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[Seoul Struggles 7] Going meat-free troublesome in Seoul where not much is promised

Vegetarians feel socially ostracized as only a handful of restaurants serve meatless options

For Kim Seung-mok, a 35-year-old office worker in Seocho-gu, southern Seoul, trying to find a restaurant to dine with colleagues for lunch is a hassle to say the least.

As a committed vegan, Kim struggles to agree on a lot of menus that his fellow office workers choose for lunch, when almost everything contains meat. After almost three months of trying, he now opts to bring his own tofu salad or self-made lunch box to the office for a midday meal.

“It was awkward for me to sit beside my colleagues chowing down on pork cutlet or beef stew and try to find the most vegan-friendly item on the menu when a restaurant simply doesn’t have one,” Kim said.

“I could have asked them to take my habits into consideration when choosing restaurants, but I could be asking for too much, right? That’s why I decided to start eating alone, and I’m fine with that.”

Kim gave up meat three years ago as a protest against animal cruelty and to advocate for action on climate change.

He is one of many people in Seoul who have had to make certain sacrifices in order to maintain a meat-free lifestyle. The reasons may be religious, social, political or dietary, but the lifestyle usually requires spending extra time finding suitable restaurants or cafes when opting to dine out.

But even after dedicating time and resources to find safe dining options, vegetarians in Seoul come to realize that they don’t have much to choose from.

There were 973 restaurants in Seoul that offered vegetarian options on their menus for customers as of late last year, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Government. They account for just over 1 percent of more than 80,000 restaurants in Seoul.

Many of the vegetarian-friendly restaurants seen from the city government’s list are franchise burger joints and restaurants that would not be an option for vegans either, who go beyond a meat-free diet and abstain from eating animal products such as dairy and eggs as well.

Fully vegan dine-out options are even more limited. HappyCow, an online service listing vegan, vegetarian and healthy food options by region, shows that Seoul is home to just 50 vegan-friendly restaurants.

Alis Melendez, a 21-year-old college student in Gwanak-gu, southern Seoul, said she has relied mostly on social media and help from her boyfriend to find vegan-friendly eateries in Seoul.

Melendez comes from San Francisco where places with vegan menus are much more prevalent than in Seoul. Finding a meat-free restaurant was a much easier task for her back home, but in Seoul, the game is on a whole different level.

She said she tends to look for Indian or Moroccan restaurants, as the two cuisines often have vegan-friendly items listed on their menus. But overall, life as a vegan has been difficult in Seoul, she says.

“It’s kind of difficult to find vegan-friendly restaurants in Seoul when it’s hard to find anyone going with that lifestyle in this country,” Melendez said. “The number of vegan-friendly restaurants certainly grew from years earlier, but not much option is still available when dining out.”

According to the Korean Vegan Union, there are around 1.5 million people who opt for a vegetarian lifestyle in Korea, accounting for 3 percent of the whole population. Seoul takes up around one-fifth of the country’s 52 million population.

Like in many countries, vegans and vegetarians have a negative image for many in Korea.

“I do advocate veganism, and I do understand they are entitled to live the way they choose to,” said a 28-year-old graduate school student surnamed Lim in Gangbuk-gu, northern Seoul. But Lim, who is a meat eater, sees some vegans’ attitudes as obnoxious.

“Vegans have the moral high ground for sure, but they like to rub that in other people’s faces.”

Yet activists are optimistic about the gradual changes they have been seeing in Seoul. Compared to years earlier, it is now much easier to find vegetarian food options at grocery stores and restaurants, which could be a sign that the city is becoming more inclusive.

“While what we are given now is certainly not enough, we think it is a good sign that more and more businesses are stepping up to serve vegetarians,” said Lee Won-bok, chief representative of the Korean Vegan Union.

“And I do think this trend will continue, given how a lot of young people pay more attention to the environment. While the number of vegans in Korea is small at the moment, this will grow, and so will the market for them.”

While vegetarians account for just 3 percent of the whole Korean population, Lee, citing figures by the European Vegetarian Union, expects the figure to grow in years to level that of other countries, such as 9 percent in Germany and 8.5 percent for Israel.

And when that time comes, Lee said he hopes Seoul will be capable of serving vegetarians wherever they may be within the city.

“The best scenario is that people are able to find vegetarian food options within 10 minutes of walking distance from where they are, wherever that might be,” he added.

“While that might be a far-fetched dream for now, this could be realized later on if we continue advocating for a meat-free lifestyle.”

By Ko Jun-tae (