Veg out with Vegan Beats
She grabs a set of vegetables and starts peeling, dicing and frying them in her one-room apartment in Seocho, southern Seoul. The resulting meal — a salad, a bowl of sweet potatoes and a spicy mixture of vegetables and rice — is not an elaborate one. That’s not her style.
“I’m pretty much a very simple person,” says Sae-hee Burke, the author of the Vegan Beats blog. “I go shopping for food every day. I get fresh food.”
She attributes this to her New England background, living not far from a market where vegetables and other natural foods were easily accessible. She also says it’s due to her inquisitive nature, one that drew her to fresh food and away from animal products.
Now 25, she recalls how, a whole decade ago, she helped her parents gut some freshly caught fish, and the realization of where animal products come from was brought painfully to life as the fish gaped for their last breaths. After that tear-stained encounter, she turned away from meat and eventually all animal products. Her lean figure shows the benefits of the lifestyle, and she says her cooking has since had numerous benefits for her whole family, including the disappearance of her mother’s cancer and lowering of her father’s high blood pressure.
But upon arriving in Korea, the birthplace of her mother, a little more than two years ago, she had to make even more adjustments. “The concept of veganism is widely spoken of (in America),” she says. “Korea is very unaware of the lifestyle. It’s just not comprehended.”
The dearth of vegetarians and vegans – as well as the use of genetically modified organisms to get more food faster – has a lot to do with the need to feed a nation of nearly 50 million people in a terrain that’s mostly mountainous, densely populated and largely urban. There’s also the history of poverty, ending with “the miracle on the Han River” and rapid industrialization, yet which still manifests itself in people’s actions.We see it in the extravagant 100-day and 1-year birthday parties for babies, who in a prior generation might have been considered lucky to have lived that long. We hear it in the concerned voices of colleagues and friends if one seems to have lost weight recently.
For those looking to make the change away from animal-based nutrition, there are substitutes for meat and dairy, made from vegetable products. Burke can see how they are an easier transition for some, particularly those with high cholesterol, but she finds meat substitutes strange and sees no need for them if she’s getting enough protein through sources such as tofu or beans.
Though it’s a lifestyle she’s passionate about – she named her blog for it, after all – she admits to not being the “model vegan.” Not being a morning person, her breakfasts rarely consist of more than coffee and grapefruit. Her lunches at the academy where she teaches contain more vegetables, as she eats Korean food daily and especially loves banchan (side dishes typically including kimchi, bean sprouts, broccoli and a variety of other veggies). At dinner is where she gets most of her protein, both before and after exercising, enjoying meals such as curry, stir-fry and salads loaded with nutrients.
And after just two years here, Burke says that vegans — while still a distinct minority — are becoming more and more accepted. Lee Hyori, probably the most popular female singer over the past decade, is a vegetarian, and online communities such as the Seoul Veggie Club on Facebook have sprung up.
“Because there’s not too many of us around we’re kind of a group of accidental friends,” she says.
Workplaces, including her own, are growing more understanding of those who don’t enjoy meat or dairy and add lots of vegetables in their cafeterias.
Dinner has been arranged at Burke’s apartment, and even her pet guinea pig and hamster have gotten in on the action, enjoying the carrot and cucumber peels left over. Burke, though, is eager to hear how her visitor reacts to her vegan cooking.
“Is it horrible?” she asks with pensive grin.
No, it isn’t. Not at all.
Looking to go all-veg? Here are some online resources
The Seoul Veggie Club – This Facebook group has more than 1,000 members, meets twice a month, has a map to the capital’s vegetarian restaurants, and is the best resource for meeting fellow vegetarians.
Alien’s Day Out – Mipa Lee’s blog includes recipes, guides to vegetarian eateries, plus the Alien’s Bake Shop, which provides shipping within South Korea, of vegan-friendly items made with organic, unrefined cane sugar and organic soy milk. Visit Aliensdayout.com or Aliensbakeshop.com. Vegan Beats – Sae-hee Burke’s blog isn’t just about veganism, but does include reviews of new restaurants, information on baking fund-raisers for animal rescue, recipes and help in finding vegan-friendly drinks. Visit veganbeats.blogspot.com.
Happycow.net – Includes recipes, a forum for discussion with other vegetarians/vegans, restaurant reviews and a guide to finding vegetarian dining anywhere in the world.
iHerb.com – A source for finding natural products including groceries, dietary supplements, toiletries and much more.
Forksoverknives.com – The makers of the hit documentary bring more information including interviews with nutrition experts, how to make plant-based meals and more books on making the transition away from animal products.