Typical meal: rice, soup, cabbage kimchi, some sort of chewy fried thing and spicy pepper paste.
It can be frustrating being vegetarian in Korea. The cuisine doesn't cater at all to the non-meat sect and if you're not a big kimchi fan either, options can be limited. Many restaurants specialize in just one or two dishes -- if you go out for bulgogi or dak galbi (do-it-yourself barbecued beef and chicken, respectively), there's not even a menu.
Luckily, there is one go-to dish that every general Korean restaurant is guaranteed to have: 비빔밥 (bibimbap).
This simple meal starts with the base ingredients of rice, vegetables and an egg and from there, can be varied a thousand different ways. The most common alteration is to order dolsot bibimbap, served in a hot stone bowl in which the food continues to cook as you eat.
My current favorite is 참치 덮밥 (chamchi deopbap), basically bibimbap with tuna in a spicy pepper paste. It's nice to have some added protein and a little extra flavor.
After mixing in the rice and pepper paste.
Besides being uniformly cheap -- bibimbap costs as little as 4,000 won (US $3.21), while all-you-can-eat barbecue is around 8,000 won (US $6.42) -- every Korean meal comes with a plethora of side dishes. Kimchi and soup are standard but other sides could include mushrooms, anchovies, pickled radish (tastes better than it sounds) or much more.
The picture above actually includes fewer side dishes than normal!
Over the years, there have been proposals to limit the number of side dishes because of the staggering amount of waste they create. In 2002, South Korea wasted more food than the total amount of food available in North Korea -- more than 4 million tons.
A recent article in the Korea Times talked about unwanted food being reused at restaurants, leading to government sanctions:
According to the new rule, eateries can only recycle certain food supplies that maintain their original form and are not processed such as lettuce, sesame leafs and cherry tomatoes; ingredients with an outer cover intact such as bananas and quail eggs; and those customers can take out from a lidded container if they so desire including kimchi and pepper powder.
Okay, a little gross.
But while reusing food isn't the most hygienic solution, most Koreans are reluctant to limit or ban side dishes all together in the name of tradition. This is a culture that can be slow to change and it may be several generations, if ever, before side dishes are phased out.
It's a shame, really. I always feel bad leaving the majority of my sides untouched, but I feel full and, frankly, bloated enough after eating a huge bowl of white rice -- why the need for anything extra?!
Side dishes: yea or nay?