Photos by Sean D'Angelo
How many of you out there are vegetarians? Let us see a show of hands. It is not easy being a veg-head in Korea, and unless you cook for yourself, life is bound to be full of little compromises: “fish are basically vegetables,” “soup stock does not count,” “samgyupsal is thick bacon, and everyone knows bacon is related to broccoli… on account of the fact that they both start with the letter ‘b.’” My vegetarian friends can attest that when they came to Korea they had to loosen up on their principals just to survive. Even kimchi, the poster child of healthy eating, contains seafood derivatives. Try explaining that to your boss next company meeting. I come from a family of vegetarians, so I understand the struggle. That is why this month’s feature will be meat-free options for dinner out in Gwangju.
Back in October my mother and father came round to attend my wedding, and planning our nightly meals was almost more stress than the matrimony. There are a couple of great temple food buffets that feature vegetarian cuisine near Mudeungsan, and another down in Pungam-dong by Pungam high school. The most famous buffet would have to be Sujata (수자타), an all-you-can-eat style cafeteria with a huge array of side dishes like the ones you would find at a Korean temple stay. For the modest price of 10,000 won you can enjoy salads of mountain greens, seaweeds, crispy fried veggies, a plethora of tofus, rice cakes, and meat substitutes like seitan, any day of the week between the hours of 11:30am to 10:30pm. Despite being prepared in advance, the food is satisfying, the atmosphere vibrant and lively, and the service friendly. My mother, an accomplished chef in her own right with extremely refined standards, was especially impressed with the seitan and sweet potato stir-fried noodles. I am just an uncouth, drunken carnivore myself, so the highlight of my meal was the sujeonggwa (수정과) or cinnamon punch.
Another hit for the family was Sunrise House (해뜨는집), a Seventh-day Adventist Chinese restaurant located to the south in Juwol-dong near Samyuk Elementary school. In case you are not familiar, Seventh-day Adventists have been strict vegetarians for over a century. What mental fortitude. But who cares? Let’s talk about the food! Sunrise House cooks Chinese-inspired Korean dishes like sweet and sour pork (탕수육 “ttangsuyuk”), spicy seafood soup (짬뽕”jjambbong”), and black bean noodles (짜장면 “jjajangmyun”), using mushrooms and potatoes in lieu of pork and seafood in all their dishes. Their “sweet and sour pork” is really “sweet and sour shitake,” fried crisp in sticky rice flour and drenched in a thick sauce made with carrot, pineapple, and Chinese green plum syrup. It made quite an impression on my father who grew up in Korea but still dubbed it “the most delicious ttangsuyuk he’s ever had.” But by far the star of the show at Sunrise House is the spicy seafood soup. Its crisp and refreshing flavor comes from a combination of rich vegetable broth, Korean chili pepper, and ginger, combined with a medley of colorful vegetables and four different mushrooms — shitake, oyster, enoki, and French horn — to offer fun textural variation. The interior at Sunrise House is just as modest and unassuming as the owners, sparsely decorated with only about a dozen or so floor tables in traditional Korean style. They are rarely too crowded to accommodate a small group, but beware: they close early on Fridays and all day Saturday for religious observation.
One final place worthy of note is just around the corner from Sunrise House, Sallim Vegetarian Buffet (살림채식 뷔페) near Samyuk Kindergarten. With fare similar to Sujata, but offering a greater selection of western-inspired cuisine, Sallim is an excellent alternative to Sunrise House for a quick bite. On my parent’s trip we never got a chance to dine here, but if it lives up to the hype of its online reviews then it is certain to be worth both the trip and the 12,000 won. At the very least, it is another option for all you desperate vegetarians out there. Because, honestly, we all deserve a night-out at times.
062-222-1145 for reservations
Open Daily 11:30-22:30
해뜨는집 Sunrise House
062-654-3450 for reservations
Open daily 11:30-20:30
Closed Friday at 18:00 and all day Saturday
살림채식 뷔페 Sallim Vegetarian Buffet
062-675-3552 for reservations
Open daily 11:40-15:00 and 17:20-21:00
Closed Friday at 18:00 and all day Saturday