Being Korean and married to a non-Korean is… well, like a Facebook relationship in the aughts: it’s complicated. In my extended family of five, my main headache is balancing traditionally Korean parents with a vegetarian husband while running a 95% vegan household.
Here’s why it’s so difficult: It’s because choosing a restaurant for the five of us is like negotiating a four-year NBA contract, even in an LA. My frugal and traditional parents think most vegetarian restaurants are overpriced or state-of-the-art, while my vegetarian husband wouldn’t set foot in a traditional Korean barbecue restaurant because of the cloud of meat smoke permeating everything from your nostrils to your clothes. (Don’t take it wrong, Korean barbecue restaurants, but eating your meat-smoked bibimbap is not fun for vegetarians or vegans.)
We found a happy medium, with my mom cooking more vegan meats at home for our extended family meals and even inventing her own exclusive vegan meat (come on, mom!), But I miss going out. Our great family tradition is to go to Korean barbecue restaurants in Los Angeles and Orange County, which are not included at all – in fact, some require everyone to be at the table to make AYCE, or All You. Can Eat – to vegetarians like my husband.
As I move towards veganism with my husband, I feel bored and irritated that I cannot share an important cultural experience with him and with other vegan and vegetarian friends. There is something so heartwarming about gathering in a noisy, smoky room over a few extra bottles of Jinro soju, the chatter of your friends, and a sizzling grill.
It’s time for Korean restaurants to embrace vegan meat. In fact, why not go all the way and create a new trend with an integrated clientele: a fully vegan Korean barbecue. Considering the growing ranks of plant eaters and flexitarians, I predict this would turn into gangbusters.
So who is going to be brave, approaching the grill brandishing their knife, scissors and spatula like Joanne Molinaro, aka The Korean Vegan, proud of our collective heritage but ready to chart a new course?
I think this vegan-friendly Korean barbecue spot should be in LA’s Koreatown, where we are ablaze a living force as a people – the largest population of Koreans outside of Korea. Yes, there are cost and cultural considerations, especially in light of what restaurants have gone through over the past couple of years, especially mom-and-pop spots. I don’t expect all Korean barbecues to adopt vegan meat, and as a former restaurateur, I would advise market research before adding it to a menu or opening a dedicated restaurant.
But consider this: we have faced war, occupation, military dictatorship, racism, and the challenges of staying connected across a diaspora. a grill, all in the name of improving the planet? I just don’t buy it if you say, “Oh, that wouldn’t work. I believe that flexitarianism is not only a big part of the future of the Korean diaspora, but also a big part of our heritage.
We are a progressive and militant diaspora strongly rooted in nature, hiking and food as one of our strongest connections to the earth, and I know we care deeply about the planet and its animals. (Witness: The movie Okja and the incredible avant-garde spirit of Bong Joon-ho.)
We delight in veggies, including bright, tangy salads tinged with sesame oil and crunchy pickles preserved in soy sauce. But Korean America may be lagging behind Korea’s motherland when it comes to veganism. In 2020, South Korea had 500,000 vegans, around 1.5 million people are on a similar plant-based diet, and flexitarianism is on the rise, with up to 10 million people following the diet, according to the Union. Korean vegetarian. Korean convenience stores sell plant-based milks and every month I see more and more vegan cafes popping up in Seoul. South Korean food tech makers like Zikooin have developed vegan beef options like Unlimeat, which contains recycled ingredients, including oats and grains that would otherwise be wasted. In 2020, Korean supermarket chain Lotte Mart released vegan chops and chicken nuggets from Gogi Daesin, which means “instead of meat.”
For those still in doubt that a plant-based Korean barbecue restaurant would work, check out the success of the Southern-style vegan barbecue made by Compton Vegan, Lemel Durrah’s awesome LA cafe that features Jackfruit Ribz and BBQ Chik BBQs. ‘n & Mac all day long. Durrah has turned the traditional southern meat barbecue into a thriving plant-based business. Plus, I’d love to offer the world of plant-based meats and how absolutely delicious they are, from Field Roast sausages to bone-in jackfruit chops (that lemongrass! Stache sauce is a master). Look, we already have the perfect vegan side dishes in the K-BBQ kitchen: mu radish and lettuce ssam, kongnamul (bean sprout salad), various ssamjang for a killer umami flavor, and of course, kimchi (fish sauce). vegan or mushroom broth to the rescue!).
Since fat adds to a great sizzle and drizzle on the grill, vegan oils, rubs and butters would be plentiful at the table, along with liquid smoke to brush on. Vegan meats would come pre-marinated in tasty gochujang marinades. And you can’t tell me that gochujang-marinated vegan beef wouldn’t be to die for when wrapped in a ssam lettuce or perilla wrap with ssamjang sauce. The restaurant could work with vegan butchers to develop special cuts of vegan micro-brisket, very thinly sliced, as well as vegan bacon to wrap the vegan pork belly. I’m already drooling.
The point here isn’t just that we all know we’ve already moved to a culture where we should all eat less meat – it’s that if we pay attention to inclusiveness in many other areas culturally, it doesn’t. can’t just be lip service: food should also strive to be inclusive. This means not dividing families who want to find a place where they can all eat together a traditional dinner that gives a deep cultural meaning to their life. I can’t wait to take my son to a Korean barbecue restaurant where we can show him that his parents and grandparents can get their protein while learning our culinary history and breaking new ground in culinary traditions.
The opinions expressed in op-eds are those of the authors and do not represent the policy or position of LIVEKINDLY.