In South Korea, revealing that you are a vegetarian would often be met with blank looks, as the country is not exactly veggie-friendly -- at least until recently.
There are signs that Koreans are beginning to take vegetarianism more seriously, as they are increasingly exposed to reports of the destructive impact that meat consumption can have on their health, on animals and on the planet.
“When I was young, I wondered why human beings destroy the environment when trees, mountains and other animals do not and why human beings survive at the expense of animals’ lives and suffering,” a 26-year-old office worker Hong Seung-yon said. “I felt guilty and depressed every time I ate meat.”
Hong became vegetarian in 1999. At first, she could not stop thinking about the taste of meat. She gradually converted herself to lifelong veganism -- a way of living that eliminates all forms of animal consumption.
“In the first year of becoming vegetarian, I still ate chicken and fish. I then quit red meat four months later. After six months, I didn’t crave meat anymore.”
Hong is one of a growing number of people pursuing a vegetarian lifestyle here.
Although there is no official record available, the Korean Vegetarian Union estimates the number of vegetarians to be up to 1.5 million here, accounting for about 3 percent of the entire population. The number of vegetarian establishments hovers at around 350.
To protect the environment and fight against factory farming, many of these individuals choose to go meat-free, ranging from vegans -- who do not eat eggs, dairy products or meat -- to ovo-lacto vegetarians, who do not eat meat, but consume eggs and dairy products.
It is no secret that animals suffer in the industrial farming system, and livestock farming is considered a major factor in deforestation and carbon emissions.
Others go vegetarian for health benefits or based on religious or personal beliefs.
A 20-year-old student who wanted to be identified only as Diol said he refuses to eat meat because he knows what it is like to be discriminated against as a sexual minority. Going vegan is his way of standing in solidarity with another group of voiceless minorities -- animals.
“There are things people cannot know or see unless they make an effort,” said Diol, who has been on a strict vegan diet for four years. “It is a privilege that the majority don’t have to care. So I started to care (for animals).”
The beginning of the vegetarian movement goes back to early 2000s, vegan activists here said.
“With the advent of the internet in the early 2000s, people started to share information about vegetarianism online. Foreign books on going meat-free began to be translated into Korean, too, at the time,” said Lee Won-bok, head of the Korea Vegetarian Union.
Lee, who has been a vegan for 30 years ago, has founded the Vegetarian Union -- a platform to share tips on leading a vegan lifestyle -- with its number of members at around 25,000 now.
“I can clearly see that Koreans are steadily taking interest in being vegetarian, especially those in their 20s and 30s,” he said.
“Back in 2000, few people knew what being a vegetarian meant. Now, there is a more positive perception of vegetarianism. There are more restaurants, books and products catering to vegetarians, too.”
But the growing awareness is also accompanied by persistent debate over the healthfulness of shunning meat, the “conventional” source of protein.
Those against vegetarianism argue that meat is a natural source of iron, zinc and selenium, Vitamin A, B and D and the balanced diet is crucial for one’s body in carrying out metabolic functions.
Lee Do-kyung, a vegan chef, meanwhile, denies the claims, saying there are plenty of plant-based protein sources such as beans.
Vegetarians instead point to studies that suggest consumption of meat – especially red meat – puts people at a higher risk of developing diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. The World Health Organization classifies diets high in processed meat and red meat as carcinogenic and “probably carcinogenic,” respectively.
Lee, who has cooked and developed vegan food for the past 20 years, also pointed out that Korean dishes were originally vegetarian-friendly.
“With the nation’s long history of farming, Korean dishes are usually based on vegetables. It has been only a few decades since Koreans began to eat meat following the nation’s rapid economic development in the 1970s and 1980s,” he said.
“For Korean dishes, there is no need for meat. There is plenty of room to develop vegan Korean food,” he said. “Kimchi tastes even better without the usual fish sauce.”
In a reflection of Koreans’ growing interest in the vegetarian diet, vegan cafes and restaurants are swarming with Korean customers.
“When we opened the cafe in April last year, about 8 in 10 customers were foreigners. Now, I can see a lot more Korean customers than before,” said Kang So-yang, head of vegan cafe Dalnayang in northern Seoul.
In the past, Kang had struggled to stick to her vegan lifestyle due to a lack of food joints for those on a strict vegan diet. She ended up opening her own.
“I wanted to make it a place where like-mined people come together, eat good food and share their vegan values,” she said. “That’s the way the vegan movement can go on for long.”
Still, being a vegetarian here is not easy. Vegetarians struggle every day to find food options outside their homes and fight prejudice that they are undernourished or peculiar.
“It is still difficult to find restaurants offering strict vegan dishes outside. Away from Seoul, there is even less infrastructure for vegetarians,” the office worker Hong said. “Koreans tend to hate me for behaving in a different way and scold me for pursuing an unhealthy diet. They ask me, ‘Would that be enough?’”
“But now, I feel less tired and less sick. I cannot return to my old meaty diet,” she said. “I just hope society becomes more embracing of different lifestyles and choices.”
By Ock Hyun-ju (email@example.com