouth disease swept the country in the winter last year. More than 3 million cattle and swine were killed from the outbreak of the contagious disease, which was the fifth of the kind since 2000 and the most devastating.
“After I saw on television how the animals were killed, I couldn’t eat them anymore,” she said.
Japan’s nuclear disaster prompted by last year’s earthquake reassured her decision. Japanese food imports still continued in Korea while bans were imposed in other countries for concerns of radioactive material released into the environment.
Apart from the individuals going meat-free, there is a group of medical experts who actively promote benefits of plant-based diets and seek ways of applying them to their practice. VegeDoctor was launched last year with about 120 medical doctors, doctors of Korean oriental medicine and dentists who believe high intake of meat and processed foods are to blame for the surge of chronic illnesses in the country.
“A chicken raised in a cage the size of A4 paper comes to our table after one month. The chicken would be under intense stress and such biophysical factors would cause complicated impacts to our body,” said Yoon Sung-chul, a professor of internal medicine at Dankook University Medical College and a VegeDoctor member.
Yoon, who turned vegan two years ago, believes it is now time to raise public alarm against meat-based diets, an apparent culprit for rising medical costs. According to the latest statistics from the governmental National Health Insurance Corporation, high blood pressure and diabetes were the most costly illnesses in the nation’s health care system in 2010 with their treatment bills reaching 2.2 trillion won ($2 billion) and 1 trillion won, respectively. The nation’s total medical expenses were up 10 percent from the previous year at 43.6 trillion won.
Yoon refutes the common notion that a vegan diet leaves out some of the essential nutrients like B group vitamins and fatty acids found in animal and fish products. Patients with kidney illnesses and proteinuria would better to refrain from a strict vegetarian diet, but one can normally get all the important nutrients from a traditional Korean diet. The traditional Korean broth cheonggukjang, made from fermented soybean paste, is rich in vitamin B12, and omega-3 and omega-6 can be found in nuts and seeds.
VegeDoctor also challenges some of the common perceptions about good foods, such as milk and eggs, thought to be an essential part of a balanced diet,
“It is now time for us to break away from the stereotyped notion and have an open debate about what is a reasonably healthy and good diet,” Yoon said. “This is also about the astronomical medical costs the nation will face. For a preventive measure, there is nothing more important than a dietary pattern.”
Some city governments and schools are adding vegetarian fare and adopting meat-free days to their menus. In the first such move, the Gwangju Metropolitan Office of Education introduced a meat-free day last year, on which students of the city’s about 270 elementary and middle schools get vegetarian meals one day per week.
University dining halls are also going eco-friendly. Vegetarian cafeterias draw a long line of waiting guests at Seoul National University and Dongguk University, although a vegetarian meal usually costs twice more than an omnivore choice. Seoul National University’s vegan student community Kongbat, meaning “bean field,” seeks to expand its dietary movement to environmental and animal welfare causes.
“We are trying to promote the idea that everyone has the right to choose healthy foods,” Kongbat representative Kang Dae-woong, 30, said. He noted that his recent proposal to introduce a meat-free day to the Seoul Metropolitan Government is now under consideration by the authorities.
“We want to raise public awareness of why we need a plant-based diet, how meat consumption is bad to our health and our environment. It’s about changing the way of thinking and building a consensus on a better, healthier lifestyle.”