Eating in Asia can be difficult for vegetarians. Communication, differing ideas of ‘meat-free’ and knowledge of the cuisine are all troubling factors for visitors with special diets. Korea has temple cuisine that fits the meatless bill, but other meals can be a minefield. The most common kind of fermented kimchi, made with napa cabbages (baechu kimchi, 배추김치), considered by many to be vegetarian, is actually often made with oysters, fish sauce or fresh fish. And even though they’re mostly vegetable only, you can never guess what’s lurking in the banchan.*
But if you widen the scope to include seafood, a wealth of Korean dishes become available. Recently dining with a pescatarian friend we bypassed 콩국수 (kongguksu, cold noodles in soybean soup (vegetarian!)) and 보리밥 (boribap, bibimbap-esque dish based on barley) for 갈치조림 (galchi jorim).
Galchi Jorim is a fish and radish stew, made with galchi (갈치, hairtail fish) steaks. They’re cooked the way I like my fish best, skin on, bones in. This restaurant is part of Galchi Jorim alley inside Namdaemun market, a sprawling mess of commerce. On Sundays many restaurants in this short stretch are closed, but we head to the busiest and are duly rewarded. It’s a kind of ramshackle place, customers on small chairs fidget across the uneven floor for more space. And, as expected in a place like this, everyone orders near the same thing. 생선구이 (Saengseon gui, grilled fish) and galchi jorim.
계란찜 (gaeran jim) a steamed egg dish common in BBQ restaurants, or places serving spicy food.
The pot arrives steaming, as they often do in South Korea. Bowls of rice and and inflated pot of 계란찜 (gaeran jim, steamed egg) proffer predictions about the heat of the stew. Galchi steaks bathe in a luscious sauce, red but not too hot and just the right amount of salty and fishy. Once the bones are removed, the fish is pleasant and not overpowered by the spice. Hiding at the bottom of the pot is a thick layer of chopstick-soft radish (무, mu), heavy and permeated by that rich red sauce. Potentially the tastiest radish I’ve ever encountered, possibly the best part of this dish.
By the time we finished, only fish bones and kimchi are left. Even the timid pescatarian, who ordered grilled fish as a buffer, was happily spooning up the red sauce soaked radish and mixing the spicy juices with rice. This is a perfect meal to demonstrate that despite the prevalence of BBQ and fried chicken joints, and expensive, mediocre foreign fare, food in Korea is interesting, affordable and, like that hidden slab of radish, surprising.
호남식당 (Honam Sikdang)
This is the restaurant I visited, but just stop by any in this alley that are bustling.
Grilled fish, Galchi jorim, rice, steamed egg (enough for three people) 20,000 won (~$17AU)
Location: Take line 4 to Hoehyeon Stn. and get out at exit 5. Turn left out of the station and keep walking. Take the third left, then turn right into the alley. Galchi Jorim is served in this tangle of streets. Or, just look at a map.
Opening Hours: 3 am – 9 pm apparently, though I have heard rumours of places open 24 hours.
*My advice to anyone travelling in Asia with any kind of food allergy or special diet is to learn how to inform food service staff in their language and get someone to write it down in the language and show this piece of paper every time you order. Then, expect that you may be served it anyway. At least this is my experience of travelling in China and South East Asia with someone allergic to peanuts.